Organizing History One Year at a Time

I couldn’t have known it then, but a simple question by a sixteen-year-old boy would somehow lead me on a twenty-two-year journey of research….and I always thought I hated history! Little did I know that one day I would be spending my life organizing history one year at a time.

Today I welcome my Mom, Ritchie Hale, as she shares about her journey of family research and some great tips for organizing history – one year at a time!

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Organizing History One Year at a Time

To me, history was a dry, boring 50 minutes class in high school where a teacher droned on and on about facts and dates – dates on a timeline with dull, boring pictures that in no way related to my life.  Of course, I also thought that about Algebra, Chemistry, and a few other mandated subjects.  How little I knew.

History – Dry and Dull ?  Depends!

Perhaps I could blame the teachers for knowing their material so well that they forgot to infuse life and relevance to their lectures – or more to the point, it could have been me, the student.  Perish that thought, for I thought I gave it a pretty good shot…I mean I DID show up to class and I DID take notes. Okay, I admit it, the notes were more like doodles and ideas and daydreams about some creative project I was dreaming up.  My interests were much more leaning toward nature, beauty, hiking, waterfalls, the sound of the waves at the seashore, projects I was building from scrap wood in my Dad’s garage or scraps of fabric on the shelves in my Mom’s sewing room.

Whatever the root cause of my disdain of “history”, that was about to change on that very precise date in history, December, 1994.  “Who will remember?”  That was the question my son asked me on that date.  And so, my understanding and zeal of discovering real-life history was launched. My quest “to remember” had begun, and so had the stack of boxes of material that would help me in that quest.

So what does one do when suddenly inundated with boxes and even crates of research material, and it seems to multiply instead of divide?

Here are a few tips I’ve garnered through the years.  Perhaps these will be an aid to you as you begin your journey into real-life history.

Pace Yourself

The mountain of material can be staggering and overwhelming.  This is probably going to become a life-long project.  I first thought I could accomplish my work in a year, and then each new discovery led me to another, and another, and – well you get my drift, right?

Stay Focused

In the beginning I was not terribly focused on my end goal.  With consistent discipline I began to recognize what was relevant and what was merely a side street.  These side streets can quickly take you miles from your home-base body of research. Side Streets are terribly interesting, so just keep in mind, you only have a certain number of years in life, so stay on focus. One man who assisted me on one of my side street adventures said, “Come soon, I’m 95 years old and I’m running out of time.” This reality drives me.  I jokingly tell my friends that my children will come into my home when I’m dead and gone and discover boxes and boxes of musty ol’ documents and say, “there’s Mom’s life’s work.”

Arrange a Designated Space

There needs to be some type of “gathering place” for your material.  For me, it started in stackable clear plastic crates.  You might need to be creative in where to stash these crates, but with a little ingenuity, there are spaces.  I’ve stored them under a bed, up on a utility room shelf, under a table cloth at the end of a couch, or even as a lamp table when I was living in a travel trailer…that is a different story, for sure.

Start the Sorting and Labeling Process

I quickly realized that this elephant-size task would have to eaten one bite at a time, and MUST have a permanent organization plan. The public library was a fabulous resource for this part of the task.  I took one crate at a time to a large table at the library.  From the crate, I pulled out one document, letter, photo, or clue at a time, giving it a quick cursory look.  The goal is to discover a date, place, or event that will later help you choose a category for that item. Place a sticky note on the item with a quick reference: 1899, or Tim’s Wedding, or Eiffel Tower.  Choose only one label, the date being the preferred. (I use a paperclip also to ensure it doesn’t separate) Lay it aside and move on until you have emptied the crate.  Pressed for time?  Put all of your sorted items back in the crate.  On a sheet of copy paper write yourself a note that this crate is where you will begin next time.

Sorting and Labeling Process Continues

Again, I found the large library table to be helpful for this part of the process.  The reasons it worked for me were:

  1. a dedicated space and a limited and designated time to accomplish my goal
  2. no distractions from my normal routine at home or office

If you have dedicated space at home this would work fine, but remember to label what you are doing so you know exactly where to pick up next time.

Okay, so now that you have one crate sorted and labeled, what do you do? For this part I discovered large gallon Ziploc bags worked perfectly.  As I discovered a date on my sticky note label, I wrote on a bag with a permanent sharpie, the corresponding date, re: 1901.  Thus the sorting now of everything I have labeled is going to go into one of those bags.  At the end of this session, the goal would be to have everything sorted into either a year, an event, or particular place.

This Session Has One More Part

In a large file box, file cabinet, or some sort of filing container, I have created a hanging folder for every year that is included in my research. For my purposes, my files covered nearly 200 years, so organization was especially important.  Once I have all my Ziploc bags finished, I then transfer the contents out of the bags and into the file with the corresponding date.  Now, those Ziploc’s are ready to begin the next adventure of sorting and labeling.

This process continues until everything you have in your huge stash of materials, is now in a hanging file folder by year.  You’ve not even begun your research yet…but your interest is beginning to drive you forward, and the most difficult task is behind you.  From here forward, when you discover an item, it’s easy to know where to store it – your year-by-year hanging file system.  There it is, all neatly tucked into a concise container, chock full of interesting, intriguing pieces of history and research, just waiting for you to dig in.

How have you sorted and organized your research material?  I bet you have some wonderful tips on what has worked for you.  I’d love to hear.

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