10 Ways I Wish I Had Organized My Research Library


No, I don’t quite have that many books – it just feels that way. Nor are my books that neatly organized, believe me. In fact, that’s the problem.

My organizational lament isn’t so much about the physical locations of my books, but about the organizational tools and methods of finding the correct book when I need it. I know I’m missing things in my research as a result.

Let me explain.

My bookshelves today are organized by county and state, sort of. Keep in mind that I’ve been accumulating books and resources for decades, and I’ve moved during this period, more than once.

Accumulation over time tends to outgrow the originally allotted space. And no, Marie Kondo and books should not even be in the same article. ALL of my books bring me joy – and that’s that.

However, organizing books usefully for genealogy research has been challenging. How is “usefully for genealogy research” defined? Genealogy is in some ways different than library systems and books for pleasure reading.

Let’s take a look.

My Library

To begin with, genealogists often deal with published resources that aren’t published in the traditional manner.

This is (a small) part of my area for Tennessee county records.

library spiral.png

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to shelve or even see the names of spiral bound resources. I also ran out of space, so some books are stacked on top of others. Notice how few names I can see.

library 3 ring.png

Then of course, those 3-ring binders. Real libraries don’t have to deal with 3-ring binders either, but they are an organizational staple for genealogists.

I have bookshelves, but not enough shelf space. Who does?? Some things that probably belong in spiral binders are in filing cabinets, and vice versa. I actually Marie Kondoed something and threw away the printed 1790 NC census (yes, seriously) because it’s available online in lots of places.

My shelving resources were not all created at the same time. It’s kind of like a house that has been added onto for years. I did not redo my shelving plan with each addition. I just started using the added shelf space. So some things are in separate rooms from others. These county and state resources are intermixed.

library place books.png

Another problem is that some books have information that doesn’t really “go” in any one place. For example, the Virginia records could have information for many families and counties. How do I remember to check them for each family that they might/would pertain to?

Some books are even less specific – about Native American, Acadian or Scotch-Irish people, or women of a particular genre. And what is “Lethal Encounters” about, anyway? If I take it off the shelf to look, I may get nothing else done for the rest of the day.

library leftovers.png

Now add into that mixture technical and academic papers about genetics, labels that fell off, misfiled resources (why is Tinkling Springs in with the haplogroup binders?), ebooks that I own but are not on a shelf and therefore, easy to lose or forget about, papers on my computer along with physical overflow – and I’m sunk.

Yes, ahem, I do have two copies of the same book in those pictures. I just noticed. Another reason why I need a better system and to check it before I make purchases.

I know I should be embarrassed to even publish these pictures – but it’s the truth and I’d wager every one of you has something similar.

And I haven’t even gotten to that thing called pleasure reading. Those books are overflowing off of a different shelf in another room with little organization other than by general topic. For the most part, I haven’t touched them with the exception of historical stories, including novels, especially juicy ones. My pleasure reading tends to be something about my ancestors or genetics although I have a shelf full of good intentions.

My Solution

Several years ago, I paid one of my college-student offspring to help me set up a spreadsheet to track my holdings. You can use Excel in MSWord or if you have a Google account, Sheets is free under Google Docs.

Library Docs.png

Library Sheets.png

That student-labor approach worked great for a while, at least until said child no longer needed extra income. The project wasn’t complete, and I didn’t complete or continue the project myself. My bad. I’d rather work on genealogy, genetics or write blog articles.

Library spreadsheet.png

As you can see, this spreadsheet is a good start. Because it’s in spreadsheet format, it’s sortable. This helps immensely, but I’ve discovered it’s not enough.

What I Wish I Had Done

  1. I actually wish I had numbered the books and numbered the shelves too. In essence, similar to a library system, just not as complex. Then the books could be assigned to a shelf and I would know where to look for them. You might notice that I have a general location, but nothing more. If I knew where to look, even if the book was spiral bound, I’d see that in a note, know what I was looking for, and find the location between the shelf number and county affiliation or topic.
  2. I wish I had added a column for geography, probably counties, that the resource pertains to. I could add several in one cell, but that means I’d have to search, not sort, for the county name, like Wilkes, North Carolina. The state would need to be a second column, because county names repeat between states.
  3. Another alternative, of course, would be to work with a database instead of a spreadsheet because databases allow multiple entries for a single field. I could have Wilkes, Ashe, Surry and several more counties and states for a single book. In a different spreadsheet for another topic, I entered a duplicate row for each separate resource. In this case, I would have the book entered once for Wilkes County and once for Ashe County, which negates the need for a database in a bit of a clunky way.
  4. I wish I had added a column for the surname lines that each resource would or might pertain to in my genealogy. For example, I have several surnames in the same county, because that’s what happens when your ancestors stay in the same place for a few generations. When I discover a new surname, or need to recheck something, I need to be able to find the resources that are available for that location, and then add the new surname to all books that could be useful for that ancestral line.
  5. I wish I had added a column to track which resources I’ve used for a particular surname and person. For example, did I search in the 1787 Lunenburg County census for all of the surnames and people, or do I need to review that resources for people I’ve found more recently?
  6. I wish I had recorded when I added that resource to my library which might help me remember who I have and have not used it for.
  7. I have not added any resources that I don’t own, but that are available for counties elsewhere. I use FamilySearch and FamilySearch wiki for county information, but it’s not complete. Generally, it also doesn’t list more general resources that might pertain to that county. For example, I just discovered transcribed court notes for Wilkes County on Lulu.com. Now I need to search at Lulu for all of the rest of my research counties and surnames. Who knew?
  8. I wish I had made notes. For example, what exactly is “The 10,000 Year Explosion” about, and how might it pertain to my research, either genealogy or anthropological? I don’t remember if I read it.
  9. I need to add a disposition (de-accessioning) field. Yes, although the thought is traumatizing for me, I will be passing some books on before I pass on, hopefully, and have already begun that process. I need to know when the books left and who they are now living with. Having said that, it might be nice to note where I got the book in the first place and how much it cost. I do have a few rare books and some that are first edition signed collectors’ items. I fear those being sold at a garage sale after my death for a dime. (I think I might have an unnatural attachment to my books😊)
  10. The ever-changing DNA testing landscape and multiple (kinds of) tests providing DNA matches from multiple vendors needs to be recorded, somehow, as a resource too. For example, did I search for a Y DNA tester for my John Combs (1705-1762) line? If so, are they in the Combs surname project at Family Tree DNA? Did I send an Ancestry or MyHeritage message to someone to see if they would take a DNA test, or about their results? Have I used DNAGedcom.com to search for specific target surnames in my match list or GeneticAffairs to look for ancestral clusters? You get the idea.

DNA is a resource by line, surname, individual ancestor, both known and unknown, as well as location because sometimes that’s all we have to work with. I actually have two separate spreadsheets for DNA which I’ll share in a separate article – but DNA results are also a research resource that needs to be tracked along with various tools applied, and when.

What Have You Done?

Have you addressed this research organization problem, and if so, how?

What resources are you using?

What works for you, what didn’t, and why?


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32 thoughts on “10 Ways I Wish I Had Organized My Research Library

  1. I would suggest bibliographic software. I use Zotero (it’s free) on my MacBook Air. There are advantages to using bibliographic software. Most have the following features:

    1. Tag cloud.
    2. On-line sync.
    3. Citation formats.
    4. Interface with online library catalogs (e.g., worldcat.org)
    5. Custom data columns.

    And you can probably import your existing spreadsheet.

      • depending on ho big your table is it is very quickly done via Zotero. If you like to try it out I can easily transfer your table over.

        Just drop me a message on Facebook.

  2. You ask what have you done – definitely a work in progress but I use LibraryThing.
    Not all of our books are catalogued and I need to add to the catalogue but it allows to me record books, tag them with my own tags, tag them with a location, for example I can record books in a library or online and tag them as being located in the State Library or archive.org. I also tag them with location, for example my study or in the DLUG (double locked up garage where our overflow storage is – when when we moved house we put up lots of shelves and lots of books have stayed there – ther eis not rooom for them in our house) or in my father’s collection or at our coast house …
    In my study I order books by the Dewey system – it isn’t always perfect and of course I have loads of books at 920 but it helps me to find a book when I am looking for it.
    Library Thing has an app and I can check on my phone, ipad or computer if I already own a book
    It sounds great but I need to catch up on entering the books- I do try to enter books when I buy them- there is a backlog of books in the DLUG that need to be catalogued
    I really recommend LibraryThing 🙂

  3. You are way ahead of me on organizing! My big problem is folders and loose papers–sooo many loose papers. I do have my books under control, thanks to File Maker Pro database. It came with my first computer, a MAC, in 1992. It is also the reason I never learned to use Excel, which is a problem.
    The advantage to the database is that you can search for any text in a field, so I can list many families in a book in one field. It is my understanding that I would have to search for the first word in an Excel cell. I have 586 books or series (like NC Genealogical Society quarterlies) in my database. Fields are Title, author/editor, Publisher/printer, address (of publisher), date obtained, price, ISBN number, Notes, Loaned to (I love to loan my books), Geographical (state, county, town, river, whatever), record type, family name, miscellaneous classification, and total cost (running accumulation of the costs).

    My shelves are geography (grouped by state, then county) and family names (alphabetical by major name). This works pretty well if I just remember to put the books back where I got them! I once went to Mrs. Edythe Whitley for help and her rule was we could only have two books at a time. When we needed a third book, one had to go back.

    Thanks for bringing this up. I need to check that all my books are in the database and then begin to donate some to a local library.

  4. I have floor to ceiling bookshelves in two rooms of the house and other bookshelves in other rooms. All the books in the shelves are organized by subject, and if I need a book I can find it. The problem is I’m running out of shelves and have begun stacking books on the floor of an upstairs bedroom. Yesterday I went up there to look for something and found my “History of Banks County Georgia” underneath “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Oh my!

  5. I’m not offering any help. I don’t have enough books to have the problem you are having. But I keep seeing books that I’d like to have, so maybe someday! I really need to get that green book you have, “Acadians in Exile.” I am a Landry after all. I’m in the middle of a series of blog posts that I’m doing on my family lines during the Exile. It probably would come in handy! That and the Baton Rouge Catholic Church records that you have. I’ll use a phrase that I heard before and like to use, “I wish those were mine and you had something better.” Though in this case I can’t really think of anything better! I just need to improve my library.

  6. I use a Mac program called Book Collector – it has everything you could want. However, I’m using ‘use’ rather loosely, since I do not have all my books entered…

    Mostly I just wanted to say how glad I am that I’m not the only book lover who may have an unnatural attachment to my books, and who finds that ALL my books bring me joy.

    I’m so thankful to have a wonderful husband who is a builder, and he keeps building more bookcases for me! 🙂

  7. I am 75 years old. My.memory is “so so” at best. I am inundated with albums, books, photos, and documents. I scan and archive everything on external hard drives, including entire albums, as best I can, but I will never finish. Many pictures I scanned in 2000 or 2005 or a long time ago need re-scanning, because the earlier scans were at low res because of lack of hard drive storage space. I put a small “s” in read on the back.of any doc or photo scanned. But I did not use to do that. I have all my family videos going back to 1940’s saved on external hard drives. DVD’s are terribly deficient for preservation. They fail, get damaged, or will not read or copy. I have lots of work to do around the house, inside and out. I become very fatigued. I have CLL and wife has.lupus and fibromyalgia. I am overwhelmed. I have no idea ( and lack of time) to get out of the morass. My computer room is stacked with loose papers and photos, which, once scanned, must be placed an easily located repository. Then there is the question of what happens to all my work, most of which I fear my children will not want or have the space to keep. I can see dumpsters filled with a lifetime of work..

    • Perhaps you can do as Roberta mentions – hire a college student or other young person (once your Covid risk is low) to help with the processing. For myself, I’m thinking about somehow putting my conclusions (documented) online someplace likely to be around for the foreseeable future – Familysearch, Ancestry… I just had a funny thought – those Mormon kids that used to come around and offer to do your dishes – if they offered to help with my genealogy I’d be waiting for them with cookies!

    • Specify to your children that if they do not want your genealogical research and books, they should donate them to a local genealogy society, and not toss it all into a dumpster! My cousin donated all of his father’s records in binders from many years of owning a funeral-mortuary business. They have been very useful. I have used deceased people’s research binders at genealogy societies. I intend to specify where I want my research papers and books to go when I no longer need them.

  8. I also use Library Thing. Another way I’ve pared down my library is by going digital. I used an inexpensive scanning company who scanned my books. Apparently, as long as it is one copy for self-use and is replacing the hard copy with the digital copy (paper volume is cut from the binding), the company says it doesn’t violate copyright. Books I want to keep, but for which I don’t want to give up shelf space go digital. It keeps the book library neat and manageable and I can find what I need immediately.

  9. While I don’t have as many real books as you do, I have always been accused of being over-organized. From day one I colour coded my binders. I have ones for surnames, places and census. All paternal surnames are in green binders, maternal in red, places in brown and census in black. They are on the shelves in colour groups and then in alphabetical order. Most of my reference books are in .pdf format stored both on an external hard drive and backed up to DVD. More and more I find I am eliminating paper and hardly ever refer to anything in these binders any more. I have gone digital and its all on my 2TB external hard drive backed up on DVD. Having said that I find having a room with filled bookshelves a very comforting place to be and miss the room I had in one of my townhouses which was my Old English Library.

  10. You have a wonderful library!

    I started using Devonthink3 (DT3) for my genealogy haystack. It is a Mac/iOS only database-type system that has the best searching abilities in the multiverse.

    “Focus on your work and let DEVONthink remember all the details. Collect, organize,
    edit and annotate documents of any kind. Have them automatically analyzed, connected,
    and filed. Sync them between your Mac, iPhone, and iPad.”

    You throw anything in there – your book spreadsheet, scans (it will run your scanner and assemble the images into a searchable PDF), screenshots, web clippings, your computer genealogy files and folders, emails,….If you search “Hawkins Co” – it will find it in your spreadsheet, saved articles from the Hawkins County Genealogical Society, any notes mentioning Hawkins County – you get the picture. DT3 has AI that can be used to find similar things – I’ve found that pretty well solves the finding name variants in a search.

    You can organize things as you add them (by tags or into folders) or as you get around to it. Apparently you can automate it, but I haven’t scaled that peak yet. It also contains some need organizing systems like Dewey decimal and LOC categorization. It’s a powerful and customizable program.

    There are lots of ways to use the program – I read the blogs of historians, writers and Ph.D. students to see different ways. Here’s another example – https://discourse.devontechnologies.com/t/dtpo-genealogical-research/16129

    I just imported my existing structure (automated) or you can leave your digital stuff were it is but index it within DT3. Here’s how I use DT3 to collect information. When I’m researching I will open my browser, split the page to have a rich text file open beside it (DT3 can capture compete websites). As I search around and find bits, I paste the url and the bit into to file, and continue accumulating information. After a few days of doing research, I save it to DT3 Inbox, where a search will find it.

    1) organizing takes time and I feel the same as you about it; it;s a deadweight loss until you need to find something
    2) STEEEEEEEP learning curve – this is the Alps, however, there is a free book and a great series of video tutorials (Screencasts Online). FWIW I was new to Mac and DT3 in January and now I’m making progress, the pain is gone, and I can find things.
    3) cost – DT3 will set you back $199 for the Pro version (the one you need), and if you want to use it on your iPhone you need to buy the app, too 14.99.

    Love your 52 ancestors! Maybe one will be a brick wall of mine ;-).
    Meanwhile you set a great example.

  11. I worked in small town libraries, and organization is very time consuming. You have better things to do with your time. Buy a library program of your choice, and hire someone you trust. I think you will come out ahead since time is money…and peace of mind is important.

    Working in libraries cured me of owning so many books. I love books, but many books can be found online now, or the same information is online, and I lack space. I have been trying to scan all useful notes and file them in online folders with back-up. This seems to work better for me, and I have less of a physical mess. Unfortunately, most people who do genealogy do tend to have something of a mess. We do the best we can. We only have so many days given to live, and what we do with that time is a personal preference.

  12. Your way ahead of me in sorting your office (mine is a barely organised mess), but looking at your spiral binders, I remember magazine binder the college library back in the days…

    Here’s one:

    In this you could place your spiral binders and then write the title on the binder’s spine.

    There’s also plastic pieces to turn regular 3 rings binders into magazine binders:

    As for Marie Kondo, her main aim is “how to get the most from a Tokyo appartement” which are 650 squared feet on average (about one floor 20′ x 32’6″) for 3 to 4 rooms. Since one of them is the LDK (Living Dinning Kitchen), that left 2 bedrooms for most, 3 if you are lucky, but that extra room is probably a little “Japanese room”, a tatami and low table room with little storage. There’s no room for a full home office, you’ll be lucky to get the space to fit an office desk somewhere in the house.

    Since we have more space, we can afford the extravaganza of a home office full of bookshelves. ^_~

    I was looking for my MOORE family today and I found a message board and there is a 2009 message about your Moore. I do believe that the James Moore who started on Prince Edward Island and then to Halifax ,eventually to Tennessee is most probably the James Moore who is a match with my brother! There are 2 matches from different kit numbers for James and one from a 3rd kit for Thomas who married Polly Baker. I am rather excited! My brothers kit # is 237473 FTDNA last name Moore (duh?)
    He is J2-M172.

    • Trust me, I’ll be checking this out tomorrow. What do you know about your Moore line? Also, it’s Prince Edward County, not Island. I got excited for a minute thinking you had a new lead for us. I’m excited!!!

  14. Definitely import the spreadsheet into a bibliographic database such as Zotero. You can always add more info. I would go with a bibliographic database rather than LibraryThing since so much of what a genealogist has is not regular published books. Not to knock LibraryThing, it is just more about traditionally published books and the joy of reading, whereas bibliographic databases are also about manuscripts, articles, CDs, etc and about taking notes and citing them.

  15. I live five minutes walk away from the libraray in picture, very organized place and a beutiful building.


  16. I have tried some of the software but was not happy with them.
    I have two different library listings with overlap. The first is what I have. The Excel file lists title, subject matter (check mark in 8 columns), shelf found on, author, date of pub, edition, publisher & media.
    The other one was something started by four members of our genealogy chapter. We compiled all of our books into an Excel file listing title, owner, author, date pub, edition, publisher and media. It was also available in a 14 X 8-1/2 edition which included a general topic for sorting. This has fallen by the wayside. The three other members have stopped coming due to age primarily and no other present members appear to be interested.

  17. Roberta – having read through your blog, I have a great number of binders, file boxes with family folders inside and spiral bound books too. You mention numbering the shelves. That is what I did; I just numbered them 1-24 (six shelves per bookcase) plus a top shelf that is on the wall. About once a year, I sort by shelf and, pull the books out an inch and go down the list, pushing the books in as I confirm that they are there. Add as needed, subtract as found and pray for another year.

  18. I don’t have nearly the amount of sources that are mentioned above. I do use Excel spreadsheets a lot though for family by state and parent, color coded to confirm documentation. Takes a while but is a helpful way for me to see them in family groups. It’s amazing how many years are listed for a person’s birth!
    My favorite though is my Family War Veterans, by war. I divided each tab by paternal and maternal, and listed name, dates of birth and death, then military information from sources, then DAR and SAR numbers when available. I really like knowing how many people served our country during each war, Good Luck! Brenda

  19. Wow, thanks for the tips. During the last two years, I wasn’t able to do a whole lot of anything. I did, however, try to organize some individual research sheets into a “family” binder. Some of the stacks got lopsided and before I could stop the avalanche, they slid off the table and onto the floor. …and there they have laid, waiting to be picked up and sorted in a yet to be purchased binder. Not today I’m too tired to figure out how to order online for home delivery … maybe tomorrow..

  20. Roberta – my spreadsheet is very similar to yours except that I added publisher, edition and, for ease of finding the book or binder, the shelf number (#1 is the upper left shelf) and #24 id the lower right). That fits onto an 11″ X 8-1/2″ sheet. I duplicated that file by adding a column to the left that adds a topic (General Research, Research (Massachusetts), Research (Maine), Personal, Humor, etc., so that I can sort, as you said, for subject matter.
    Now to read your whole blog especially what you wish you had done.

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