How I Organize My Genealogy Files

I haven’t been posting to the site in recent months because I’ve been so busy with clients and with the genealogy stash I inherited; mostly I have been busy filing away the boxes that arrived on my doorstep not long ago, then sifting through the data and getting it into Scrivener with citations, so that I can then move it into Word, as I’ve written about in a previous post.

So I thought that today I would write about how I organize my files, both electronically and hard copy–

Two filing systems

In a February 2011 UGA webinar, genealogist Janet Hovorka warned that reliance on one medium for preserving our history is dangerous because paper burns and electronic files can become corrupted or accidentally deleted, so we are safest when we keep backups of *both* types. I try to do the same.

While I don’t actively print off everything I create (I try to run a paperless office and help the environment), whenever I *do* print a family chart for a relative or child’s school project that ends up having a typo and needs to be re-printed, instead of tossing the first bad draft, I instead keep it as a backup in my family binder, and simply write over the offending word(s), correcting it with a pen, thus eventually (and innocently!) compiling a binder of backup forms and data over time while helping the environment (by reducing waste, because I didn’t throw out all the typo pages). I do the same when printing records or photos for others that come out to faint or crooked–those go into my own backup genealogy files as well, so that I end up with a lovely hard copy reserve to my wonderful digital storage! 🙂

(incidentally, for those who want to see Hovorka’s webinar about preservation, if you join the Utah Genealogical Association’s virtual chapter, you can watch all their past webinars as a perk of membership! Their association is low cost, sends out a great magazine, and is dedicated to general genealogy topics, which is why they have a virtual chapter, because so many researchers nationwide want to join them! I really enjoy this group–they come highly recommended by me. Here’s a link:

My Digital Files

I like to think that I have read pretty much every genealogy book ever written (and the periodicals and articles about genealogy organization, too), but because I’ve worked as a professional genealogist for seventeen years now, I’ve been forced to toss most authors’ advice on organization and come up with my *own* system that works for me. So most of you reading this post might have to do the same for yourselves. I’ve read articles that suggest you organize your files by date, by couple, by geography, you name it. But here is what worked for me, in the end–

–I keep all my files in two main sections or halves; maternal and paternal. This is out of necessity because I interact so often with my maternal and paternal cousins in two different reunions, two different Facebook groups regarding our ancestry, and because I am building two different web sites for them to help them stay involved in our very separate “causes.” So out of necessity, my family files must stay divided in two, because of the way I see them and meet with them as two distinct families in my own life.

–Then within those two sections, I have all the files numbered according to the Ahnentafel numbering system. I leave myself out of it, so in the maternal half, my mother is number one, and in the paternal file set, my dad is number one, and each ascending ancestor is then subsequently numbered accordingly. My mom is currently married to someone else and I have a stepdad, but I am not working on his genealogy; should I ever inherit it, I will give him a third file and number him number one, as well! 🙂

If you don’t know how to do Ahnentafel numbering, here is a quick tutorial video:

(BTW–Technically, in my pedigree, I should be number one. But I started genealogy at such a young age–most other genealogists out there are my mom’s age and *they* are number one, so by making my parents number one and making myself an italicized “i,” I am doing nothing amiss, trust me. This is what happens when young’uns get into genealogy before their prime, lol!).

Here is a photo, to show you what this looks like:

Screenshot of tdgen file organization

–Then, as you can see in the photo, each ancestor has their own sub-folders, inside which I keep their records, which I label by date, so that they form a sort of timeline within the folders. I LOVE the timelines they create in my file screen, which tell me at a glance if there are any spans of time missing from my research!

Here is another screenshot, which shows you a female ancestor, so that you can see the sub-folder system I keep for the children of these direct-line ancestors, too. I keep them with their mothers because we had some divorce and remarriage in my ancestry that resulted in second wives and children while first wives were still living, so to keep the new wives and their children separate from MY ancestresses and their children, this was more organized than putting child folders with fathers. Plus, I feel that those women deserve special credit/kudos for birthing those entire generations of our family! 😉

Screen Shot of TDGEn file organization 2

Hard Copy Records

For my tangible records, I keep something similar to the folder structure you saw in the screenshots above: “photos, records, reports.” Those are the three main categories I work with most often, and I like to keep them separate and organized (because I do *not* like binders with reports and historical documents all mish-mashed together and falling apart at the seams; I much prefer to see things neat and sorted by category!) , so here is how I do that:

TDGEen desk stuff

I do like to staple a spare pedigree, individual report, or family group record onto the inside of each person’s folder as a sort of reference, however, so that I’m not constantly flipping between binders and folders all day. But I must keep all reports and historical documents separate in my system, just as a picky child I once knew liked to eat all of their foods on separate plates for fear they might touch each other (haha!).

Also, I am trying to re-label all my hard copy files with Ahnentafel numbers, as I did not do this when I first started throwing documents into folders years ago. That is slow going. If you haven’t started numbering your files yet, pick up a copy of Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s book Organizing Your Family History Search. I think I like her ideas for numbering tangible files better than my own paper folder system–I wish I had heard about her system years ago! When I get the time, I might try to implement it; who knows, maybe one day when the kiddos are grown . . .

Now, you won’t see me lugging any of this stuff (file box, binder, or photo box) to any repositories with me–I just take my laptop, a few crucial copies/reports, legal pads, cell camera, and some empty file folders and thumb drives  with me, and that’s it (see this post about my travel bag). Again, I try to run a paperless office whenever possible.

BUT I keep these binders of printouts and folders full of files and boxes full of photos as backups for a safety precaution. If, while I’m out traveling for a client, my laptop were stolen or damaged somehow, I would be able to pull my data out of the cloud, yes. But if the cloud were somehow compromised (it has happened before!), I could call my husband and have him fax me my paper copies from the home office. Keeping backups of all types help prevent catastrophes from devastating your family history preservation efforts, and keeping an organized system makes it easy for the folks at home to retrieve stuff for me even when I’m not there!

Now, for those of you who think I am crazy for keeping my photos and my historical documents and my pedigrees apart (“they belong TOGETHER!” you might be thinking), please do not fret! I want you to know that I DO believe in combining them for family scrapbooks. This is my *professional* system for staying organized and focused as a researcher. When it comes time to make a family scrapbook, I am all for compiling a work of art–like a quilt–where you lovingly piece all three components together. But when I am researching, I want my data sorted, organized, and TIDY.

My mom does the “quilting” in our family right now. She carefully pastes photos and stories onto paper, slides them into plastic sheets and puts them into binders with some glossy color copies and sends them around as Christmas gifts to extended family so they can get to know our ancestors better. Me, I have five children ranging from elementary to high school plus a thriving client business, so I have zero time for such things, but I hope to make time for efforts like hers one day! If I did have the time, I dream of sitting down and putting all of my work on the ancestors into a project like these heirloom-quality books from MyCanvas, then ordering nice, hardbound, glossy-paged copies for all of my siblings and children and maybe even my cousins:

But for now, I’m too busy organizing, filing, typing up citations, and proving identities and kinships, so that dream will have to wait! 🙂

For the rest of you, there is a fab class on how to build your own family history scrapbooks in MyCanvas coming up–you might want to check it out, it sounds amazing! Here is a link:

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