Preserving Your Family History Documents

Memories Worth Saving!

Family History Documents

     Trying to find ways to preserving your family history documents can seem, at times, daunting. Do you keep a paper file system and numerous file cabinets around the room, or do you go digital? There are still a variety of paper organizational systems out there to explore. With the "Digital Age" well upon us however, keeping paper records just seems foreign to me. If I tried to keep a paper based file system to store all the documents and photos I have, my office area would look just like that in the photo to the right.

Below is a list of Pros/Cons for each:

Paper File Systems

  • Some of us in the "older" generation love to have things on paper that we can hold.
  • As the document collection continues, we end buying yet another file cabinet to store them in.
  • Unless the file system is forever meticulously kept up to date, trying to find specific document can become a problem.
  • The documents pretty much stay stuck in a home office in file cabinets and are not seen or shared with other extended family members.
  • You may know what you have, but others will not know what documents you have. For example, you may have a birth certificate on a great grandfather, perhaps purchased. Another person, researching that same person, may go to great lengths and probably some money invested in getting the same document.
  • Paper documents are not easily shareable without a scanner or copier to use.
  • Can you imagine what will probably happen with all your paper files when you are no longer around? We often found boxes of family history photos, documents, books, and such dropped off at our local FamilySearch Center because family didn't want them. It is also NOT uncommon to see those boxes out on the curb waiting for the sanitation department folks to pick them up.

Digital File Systems

  • Creating digital documents does require some digital equipment, like a scanner for example. However, SmartPhones now have good cameras and apps that can create photos or PDF type images so easily.
  • Digital file systems allow for easy searching of files where filenames have good descriptions in them.
  • Adding "Metadata" to the file increases the searchability significantly allowing a search of many thousands of digital documents to occur in seconds.
  • Using "Shared Folders" in Cloud Drives makes it easy to share files with others and to collaborate. Sharing a folder does not mean that the other person(s) can modify or delete your files. You set the conditions of a shared folder.
  • Having digital files does increase work load a bit, as you figure out how to safely backup your hard drive filled with documents. You will want to make frequent backups or copies onto multiple drives and with at least one copy "off site" (in the cloud or at a family member's home or such). See the webpage on backing up your files.
  • A folder management system can be very much the same as a paper one, but can be easily modified, folders renamed or added to, or split, moved, and such.
  • Oh, I forgot to mention that you can now pass on all those file cabinets you have collected and enjoy a more spacious office area.

What Things Are Helpful to Know With Digital Documents?


     You will have to learn how to best control the lighting on the document and also how to not skew (tilt) your phone or your document will be skewed in appearance. A lightbox is helpful for these issues. Also, good software like a PDF scanner app is needed. I use Scanner Pro (by Readdle) which allows me to scan multiple pages into a single PDF, and also to scan books.


     A flatbed is probably the most practical to own, albeit slow if you are wanting to scan a multiple page document, which will then require a program to assemble all the scanned pages into a single PDF. Flatbeds are great for fragile paper documents, photos, single page documents and such. There are a variety of ways to take those single pages scanned from a history document let's say, and pull them all together into a SINGLE PDF file. Most any PDF app can do this easily. Using Microsoft Word to create a PDF files is another way. There are also online services that will combine a group of scanned "jpegs" and assemble them into a single PDF as well.

     Rapid scanners can take a stack of pages, such as with a history, and scan front and back in a very quick manner and then assemble them to a single PDF file. They are a bit more costly however.

Paper or Digital Files?

     You may find that your paper organization system works well, so you just need to begin to re-create your computer folders in the same way. Digital files have to be named and there are a variety of systems promoted online. I prefer shorter names than used in many of the systems I have explored. Don't forget that you can also use "tags" and Keywords to help make your documents easily searchable. This is a great way to implement into your file system.

     Finding an organizational system for your family history documents is an important process to master. There's nothing more frustrating than to know that you have that birth certificate "somewhere" but can't find it.

    Storing them on a computer in a disorganized fashion can also create a frustrating situation when you can not find them. I have frequently seen extensive disorganization of files with patrons that I have worked with. Files were so scattered across their hard drives and without specific filenames. There was no way anyone could find them except to go through all the folders on their drives. In addition, how can you make good backups of your files if you do not know where they are? Explore some options by clicking on the links below.

Family History Education Website Links

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