Organizing Your Digital Files

Use the analogy of metal file cabinets:

  1. Each file cabinet had typically 4 drawers
  2. Each drawer holds separate labeled hanging file folders
  3. Each labeled hanging file folder holds a variety of separate labeled manila folders
  4. Each labeled manila folder holds the actual documents
Digital computer files are organized very similarly. How do you organize your digital files on your computer? Have you just stuffed your files into any drawer, hanging file folder, or manila folder because you didn't know where to put them? Are they scattered all over your hard drive? By not keeping your files more centralized, and in searchable folders, they will not be easy to find. Probably the most important aspect is that you can not be assured that they are being backed up.

There are many different strategies that can be used. I have included a couple of examples below, one for photos, and one for photographs & documents.

Digital files also have the ability to contain "metadata" within the file structure. What this means is that you can put searchable tags, names, dates, contents, etc into the metadata fields that are viewed by looking at the file's "Properties" values.


Organize Photographs

Option One - Organizing Your Photos

The following is only one of many different ways to organize your family photos. The most important thing is that they ARE organized so that they are not strewn across multiple flash drives, hard drives, or even across your "C" drive.

#1) I created a digital "File Cabinet" or folder called "Photos". This is important so that ALL your family photos are under ONE CENTRAL PLACE.

#2) Because we moved around quite a bit through our married years due to education and Navy pursuits, we chose to organize our photos based on where we lived. These different locations are the "File Drawers".

I did place a number before the location so that the computer would automatically sort the locations into a time sequence.

You may not have lived anywhere but in Idaho Falls, and so your folders may only reflect the different years.

#3) In each "Cabinet Drawer" are "Hanging File Folders" to organize the photos by YEARS.

#4) Each "Hanging File Folder" contains multiple "Manila Folders" that contain the different events for that year. The events start with a NUMBER because the computer will then sort those folders into the proper order.

#5) The scanned photos are then placed into their "Manila Folder". This keeps them organized into these folders according to the activity or event they represent.

You will want to label the photos with the names of the people in them. If there are more than 2 or 3, then add additional space to the bottom of the photograph so that you can write some descriptive text below the photo. Click to learn how to do this.

There are additional organizational steps that you can take to make your files more easily searchable through the use of "Metadata". This is the ability to put additional descriptive information inside the actual image file. You don't see this information, except if you look at the "Properties" of the image. If you right click on the image, then click on"Properties", then the "Details" tab, you can find numerous data fields that can be used for additional information.


Option Two - Organizing Your Photos

Another option some have chosen, is to simply begin labelling your photos with a sorting date such as "198609" for September 1986 followed by a description of the photo. You may choose to subcategorize the description by adding the "event name", like the example below. "Boise Trip", "Yellowstone Camp Trip", etc.


The photos could be in a single folder and would sort by year, month, and then the event type.

The principal disadvantage in creating these LONG filenames being able to view the whole filename in a browser. "Clipping" of the filename as seen above begins to occur.

Again, this is just another of many different types of organizational strategies that could be used.

Option Three - Organizing Your Photos

Another option that some may choose, is to use special software called "Digital Asset Managers". These programs can help you organize your photographs, applying digital tags that can quickly allow you to sort through thousands of photographs, alter the "metadata", and do a host of of other things.

Among these types of asset managers are darkTable (a free open source application), Adobe Bridge (also free), Luminar 3, ACDSee, Adobe PhotoShop Elements, Adobe LightRoom, and many others. The image below is from darkTable.

Pro: These apps can really help organize a lot of photos quickly.
Con: There is a learning curve to using them and what happens in the future if the software is no longer supported? (Typically, the organizational structure and metadata you set up while using it are preserved)


Organize Documents

Organize Your Family History Documents
One Option

For my family history files, I have both photos and documents mixed together in contrast to having just organized family photographs. In this case I created a folder called SURNAMES (not seen below) and then created a list of family surnames for my ancestors.
In the examples below, I have a screenshot of my Rasmussen ancestors. You will see that I have placed a birth year in front of their names. This is helpful, for example, if you have multiple people with the same names. For example, my great grandfather's name was Charles Meyers, as well as my grandfather and my father. With the birth years noted, I can more quickly find them in the list. You will also notice that there are female names with their married name in parenthesis. If there were multiple marriages, place each in the parenthesis.
Inside the individual's folder, I have my documents and photos combined and sorted by year. This quickly gives me a "time-line" view of all the content events. Several tips:
  1. If I do not know the exact year, but know the event was between 1910 and 1920, I just place a 's' after the year as 1910s.
  2. I may be lucky and know the month of the photo as well, so I may list a photo or document as 1918(11) - "+filename".
  3. If the time period for the event is more broad, say 1930 to 1950, I could simply name the file as 1930-1950 - "+filename".
The important thing to remember is that with numbers at the front, computers will sort by numerical sequence first. Again, this is only one way of organizing your digital documents, but at least all the folder contents are under one folder. What can you do with a digital file that pertains to several different people, such as a photo that has three people in it? There are again many different options, but one is to simply duplicate that file into each of the file folders for those individuals. Does this create "duplicate files"? Yes, but hard drive space is SO inexpensive today that it really does not use up a lot of space. Another option is to keep the primary file in one individual's folder, and then create "shortcuts" to that file and place the shortcuts into the other individual's folders. I have found this to create broken shortcuts over time as I move a file around and so I no longer do this. If the photo is a family photo (father, mother, children), then simply place that photo in the father's folder, since he is the "head of household".
Another option to think about is to keep the "non-direct line" spouse in a folder under your ancestor's folder, along with folders for each of the children. When the children themselves start their own families at marriage, create a new file folder with the "year - name" format and place it under the appropriate surname folder. This does split information, such as photos and documents but does keep "families" together under one head of household.

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