What is the best way to organize family documents like a marriage certificate, or a diploma, or even a book contract? I’m going to share the question I ask myself that has never failed to give me enough clarity to make a good organizing decision.
To explore this issue let’s use my pile of book contracts as an example. Some of you know that over a period of 15 years I wrote almost 30 children’s picture books that were published by various publishers, so I have a pretty big stack of book contracts.
When the time came to scan the contracts I found myself torn between several ways I could organize them, both individually and also in my overall organizing system: Should I organize by publisher, or simply put them in chronological order of when I signed each contract?
And then there were other issues like an additional addenda, or agreement, for a particular book that was signed at a later date. How should I deal with that?
I realize a stack of book contracts isn’t a major organizing problem but it illustrates the real decisions that need to be made, even for minor documents.
The ONE Organizing Question
So here’s what I do when I run into a puzzling question on the best way to organize: I project myself into the future and try to see it from a descendant’s point of view. Then I ask this question: What would be the best way to present this information to a descendant 100 years from now?
3 Organizing Ideas
Using this question let’s look at 3 ways we could approach my pile of contracts…
Organize each of my book contracts chronologically along with everything else: family photos, documents, memorabilia, you name it—everything gets put in order chronologically.
This is the position of some family historians who consider Chronology to be King. Using this method the scans of my book contracts would be scattered among everything else over a 15 year period AND it would separate an original contract from an addendum that was signed a few years later.
Now, I’m a big fan of keeping things chronological most of the time but NOT when it causes more confusion than help. Wouldn’t it be more logical and interesting to learn about an ancestor’s minor writing career in one place rather than scattered throughout 15 years of photos?
Now if I’d been a major author, showcasing each book as it came out and how it related to my life might make sense, but I wasn’t a major author. This was more of a hobby than a career.
Organize the contracts chronologically within a folder specifically for more general family documents. With this option I would place the scans of my book contracts into a folder called “1988–2003 Book Contracts-Linda Sattgast” and place it in another folder called “Family Documents” along with any other general documents, such as scans of business ledgers, or passports, etc.
What I personally would NOT put in this folder are documents that go with a specific event, such as a marriage certificate or high school diploma, because they fit in with a specific time frame and there might even be photos of those events.
So with this option most general documents go into the Family Documents folder where they won’t clutter up my photos but a few specific documents will stay with the photos they relate to.
Now, just to be clear when I talk about folders I’m referring to the digital folders on my computer or external hard drive that hold the scans. I would always keep the original paper documents together with other documents and separate from my photos because they’re often over-sized so they don’t FIT well with the photos—AND they’re not made of archival paper.
Create a topical folder about my writing. This is what I chose to do because to me it makes the most sense. I created a folder called Linda Sattgast-Books-1988-2003 and within that folder I have a subfolder of all my scanned contracts. I gave the folder a topical name rather than starting with a date, so that means it will land alphabetically below all my other chronological folders that start with a date.
This method makes sense if I’m planning to add pictures—like a photo of me signing books and of our family going on a book tour in cities around the U.S.A. etc. all of which are normally in chronological order. It’s also a great place to include a subfolder with all my scanned contracts and another subfolder with pictures of all my books in chronological order with a description of each. That puts everything’s in one place and easy to access.
So that’s my process for choosing the best way to organize family documents. The bottom line is this: Put yourself in your descendant’s shoes. Don’t make her become a detective just to figure out something you could have easily told her by the way you organize your family documents.
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