4 Ways to Start Your Family History Documentation: Becoming a Well-Organized Family Historian - Small Legacies

4 Ways to Start Your Family History Documentation: Becoming a Well-Organized Family Historian

By: Eve Rhett

If you are becoming a Family Historian for the first time, chances are you are wondering “where do I start?”  In my previous post, I recommended taking a moment to pause and evaluate where things stand:

  • First, check your own motivation and interest level.  Decide how much time you want to devote to the endeavor of being a Family Historian. 

  • Second, take inventory of what family history materials you have in your possession.  

Once you know how involved you want to be in managing or curating the Family History collection for your generation and you have a solid idea of what information and materials you have access to, you can start prioritizing your next steps!

4 Ways to Start Your Family History Documentation 

Take some time to prioritize which Family History projects you want to undertake and decide how you will keep everything organized:

Prioritize Projects.  Here are a few common Family History Project types you may want to consider when evaluating your next steps:

1. Researching Your Family History

Maybe you only have a few materials to get you started, in that case, your main priority may be building out the family tree based on what you know about the current generation and maybe the generation or two above or below you.  If this is the case, do not be discouraged!  

With the resources available these days, even starting with just the names of your parent and grandparents can be enough to start building out a large family tree using resources like Ancestry.com.  In a case where you have minimal information, your first priority may be to research and to document the family tree as best you can.

You may also have some mysteries in your family history.  Those can also make a fun jumping-off point.  While you may just end up hitting a brick wall, you just might uncover something that helps solve some of the mysteries of your family’s past.


2. Preserving Family History Materials

 One the other end of the spectrum, if you have a mountain of physical materials to go through, you may want to prioritize different activities.  In my case, the first thing I wanted to focus on was Preservation.  

Most of the family history materials were given to me in well-organized cardboard boxes (and a few really cool old suitcases!). 

How to Organize Important Family History Documents:

  •  Create safe storage.

My first project was to purchase some plastic tubs to house these materials going forward.  This would help provide protection against potential water damage and also made moving and storing the materials easier. 

  • Organize by Family Tree and Label each Box. 

All of the boxes I received were already organized by different branches of the family tree so I simply created labels for each of my new plastic tubs and migrated the materials from their cardboard boxes into the tubs.

  • Decide Which Family Documents to Digitize 

A second project related to preservation that I started right away was converting several boxes of old film canisters to DVD.  There are several companies online offering these conversion services via mail.  I found a local company to use since I had a large number of films and preferred to meet with them in person to go through the process.  It feels like we’re getting close to the point where those old films could have been lost to history so I wanted to make sure to save those family memories for future generations.


3. Digitizing Family History Documents

The next priority I decided to focus on was digitization.  Passing down this much paper generation after generation is just not sustainable.  One of my primary goals as my generation’s Family Historian is to leave the next generation a more streamlined and manageable amount of physical materials.  

The vast majority of the materials I inherited are my Great-Grandma’s handwritten family tree notes, including names, births, marriages, deaths, etc.  Almost all of this information could easily be stored in a single Family Tree GEDCOM file. 

While I don’t want to dismantle Grandma’s life’s work, I do want to cut down on the amount of paper needed to preserve the same amount of information.  Also, most of her notes were written in pencil and it is beginning to fade in places.  My plan is to capture a digital image of every page of her notebooks and then, over time, transcribe those notes into my Family Tree GEDCOM file.  

IMPORTANT TIP FOR DOCUMENTING FAMILY HISTORY: Don't record important notes in Pencil. It will fade over time and soon be illegible. 


4. Documenting Your Current Family Tree

One of my life mottos is “Bloom where you are planted.”  With that in mind, another thing I’m choosing to prioritize is documenting the present. I’m making sure that the details of the now are preserved for future generations.  To start this project, I’ve been reaching out to family members to gather important names and dates.

Another aspect of preserving the present that I’m focusing on is documenting the memories and stories of my elders.  I’ve conducted several interviews with my family members about their childhoods and what they remember about the generations that are now gone. 

How to Organize Historical Family Photos and Documents 

Once you know what materials you have to work with and what your goals and priorities are, I strongly recommend that you don’t dive into any of those projects without planning out how you are going to manage all the materials and information that will be involved.  This stuff will balloon rapidly and if you don’t have your organizing systems in place from the beginning things will get out of control and overwhelming quickly! 

1. How to Store Physical Documents 

Think through what organization and storage makes most sense for the resources you have. What types of containers will you use? Where and how will those be stored? How will you find things once they’ve been stored? What sort of filling system will you use, if any?   

Categories I Use to Organize Family History Items:

One Box for Each Family

    Depending on the scale of what you are working with, a few well organized binders or file boxes may be all you need to get started.  In my case, huge boxes organized at a very macro family-level is all that is feasible at the current time so that’s how I’ve organized my boxes: One Family, One Box (or two or three in some cases ).

    One Box for Recipes and Diaries

      I also have a few categories of items that don’t really fit into that structure so I do have a separate box in place for things like Recipes and Diaries, which I’m currently keeping outside the “one family, one box” system I have for everything else. 

      One Box for "Current Projects"

         I also have a couple of cute storage boxes that I plan to use for whatever the “Current Project” is that I’m working on.  That way I can keep those materials in my office.  They are visually attractive (so they look great in my Zoom background!) and easy to access so I can quickly jump back into whatever I’m working on at any given time.

        2. How to Organize Digital Photos and Documents  

        Digital items – Where to start?  Digital items are both a huge blessing a bit of a curse.  Before you start doing anything related to family history, decide how you will organize your digital assets. 

        Things to think through before you get started with digital files:

        • file types
        • naming conventions
        • folder structures
        • note taking systems
        • storage and backup plans
        • how those materials will be shared with other family members now or through the generations

        Planning Ahead is the Key to Being A Successful Family Historian

        Preserving our family legacy for future generations can be a daunting undertaking.  However, by thinking through these details up-front, you can make the task more manageable.  Taking time now to think about what projects you want to undertake and how you will keep things organized will save you a lot of time and headaches down the road once you really get into the weeds of your family history projects!


        Eve began her journey as a Family Historian following the Covid-19 pandemic.  Glad to be back with loved ones, she spent dedicated time documenting the memories of her grandparents and aunts. 

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