One of the most important things you should do is have a system to organise your genealogy research. It is imperative that before you get too far into your family history research that you set up a good filing system. If there is one thing you get in genealogy it is loads of documents in both paper and digital form. Having a system in place will save you from heartache in the future when you cannot find that document you know you have but are not sure where you put it.
This is one tip I wish I had been given very early on. I have great systems in place now but it took me a long time to sort it out after the fact. Having a good system in place from the beginning will allow you more time to trace your ancestors!
How to Organise Your Files
You need to find a system that works for you. The system that works for me, may not be right for you. It’s about having your paper or digital documents organised so you can easily retrieve them.
Some questions to ask yourself before you start:
- Do I want a paper system or computer system, or both?
- How will I organise my system so I can easily find documents at a later time?
- Do I organise in folders or a filing cabinet?
- Do I file by family groups or do I file by surnames?
- Do I file a woman under her maiden name or married name?
We will start with paper records as most people have original documents of some sort.
I started with folders but I have found that my folders quickly got out of control. Recently, I made the decision to only keep original documents that I have in my possession. If the document is one I have simply printed off the internet from a scan or photo I have downloaded I destroy the paper copy but only after confirming I have a digital copy of it.
So I decided to keep my folders in the system I had created initially. The system I have for my paper records and computer records are fairly similar. I have a folder with dad’s side and a folder with mum’s side. I did this as I have a couple of surnames that are the same but on different sides of the family. Each folder contains dividers with surnames on them and then the documents are in plastic sleeves relevant to that name. It isn’t so out of control now that I’ve started removing copies of digital documents and only keep original documents that I have purchased or inherited. However, if I do find my documents increasing I can go to filing under my grandparent’s names.
I know some people who prefer to do their family history on paper still and for them having a well-organised filing system would be imperative. If I were to return to paper-based only I would dedicate a filing cabinet solely to my genealogy research.
Many genealogists embrace computers for storing their research and organising digital files is as simple as dragging and dropping to the right folder. I originally had the documents on my computer organised into folders similar to my paper folders – one for dads and one for mums. Each of these folders held a folder for each surname. This system came unstuck when I purchased Family Tree Maker (FTM) software.
FTM automatically puts files into a dedicated folder, something I didn’t realise until I had added hundreds of records. There is the option to link to where the file is held but by the time I worked this out I was well invested in their folder. This meant I now had two copies of every file on my computer – one in the FTM folder and one in my system. So I changed my system and only kept the copy that is in the FTM folder.
However, this means I have all my documents in one folder. If I am using the FTM it is simply a case of finding the person and opening the document from there. Now, this folder contains over 3000 items that are attached to my FTM tree. Sometimes I don’t want to go to the trouble of opening the program to find one document. This is where having a clear naming system is a must because it means I can go to the computer folder and find a document. I have spent many hours naming items in a consistent manner that allows me to find something quickly.
For all my documents I name them by Year-Month-Day SURNAME Given Name Document Details. Or for a photo, I put Year-Month-Day Location SURNAME Given Name Photo Details. I also do this with all my non-genealogy files and it is a great system to find what I need.
- 1867-05-12 WALKER Aaron Birth Certificate Original Document
- 1888-06-22 WALKER Aaron and WASHBROOK Alice Elizabeth Marriage Certificate Original Document
- 1949-05-08 WALKER (Stokes) Dorcas Death Certificate Original – for a woman I put their name their death was registered under with their maiden name in brackets.
- 1891 WALKER Aaron, Alice Elizabeth, Phoebe, Sarah England Census Original Document
- 1891 WALKER Aaron, Alice Elizabeth, Phoebe, Sarah England Census Transcription – I usually have two documents for a Census – a transcription and the original document. These are clearly identified. Note this is the only time I would file a female under her married name.
Often a photo won’t have a date so you will need to approximate. Sometimes you will be lucky and a fastidious ancestor will have written the date or names on the back of a photo. I use this system for all my photos and spent many hours organising this system. I catalogue my digital photos as I take them. Photos are sorted into folders for each year (decade for much older photos where there are fewer), and for each event e.g. wedding or holiday. It makes retrieval easier because I can go to a year or event to find the photo I know exists. So the different ways I would label photos:
C.1904 Staffordshire WALKER Sarah, Phoebe, Howard, Abraham, Alice, Aaron
I have used C.1904 (circa) because I haven’t got an exact year. I decided on 1904 as the baby, Alice, was born in 1902 and she looks about two years old in the photo. I have also assumed the location is Staffordshire but as they were born, raised, and died there it is highly probable the photo was taken in the county.
1920-06-10 Perth, WA. BRAND Fletcher Alderwin and MATHESON Gladys Gwendoline Wedding
I know the photo is of their wedding so I can assume that this would be the correct date for this photo.
The Maiden versus Married Name Dilemma
I initially struggled with this question – do I leave females with their birth family or place them with their married family? Or do I leave their maiden name documents in their birth surname and put their married documents with their married surname? But what if they married again – then they would be in three sections? So, as most genealogists do, I started to always leave females documents in their maiden name folder. It does get confusing at times, but with a good organisation system you should always be able to find a document.
Now if you take nothing on board today please take on the following:
I cannot state this enough. Backup your work! Hard drive crashes do happen, and if you don’t have a nerdy brother who has access to top-notch recovery equipment (as I’m lucky enough to have) then you need to make sure that you backup your computer. I have every document and photo in my possession scanned into a digital file so if something occurred to destroy them I will always have a record. So I ensure I backup my computer. I have a number of backup systems so if one fails there is another.
Backup your whole computer
Using a Mac I have access to their Time Machine backup system. I have two external hard drives that are solely for a Time Machine backup. I just plug them into my computer, hit backup now and my computer takes care of the rest. One stays in my fire safe and the other is stored offsite. I routinely backup on a Monday but will sometimes back up again during the week if I’ve been particularly busy working on my computer.
Backup of select files
I also have two external hard drives dedicated to backing up folders and files on my computer. This is a bit more labour intensive than an automatic backup but it is a slightly different backup. I just copy the folder on my computer and then paste it into the external hard drive. Again one is stored in my fire safe and one offsite.
Backup to a Cloud Service
I personally use Dropbox but there are many out there including Google Cloud Platform and Apple iCloud. Now I like to work offline at times so I don’t store my documents in the cloud, I simply backup to the cloud. This gives me access to my files without an internet connection. To do this I use an app called MacDropAny where I can sync a specific folder into my Dropbox.
When I work offline and return to an internet connection the changed documents automatically backup to Dropbox. This works in reverse as well. If I am working on another computer I open the document from Dropbox and the next time I use my computer it syncs automatically. I like having the flexibility to work on my documents without an internet connection or on another computer and knowing that it will automatically sync when I open both again.
I hope that you have found this post useful to organise your genealogy research. Find more Tips and Tricks here. As you can see the systems I have in place can easily be carried over to your other files as well. So find a system that works for you but don’t hesitate to change or revamp it if it isn’t working for you. Happy organising!
What system do you use to organise your genealogy records? Please comment below as I am always looking for better systems.