Which stack is it in? Which box? Which file? Where oh where are those papers when I need them? Paper organization had always been my nemesis, and family history papers have been the worst. I had accumulated tons of papers, pictures, and memorabilia for my own life history, my husband’s life history, and those of our seven children—and now seventeen grandchildren! In addition, Doug and I had been gathering everything we could find on each of his four grandparent’s lines and my four. As if that weren’t enough, I inherited two large boxes of family history papers from my parents. How could I possibly organize things so I could put my hand on the paper I needed when I needed it and not be forever looking for something?

The “Isn’t It About TIME?” idea applies here. “Time” is the best reason I could find to get organized. It takes a little time at first, but saves megabytes of time in the long run—and who has any to waste in this busy world? If I could have used all the time I’ve wasted looking for papers in years past to actually move ahead with my family history work, I’d have a lot more done!

Organizing Is a Process, Not an Event

Over the years I’ve found some answers that are making it easier to find my papers, as well as helping me use more and more of my time productively. I’ve also learned some principles that set my mind at ease. The first is that I will always be in the process of organizing. It is not something that is ever finished, so it’s okay that I’m not finished! I first put together the information in this article more than ten years ago; updating it now, I recognize that although I’ve made enormous progress, I’m still involved in the PROCESS and always will be.

The Gathering

We all know the importance of getting started—and that we often procrastinate getting started because we simply don’t know where to start. It’s all so overwhelming. I’m here to tell you that “gathering” is a fine place to start. You can’t organize what you don’t have gathered together in one place. In his article “Your Family History: Getting Started,” Elder Boyd K. Packer said,

“It is a matter of getting started. You may come to know the principle that Nephi knew when he said, ‘And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do’ (1 Nephi 4:6). If you don’t know where to start, start with yourself. If you don’t know what records to get, and how to get them, start with what you have. There are two very simple instructions for those who are waiting for a place to begin. Here’s what you might do: Get a cardboard box. Any kind of a box will do. Put it someplace where it is in the way, perhaps on the couch or on the counter in the kitchen—anywhere where it cannot go unnoticed. Then, over a period of a few weeks, collect and put into the box every record of your life, such as your birth certificate, your certificate of blessing, your certificate of baptism, your certificate of ordination, and your certificate of graduation. Collect diplomas, all of the photographs, honors, or awards, a diary if you have kept one, everything that you can find pertaining to your life; anything that is written, or registered, or recorded that testifies that you are alive and what you have done.

Don’t try to do this in a day. Take some time on it. Most of us have these things scattered around here and there. Some of them are in a box in the garage under that stack of newspapers; others are stored away in drawers, or in the attic, or one place or another. Perhaps some have been tucked in the leaves of the Bible or elsewhere. Gather all these papers together and put them in the box. Keep it there until you have collected everything you think you have. Then make some space on a table, or even on the floor, and sort out all that you have collected.

Divide your life into three periods. The Church does it that way. All of our programming in the Church is divided into three general categories—children, youth, and adult. Start with the childhood section and begin with your birth certificate. Put together every record in chronological order: the pictures, the record of your baptism, and so on, up to the time you were 12 years of age. Next assemble all that which pertains to your youth, from 12 to 18, or up until the time you were married. Put all of that together in chronological order. Line up the records—the certificates, the photographs, and so on—and put them in another box or envelope. Do the same with the records on the rest of your life. Once you have done this, you have what is necessary to complete your life story. Simply take your birth certificate and begin writing: ‘I was born September 10, 1924, the son of Ira W. Packer and Emma Jensen Packer, at Brigham City, Utah. I was the tenth child and the fifth son in the family.’ It really won’t take you long to write, or dictate into a tape recorder, the account of your life, and it will have an accuracy because you have collected those records” (Ensign, August 2003, p.12).

The Most Unlikely Places

For all those perfectionists out there—you don’t need to wait until you are sure you have absolutely everything gathered to start the next step. Finding what you have that pertains to family history and gathering it together in one place is another process that goes on and on. Every time I clean out a drawer, box, closet, or file, I find something that needs to be “gathered together” with my family history papers. And when cleaning out family history papers, I often find something that needs to be put elsewhere. My sister and I laughed and laughed when we found, at the bottom of one of Mom and Dad’s genealogy boxes, a tool to loosen the lug bolts when you have a flat tire. We’ll never know what it was doing there—but we certainly didn’t need it for our family history work! Similarly, we often have family history things where they don’t belong. If I have old pictures tucked in the bottom of a jewelry box, or important certificates in the bottom of the sock drawer, those things need to be “gathered” to a central location—such as a box, a file, or a folder in a scrapbook.

Organizing Ideas

While a central box might be a good gathering place to start with, I learned to save myself a lot of time by having specific places to put various kinds of family history papers. Instead of just throwing them all into one box and having to deal with them later, you might consider the following system that worked well for me:

  • Have a hanging file and picture history book for each child so when I find something of theirs I can plop it right into their slot or book. (I have now organized and put everything in each of those hanging files in order in the child’s or grandchild’s individual book. I also had a hanging file for each time period of my own life and have now put those materials in order in my own life story book.)

With so much being done electronically, you might eventually choose to scan the most important pictures and documents in each hanging file in order to create your picture histories on the computer. Many programs have been created to make this process easier; if you are computer savvy you can find just the right one to suit your needs. With the new Family Tree program available online, church members have even more motivation to scan pictures and create life stories that can be posted and shared and permanently saved on the Church’s website.

  • Assign a different color to each ancestor line, and color each label that goes to the same line. You can purchase colored file folders, but colored stick-on dots and colored markers are equally as efficient to color code everything that belongs in each line. I have hanging files for each of my four lines, and different color folders for each. For visual examples, Google “color-coded genealogy files” then click on “images” and you will find many specific ideas and articles, and videos. For instance, there is a great PDF article and video by Barry Ewell called “Color-coded genealogy research filing system.”

How does color coding help? Here’s an example: my grandma Laurena’s color is purple. In that section (the Nielsen line) I have a purple folder for life stories, a purple folder for pictures, a purple folder for pedigree charts, a purple folder for family group sheets and research for any family on this line, a purple folder for certificates and immigration papers, etc. So now, when I find a paper, I can look on the pedigree chart, and if it fits into this line, I have a specific place to put it. I keep any papers I remove from the file in a purple folder so I know where they go when I return them. Now, wonder of wonders, when I’m looking for something I need from that line, I at least know where to look for it and don’t have to search randomly through many stacks of papers. (The total miracle of that can only be appreciated by those who have, like me, had to search through “matter unorganized” for lengthy periods of time!)

The Value of Timelines

Timelines are a surprisingly helpful organization tool. For instance, if I have a timeline to refer to, sorting pictures is relatively easy. My personal timeline lists major life events and the years they occurred: birth, baptism, moves, marriage, my children’s births, etc. For the years my children were in school I listed what grade and age each child was each year. Why? Because I was forever having to figure that out. I also have a picture timeline for those years—I took their school pictures and pasted them in chronological sequence for our family book. Now I can refer to the timeline and the “age progression” pictures when I’m trying to figure out how old someone was in a certain picture. In their separate picture history books I gathered each child’s pictures, certificates, and other memorabilia in a series of page protectors, using the timelines to keep a semblance of chronological order. These gathered pictures became the basis for the scrapbooking I’ve done in spurts over the years. Now I have partially finished scrapbooks for each child and grandchild. I’ve also divided most of the family pictures and memorabilia into these individual books that will be easily parceled out when I’m gone.

As vital as timelines are in creating picture histories of our living family, timelines can also be helpful in family history research and writing life stories for ancestors. Creating a timeline for an ancestor (birth, baptism, marriage, birth of children, death) quickly shows you which dates you have and which you are missing and need to research, and they give you an outline for writing the life story.

A Promise from Elder Packer

There are blessings that attend any aspect of family history work. But they can’t come if we don’t get started. Gathering and organizing what you already have in your home is a very good place to start. The Lord is the great organizer. Organization played a big part in His creative efforts. Surely He will help us as we attempt to become more like Him in our organizational efforts.

Elder Packer said, “Once you begin this project, very interesting and inspiring things will happen. You cannot do this much without getting something of the spirit of it, and without talking about it, at least in your family circle. Some very interesting things will start to happen once you show some interest in your own family history work. It is a firm principle. There are many, many testimonies about it. It will happen to you” (Ensign, August 2003, p.12).

It has happened to me so many times. I am the picture of inconsistency when it comes to doing family history work, but the blessings flow each time I make a concerted effort to move ahead. I always wonder what could possibly distract me from such meaningful, spiritually satisfying work . . . and then I find out. But my testimony is that if we come back to it as many times as we get distracted, we will feel the spirit of Elijah in an ever-increasing way. We will feel the hearts of the children turning to the fathers, and the hearts of the fathers turning to the children. In my most recent spurt of activity, I was working on the personal stories of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, and felt in a moving and real way their interest in what I was doing and their love for me. I can’t express what that meant to me. I add my testimony to so many others that this work matters and that even the smallest of efforts will bless our lives.