Organizing your genealogy files (and keeping them organized) can be a challenge. Whether you've collected years of paper or pixels—or both—it can feel daunting to get it all under control. Professional organizer and genealogist Janine Adams shares her strategies for organizing genealogy research.
About This Week's Guest
Janine Adams is a professional organizer and genealogist. She combines the two in her blog at Organize Your Family History. She's also the co-host of the Getting to Good Enough podcast, which is all about overcoming perfectionism.
Starting to Organize: Pick a Framework
What is the "right" way to organize your genealogy? According to Janine, "The right way to do it is the way that works with the way you think and the way that you can actually maintain it."
When Janine first started by organizing her paper files by couple. Now that she's (mostly) made the transition to digital, her digital files are arranged by individual.
By contrast, my paper files are arranged by couple, but my digital files are arranged in folders by location. It's how I approach much of my research. When I'm researching in Perry County, Ohio, I'm generally not looking for just one surname. Arranging my digital files by location makes sense for me and how I take my notes and collect those files.
(By the way, it's up to you whether you use folders or binders for your paper files. Janine and I both prefer folders, but if binders work for you, go for it.)
Putting Your Framework Into Action
When you decide on a way that you want to organize your files, put it into place with your new research. Don't feel like you need to organize everything you've accumulated before you can do more research. When you have a new document (paper or digital), organize it now; don't just add it to the "to be filed" pile.
Putting your framework into action right away not only gives you the benefit of having your current research organized, it allows you to see what needs to be tweaked in your system. You might not see what needs to be changed if you try to tackle all of your backlog at once.
Transitioning From Paper to Digital
Maybe you dream of "going digital" with your genealogy files. But what do you do with all of the paper you've accumulated? Scanning all of it feels overwhelming, especially to someone like me who has years worth of paper.
Janine's solution: Don't approach scanning as a big weekend project. Instead, scan files as you use them.
Naming Schemes Are Vital
As Janine pointed out, many people are afraid to make the switch to digital because they're afraid they won't be able to find their files again. It's a legitimate concern.
Two things that can help with this are:
- Organized digital folders (your framework)
- A clear, consistent naming scheme for your files
How you name your files can depend upon how you organize them. Since Janine has folders for individuals, she names her files with the year of the document, person's name, and type of document. (Like 1884-John Smith-will.jpg) This allows her to have a chronological listing of what she has.
Because I arrange my digital files by location, I name mine with the person's name, the type of document, year, and location. (For example, Ramsey-John_will_1884_PerryCoOH.jpg. This allows me to see what I have for each person within a location.)
Don't hesitate to rename the files that you download from the Internet. Just because the website named the file TN-12345abc6789.jpg, doesn't mean you have to keep it that way. Change the name so that it fits how you organize.
Tip: No matter how you name your files, be sure to include the person's name rather than their relationship to you. Ralph-Ramsey-Christmas-1972.jpg rather than Grandpa_Christmas-1972.jpg. This will alleviate any ambiguity as to who it is. (Otherwise, people years from now will wonder who "Grandpa" is.)
Organize Your Backups
Backups have to be a part of your organization. (You do have backups, right?) While paper tends to do alright with "benign neglect," digital files are a whole different animal. Remember the LOCKSS principle: Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.
Are you making regular backups? Are you checking that your backups are actually working? (Are you sure that your cloud backup is working like you think and that your external hard drive is still functioning?)
No Organization System Is Perfect
As genealogists, we want to do things "right," and that includes organizing the "right" way. Fortunately, the "right" way is how it makes sense to you and how you can sustain it. (Janine mentioned that she changed how she names her files because her first way was too complicated.)
No system is perfect. But the great thing is that you can tweak your system as you go. If you're waiting to start organizing until you develop the "perfect" organization system, unfortunately, you're never going to get it organized. Don't let perfection stand in the way of progress.
Resources Mentioned in This Episode:
- Janine's Organize Your Family History blog
- Organize Your Genealogy: Strategies and Solutions for Every Researcher, by Drew Smith (Family Tree Books, 2016)
(Disclaimer: the link to Drew Smith's book on Amazon is an affiliate link, meaning that I could be paid a commission when you purchase through that link.)