Thursday, April 23, 2009

Organizing Your Physical Genealogy Files

Since my most recent post was on organizing your digital genealogy files, I thought it would be appropriate to include some information on organizing your physical genealogy files. There's a good chance you'll eventually want to digitize your physical genealogy files at some point, if you haven't already. It saves a lot of physical space, makes it easier to share your files with others, and helps you preserve your originals in better condition since you won't have to handle them as frequently. However, you'll still have a need to organize and store your certificates, photos and heirlooms for preservation purposes and to be able to find them later. For any individual you research, you can potentially end up with a lot of files, such as birth and death certificates, census records or abstracts, obituaries, wills, and even correspondence with other researchers.

First, you'll want to decide on a filing/organization system that works for you. There is no one right way here. Choose a method that works for you, and that you'll actually use. There are almost as many possible methods as there are individuals. Since I can't delineate all of them, I'll mention the most common options, and give an example of each. You can scour the Internet later for other examples of filing systems.

Some of the most common ways to organize your files are in file folders or binders. These are usually then subdivided or organized according to surname, couple or family, ancestral line, or record type.

If you decide to use a file folder system, you might have a banker's box or file cabinet drawer that you use. You might purchase four different colors of hanging file folders, one for each of your grandparents (this method organization is ancestral line). Then, in each ancestral line, you might have individual manila folders for each couple and their children in that line.

I'll use my own filing system as another example. I use post-type binders that can be purchased at any office supply store. I have one binder for each of my grandparents. (I also use the ancestral line system.) Then, in each binder, I have tabs that separate types of records. For example, I have dividers that are labeled Birth Records, Marriage Records, Death Records, Other Records, Census Records, and Biography/History Records. If my binders get too full, I can separate out each grandparent's line into a separate binder for each record type, etc.

Whatever filing system you decide on, you'll find that you'll have to make some changes to it as you start to use it and discover what works for you and what doesn't. In addition, as your numbers of records grow, you'll have to continue to subdivide records to keep your system organized and make it easy for you to quickly find what you need. In addition, I keep a master records index list on my computer. In this list, I identify every single record I have, the names and identification numbers (from my genealogy software) of the individuals on the record, what the record type is, and which binder it is located in. This makes it easy for me to search for a name in my index and quickly find what records I have and where they are at.

Although genealogists follow standards for research, documentation, etc., the digital and physical filing systems we each use do not have to follow a certain protocol. The most important thing is keeping yourself organized so you can maximize your efforts and research time, and doing it in a way that works for you.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Organizing Your Digital Genealogy Files

Where did that photo of great aunt Jeanine go? You know you saved it on your computer somewhere... As genealogy moves more and more into the digital realm, you'll need to have a system for organizing your digital files. It doesn't have to be complex, and there is no one right way to set up your digital filing system. The important thing is that you have one that works for you.

Start by taking a look at the files you already have on your computer. Are they photos, census records, scanned in birth or death certificates, etc? Consider your current filing system for physical items, like paper certificates and original photos. If you have a good filing system that works for your traditional files, you may want to follow the same type of system in organizing your computer files.

Here are some suggestions for ways to organize your files. Take what ideas work for you, adapt them, combine them, and even comb the web for some more ideas.


  • Keep a central log or index of your digital files. This method can be used no matter how you organize (or don't organize) the files on your computer. Use a spreadsheet or even a table in a word processor. For each file on your computer, note the full name and file extension, the location on your computer, the given name and surname of each individual associated with the file, and brief description. If your genealogy software automatically assigns unique IDs for individuals in your file that don't change, you'll want to include this number in your log, as well. If not, you may want to consider also noting the birth year along with first and last name because, chances are, you have at least a few individuals in your file who share a name. While this method may seem a bit cumbersome in the beginning, it will really pay off as your genealogy database grows larger. In addition, you may choose to organize your files into one central location on your computer or CD-roms, but it isn't an absolute necessity with this system.

  • Personally, I like to keep my digital files in one central location on my system, along with keeping a log. It just makes it that much quicker for me to find, as well as making my genealogy backups much easier. I use a folder called Genealogy in the My Documents folder on my computer. Under that, I break it out into my grandparents' surnames. For example, I have a Witbeck folder, an Ohm folder, a Taylor folder, and a Binney folder. In each of those, I then have a few more subfolders that divide out the digital files by type, such as Photos or Census Records.

  • You can keep the bulk of your digital files on CD if you have limited storage space on your computer. Just give each CD a unique name or number that you can reference in your central log or index so you know what is on each separate disc.

  • Some genealogy software programs will allow you to import all of your digital files into a scrapbook feature, as a source, or into the note fields. This method may work well if your genealogy file is small, but if you have a large file with more names, it's likely this system will very quickly turn from useful into futile.

  • There are software programs designed for organizing digital files. Clooz bills itself as "an electronic filing cabinet that assists you with search and retrieval of important facts that you have found during the ancestor hunt." This software is only available to Windows users, and the current cost is about $40. However, this may take much of the work out of setting up your file system.



Whatever method you choose to organize your digital files, the important thing is that you have a method that works for you. If you take the time now to set up a filing system, you'll reap the rewards later as your files increase and your genealogy research produces more and more results. And you won't ever again have to spend hours digging through your computer looking for that old photo of great aunt Jeanine.