Organizing Your Genealogy Files: A Practical Approach

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.

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Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 15

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.)
Length: 34 minutes.

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:

(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.)

Organizing Your Genealogy - a practical approach

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  • Thank you for this most helpful article !! A challenge for me right now, is that I have everything on my company laptop. I will soon buy my own because I am nervous about losing my literal tons of data. I would rather lose a limb …

  • Flashdrives or thumb drives can be useful for transferring files from one place to another. If the files are too great in number, split them up between several. I’m not up on the latest technology but this has worked for me
    Just a hint

    • Flashdrives/thumb drives are good for transferring data between computers. However, they are not good for long-term storage. The failure rate on them is pretty high. They’re susceptible to damage and they are easily lost. (At least, mine are easily lost!)

        • I have literally dozens of flash drives — my key ring isn’t that big 😉 Joking aside, I have a case that I put them in, but they still are not designed for long-term storage. The failure rate is too high.

  • My digital files are one folder per direct ancestor couple with subs for each child. And it works. My problem is too many backups that are usually out of sync with each other. My desktop drive is primary but I also have everything on my small laptop, plus an external drive plus a monthly USB. And now I’m looking into the cloud. Sigh. The only place I don’t store documents is in Family Tree Maker 2012. I’d appreciate any thoughts from others.

    • For me, automating the backups has made it so much easier. I attach an external hard drive to hub that I plug into my laptop whenever I’m at my desk. Time Machine on my Mac is set to run automatically. And I also have BackBlaze set to run automatically. I love that I don’t have to think about backing up; it just happens.

  • Evernote is a great tool to organize images, text, and citations in one place. Webclipper extension for Chrome allows one to capture web pages and images and put them in the right “notebook” in Evernote. Tags may be used to retrieve materials, and files may be accessed remotely. It does cost $$$ for the unlimited storage edition.

    • Evernote is a great tool for some. (I haven’t quite found a way to make it work for me yet.) Get a good notebook and tag structure in place and it can work well.

  • Good old fashion paper. It never gets lost, reading it is always the same method and unless you plan a fire, it never goes away. Technology is wonderful until it fails and upgrades, which it does pretty fast. This is why we love finding those documents and old registers. They are paper we can actually find and read, even decades later. Not so sure our technology will be that user friendly.

    • Paper does have some advantages, as you mentioned. However, it can (and does) get lost. Fires aren’t always planned. (Just ask the unfortunate people who have lived through the wildfires in the western states last year.) There can be water damage, mold, and even insect damage. (I shudder thinking of some of the dead bugs I found when I was working as an archival intern.)

      Digital files do have challenges, but we shouldn’t pretend that paper doesn’t also have them.

  • I have chosen to keep my digital data by Surname. The folders are labeled with the name, b to d dates (if there is more than one with same name), and spouse name – like this: Webster, George Arnold 1898-1967 (Griffin, m). All pictures and docs go into this folder, including correspondence from DNA matches, or other ‘cousins’ I link up with. I found that this method helps me to determine whether the family from someone who has married into my research family, has married in to another branch of the family. By having the married name, I always have an immediate reference to the other half of a couple by going to that Surname file. I found that this helps reduce the number of folders within folders which makes the computer run slower.

  • A kitchen timer works for me in reducing the “to file” pile on my desk. I can sort, scan, file paper documents in small batches, or one at a time, depending on how long I set the timer–never more than 1 hour.

  • Naming – ALWAYS put surname first, then given name. Everyone in that family line will then end up alphabetically, really helpful when you go back many generations and names are less familiar. Plus their birth date or best guess. I love the suggestion of location in the naming – a big help when looking for Higgins in Iowa, but not in Kentucky.

  • Jeanine is always so flexible in her blog, assures people that if a system works, use it. She suggests ideas, but doesn’t insist one way is the only way. In listening to this, her easy-going way shines.

  • It’s possible the paper copy in your files (that you scan when you need to use it), my be a poorer image than retrieving a digital copy from on online source (I’m thinking census records, especially if the print was made from a microfilm reel at a repository). It may be better to acquire a better digital image, then dispose of the paper copy you have.

    • Definitely! As I’ve been going through my older files, I double-check that I have cited the census in my software and then I toss the paper copy.

  • Nothing has ever appealed to me more than a program like Family Tree Maker where everything is so organized and can be found in a second. No more of the paper jumble like my mother had. Nothing else compares.

  • It’s important to remember that physically organising by name, location, date, etc., are much too tight, and that using indices (as described in https://parallax-viewpoint.blogspot.com/2018/11/organising-digital-resources.html) is entirely more flexible. It would benefit many people to see an archive in action, and see how they organise, and then separately index their resources. They organise by nature/provenance, and then index according to different modes of access (e.g. by name, location, date, etc)

    • Hi Tony. Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. Yes, archives do arrange things by provenance and, as much as possible, keep the original arrangement. However, the files that genealogists are working with are not “archives.” They are working files. In other words, the genealogist needs to create their own original arrangement.

      Yes, if a cousin gives me a photo album, I’m going to keep those photos together because that’s how they were arranged by the person who put the album together; they were purposefully curated that way.

      Our research files, on the other hand, are working files. We as researchers create our own order from them as best suits our research needs. Not putting the material into some semblance of order that best fits how we work with the it hinders our ability to use it.

      • “… by nature or provenance”, Amy. That means that even genealogists can separate census scans from photo scans, from newspaper clippings, from parish records. There are no special cases for understanding the distinction between physical organisation and indexing, whether in a real archive (with index cards) or a “micro-archive” (as our collections effectively are). The reason that people use file (or folder) name encoding is simply because they understand that, and it’s tangible; by and large, they do not understand meta-data, databases, or other opaque forms of digital organisation, which is why I did my follow-up post: ‘Organising More Resources’ (which also has a simple bit of free software to demo an alternative).

  • What a great idea !! I am going to try this. I may not keep up but by June I will be retired & then I will have more time. Can we do 2 in a day to make up if we are away from home ?Now to decide which way I want to approach this.

  • I always have ‘organizing’ on the brain … yet the ‘follow through’ isn’t often as prevalent!! It seems as though my best ideas come when I am nowhere near my files or even a computer. I am always sending myself texts to place-mark what I was thinking and when, of course those texts can pile up as well!

    Anyway, a previous post mentioned having much of their work on a company laptop and it struck a chord with me since there are many occasions that I will be at work early / late and even have time during my lunch to do a little research. What has really been a ‘miracle’ for me in those instances is Google Drive! (I am also attempting to enter the world of Evernote, but have yet to find the time to sit down and really work through it — to see how I can match it up to how my brain works). As for Google Drive, there is no need for USB drives (which I always misplace or break) and no more emailing files to — myself.
    When signing up for a Google/Gmail account, a ton of free storage is already provided. You can download PDFs, jpeg, zip.files, etc… I can use Docs (Word) and Sheets (Excel) for notes and lists right alongside whatever file I download. It also allows for separate folders, sub-folders, and color-coding. For me the biggest benefit is that no matter what computer I am using or where (home, work, library) as long as I save the file to ‘My Drive’ it will be there whenever and wherever I log on again — no transferring files!

    I am also a big fan of plain-old “Bookmarks”, I will bookmark E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G because I am so ‘OCD’ about keeping track of when / where I have found a record or source. The best part is that I can always organize, rename, and arrange my bookmarks in whichever way works for me (locations, families, records, etc…).

      • This may sound crazy, but I have used Google Drive for years and just got to thinking about setting up an account strictly for genealogy work. I’m wondering if folders for surnames, locations, types of document, etc. are even necessary…

        Since GDrive has such great searching capacity, is it possible that one folder and a simple, consistent naming format for all files in a family line is really all that is necessary? For example: A photo named 1996-Thomas, James-Birthday, Hamilton, Cincinnati OH and a document named 1997-Thomas, James-Death Certificate–Whitley, Corbin KY. Both these files could be searchable by any of the individual elements in the title–date, name, location, event…

        Searching for Thomas, James would bring up all photos/documents in the folder with that name in the title. Searching for 1997 would bring up all photos/documents in the folder with that date. Searching Thomas, James AND Birthday would bring up all documents with both elements in the title.

        If I am correct, does this make the need for many folders where documents may reside in more than one location obsolete?

        Your experience and guidance is appreciated!
        Tracy Varner

        • Is it strictly necessary to have them in folders on Google Drive? No. If you’re comfortable that you naming pattern will help you find the documents that you need, go for it!

  • Excellent tips, all. Thank you! One suggestion: Use archival boxes for bulky or large materials that might be damaged, creased, or lost in file folders. Love my label maker for making sure each box is named by surname and/or contents. And if possible, create both an inventory by box and an index by type of document so it’s easy to find someone or something later.

  • This post has been very helpful plus your 5 Strategies advice. Combined they stopped me in my tracks thankfully just 2 weeks into my ancestors research. I had blasted my way back 500 years but left devastation in my wake! Sat down for a few hours and mind mapped a strategy and structure for searches and storage. I always had a good combination of Notability app, Pocket app, Dropbox plus Box when I ran my own consultancy business ….. but was ignoring it! Now resurrected I’ve reconfigured them again for Ancestry.com and Family Tree Maker. So …. thank you, and I cited your advise on my blog post about it too 🙏🙏

  • I just discovered the discussion for this podcast so hope it’s not too late to get some feedback. How do people organize, copy, preserve emails and text messages? I have them in surname folders in my email, but it’s not easy to find information when I need it.

    • That’s a great question, Linda! For the text messages, there are various apps that you can get that will let you download them as a .txt file, which you can save just like any other file.

      Preserving emails are a bit trickier. If you’re using a web-based email like Gmail or Yahoo, you’re kind of dependent upon that service staying in business (though you could download individual messages.) If you’re using email using a program like Apple Mail or Thunderbird, you can download the emails to your computer (and keep that folder backed up like any other).

      Organizing emails by surname can work. For searching, many email programs have a search feature that will let you search the contents of emails in a specific folder. Something else you could do if it is an email that you definitely want to find again is to copy the contents (including the to:, from:, subject: and date: info) into your notes or research log.