In today's day and age, are newbies still starting binder systems? I am reading Unpuzzling Your Past, 4th edition by Emily Anne Croom and it is very good. She advocates binders that organize by generation and location.

Probably three times as many genealogical organizing systems exist as there are genealogists, for many change their systems along the way. There is no right or wrong way to organize, but there are better and worse ways. The worse ways include spiral notebooks and storage space on the dining room table. The better ways are numerous, usually involving three-ring binders, file folders, or a combination of the two. ...Some genealogists prefer a binder or file folder for each person, or each ancestral couple, with all the notes and documents pertaining to them stored in their binder or folder. I personally prefer binders that contain all my notes on the generations that lived in the same county or same state. I don't want (1) the expense of making three copies of documents that contain information on three brothers or (2) to spend time filing the copies in three folders when I return from research. When I study my notes, I want to see the interaction of family members and generations without having to pull a number of folders and then sort and refile papers.

As she mentions, many people change their systems along the way... I'd just like to start out right. I already have too much loose 'note' paper with scribbles on it; searches that have been completed (whether they found anything or not), hand drawn charts, etc. I know that I am re-doing searches that I have already done, because I seem to keep losing my place between research frenzies. And although I use the computer to input my 'proven' data... There are still lots of questionable details that I don't feel confident enough yet committing to the main tree. So even though I'm using genealogical software, inputting references, linking documents that I find... I still don't seem to be going without paper. Is it time to start a binder system? Or is that just old fashioned, repetitive and redundant?

UPDATE: I am not asking for a description of members' filing systems. I am asking a yes/no question whether people starting genealogy recording now (in the day of computers) still need to plan/anticipate having a hybrid system of computer+paper records? Or is that just duplication and redundancy?

ANSWER SELECTED: The answers provided are all excellent and seem in agreement that starting a strictly paper system in this day of computer software is redundant. I particularly like @Sue Adam's comment: "I think that strict adherence to this kind of filing system is limiting, overly time consuming and repetitive."

@Fortier pointed out that our "use" of a documentary source (possibly with computer software) can be separate from how we "preserve" or store said source.

I now feel more confident in starting a binder (or two) to collect and organize some of my research and original documents, without feeling that I am somehow embarking upon a commitment to duplicate what is already in my computer. That being said, like @lkessler, I am a visual person and will likely print out paper copies from time to time. He says, “Having them sitting in hardcopy in front of you makes them much easier to visualize when you're trying to solve a puzzle, or see what you have and what you're missing.”

  • As written, this question has no "right" answer. The quote from the book you posted even says this: you could end up with three different answers from each person on this site, none of them right or wrong.
    – bstpierre
    Commented Oct 30, 2012 at 11:48
  • @bstpierre 'In today's day and age, are newbies still starting binder systems?' This is a yes/no answer. I will try to clarify the question. Commented Oct 30, 2012 at 12:08
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    I understand the point @bstpierre makes, but also believe that "family archivist," is one of the roles played by "family historians." I'm hoping the community finds a way to keep this question open. (Wondering if we need a tag for "family-archives" or "personal-archives" to distinguish this genre of question.)
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 30, 2012 at 12:41
  • I was reading the part of the question that said "Is it time to start a binder system? Or is that just old fashioned, repetitive and redundant?" It doesn't seem to me like it has a straightforward "correct" yes/no answer, but is more the launching point for a discussion. But I'm willing to be proven wrong.
    – bstpierre
    Commented Oct 30, 2012 at 12:43
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    @bstpierre - I would like to see more questions about people trying to solve their organizing problems. I know there are no right/wrong answers (usually not desired on Stack Exchange sites), but organization is a real problem genealogists have, and the experts here can help people to sort out these issues and help them solve their problems. I think this is a good question for this site.
    – lkessler
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 0:15

5 Answers 5


Do people starting genealogy recording now still need to plan/anticipate having a hybrid system of computer+paper records? Or is that just duplication and redundancy?

It's duplication and redundancy.

But of course, everything has exceptions. And the exceptions are:

  1. Originals: Obviously all original records you have should be archived and kept safe. I don't know how things are in other countries, but in Swedish genealogical research there are very little original records that isn't from state archives, except for photographs and paintings, which can be useful as original sources as well.

  2. A paper "backup": Of course you already take backups of your family tree and other digital research records you have. But because of changing file formats, this will be hard to leave to those after you. Your research, in it's digital form, will be very hard to use in 50 years. Therefore, making a printout of your family tree, and also a printout of every person in that three with sources, is something that everyone should do from time to time, perhaps once a year or so. This "Family Geneaological Bible" will be accessible for at least 50 years if kept out of the sun and dirt and water, and can then be used as a starting point for research at that time.


I'll bet there will be a wide range of opinions on keeping paper records. Several prominent genealogists advocate various filing systems that mimic conclusion-based genealogy databases. I agree that being organised is very helpful and I am sure such systems work for many people and is certainly better than chaos. However, I think that strict adhererance to this kind of filing system is limiting, overly time consuming and repetitive.

Archivists approach things differently and I have come round to thier way of thinking. Archival arrangement and description keeps collections of documents together maintaining the context of thier creation and provenance. Your own collections are likely smaller and simpler than public archives, so you could use a simplified system.

Making the links between the original material, your analysis and work-in-progress, and your conclusions still presents challenges. Source citation fulfils a part of these processes.


I use a very simple filing system:

  • I only keep paper copies of (a) documents that can't be obtained digitally (e.g. England and Wales Birth Certificates, or photographs and documents handed down through the family); (b) copy documents obtained from Archives/Record Offices that are only provided in paper form.
  • All paper documents and photographs are allocated a reference number starting from 1 (in the order of acquisition) which is prefixed with the document type, e.g. CERT/1 or WILL/1. This is written in pencil on the back of the document, and on a paper slip kept with the document. Also on the paper slip and the back of the document I write the document citation. (If an original document was particularly fragile, I would rely on the paper slip only rather than risk damaging the document -- I don't have any of these so far, however)
  • The documents and paper slips are kept in plastic pockets in lever arch files divided by document type.
  • All paper documents in my possession are also scanned or photographed and stored on my PC, as are all documents and images obtained digitally (e.g. downloads of census images). Files are stored in directories according to document type with meaningful names (e.g. Will\John James Llanfair Nant Y Gof 1857); they aren't separated in any other way -- not by location, generation or line.
  • I keep track of everything in a programme I've developed for the purpose of managing my research, which lets me link full details of the source to the digital file and (if appropriate) record the reference in my paper system, as well as keeping track of my research and work-in-progress that I'm not ready to commit to my genealogy database yet.

When I started out, I did maintain a more complex binder system (one for my father's line, one for my mother's), paper copies of everything filed in date order, but I found it cumbersome to maintain. The simpler system suits me much better.

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    ColeValleyGirl, I would like to know more about the programme you have developed. How does it store the information about your digital document? Do you use tags that are embeded in the image files? Does it play nicely with your genealogy database (or is that on the wish list)?
    – Sue Adams
    Commented Oct 30, 2012 at 10:31

I still believe that binder systems for research work and documents are excellent for many people. Having them sitting in hardcopy in front of you makes them much easier to visualize when you're trying to solve a puzzle, or see what you have and what you're missing. I often even print out email communication, and put them in binders.

The computer specialists will argue that now you can do exactly the same thing by scanning your documents into your computer and organizing them there as you would in binders. This would be a matter of preference, and may be something I will likely move to in the future ... but for someone with a binder organization already, the scanning is a major task so it will be a project for my retirement years.

For someone starting out, if they are very comfortable on the computer, I'd recommend scanning and computer-based organization. For everyone else, go the binders way.

However, I would not organize by generation and location. To me that is wrong. I highly recommend organizing by source type and source. It may not be obvious why at first, but you'll thank me in the end.

See also this answer to another question.


If you collect any original documents (or even copies available only in paper form) then you need a system for storing them. That is no less true now than 100 years ago.

The modern dilemma concerns how much other information you keep in paper form and how you avoid unproductive duplication of your digital records. the choice that each individual makes will depend upon personal preference and opinion of the adequacy of the tools available.

Ready availability of scanners and cheap storage means that we now have the capacity to separate the "use" of a documentary source from its "preservation".

The question Handling and storage tips for old Family Bible dealt with the inter-related issues of extracting the relevant evidence from the source and ensuring its availability as an artifact for generations to come. The same conversation can be had about most of our rich paper documents.

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