Genealogy Do-Over: Tackle the Years of Mess

I have collected and inherited a lot of stuff in researching my family. One reason for starting this blog was to inspire me to get organized. Sometimes we need a little push.

Following on my Genealogy Do-Over theme from last summer that focused on setting some research goals, this post will focus on beginning to organize the massive conglomeration of STUFF.

Take a course

Over the holidays there was an advertisement from Family Tree Magazine about a course available through their Family Tree University ( entitled “Genealogy Breakthrough: Organize with Purpose – 2024.” The course had been run before to good reviews and this one was slated to run from January 8th to February 4th. This would be a great way to start the year.

However, our daughter’s wedding was to be on January 13th. Access to the materials would last for a year. I also figured that if I did not jump on this course, I would never get started. So I signed up and began participating.


The first module, “Sort and Declutter,” recommended that I collect everything together into a single place. Ignoring the books and journals that are nicely shelved in my office, I collected the rest into one place: printouts from online searches; photocopies from various repositories; photographs over the last century both framed and unframed; original certificates from various institutions; yearbooks; newspaper clippings; little notebooks of notes; and more. It took me a couple of weeks just to gather all the materials.

My dining room table, built in the 1930s and originally owned by my maternal grandparents, opens to a dimension of eight feet by three feet. I piled it all on there, filling every inch, and ran on average over a foot deep. All of that material amounted to more than twenty-five cubic feet of stuff!


The course instructed me to then perform a first sort where I ended up with a number of piles:

  1. Four piles representing one for each grandparent which held anything related to that line.
  2. One pile for all collateral lines like my wife’s family and daughter’s new husband.
  3. Another for conference materials and other learning or reference materials.
  4. The genealogy inherited from a maternal cousin (four boxes) – that will be a separate project.
  5. One for the current generations (parents through my kids).
  6. Lastly, one for active materials that would be quick to scan and organize.

These were sorted on to two tables each measuring 30 inches by six feet with some overflow. Rather than do further sorting as suggested in the course, I am boxing up the organization as it is. The family would like the dining room table back in time for Easter.

Next Steps

While I have done this over the past six weeks and the course is concluded, one might be disconcerted at my lack of progress. Quite the contrary! Because I kept up with the videos in the course, and though I was not yet ready to put into practice what I was taught, it is all percolating in my mind….

Now with the boxes presorted and accessible, I will be able to move on to the next stage of scanning, recording in my software, then tossing or filing. Modules three and four covered these techniques. I find a natural beauty to this system in that I can choose a topic area to make a dent depending on my mood for a given day. Do I want to work on my paternal grandfather’s pile or do I want to play with the current generation’s materials?

My four grandparents piles/boxes


I am feeling truly accomplished. That first sort went through a lot of material. As I work my way through the piles/boxes I begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Later modules taught me more about analyzing my organized data and preparing to perform better research. We will look at that in a later post.

Sometimes taking a course and having like-minded individuals encouraging you is all it takes. Here is to hoping I can keep some momentum.

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