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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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😊)
- 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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