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Organizing Family History Documents

How do you organize your family history documents? This can be a daunting task with ancestral photos, research logs, histories, certificates, and so on. A well organized "file cabinet" of family history information makes it easy to find things.

While there are many different options discussed "out there", many of them have common options.

Some Tips Are Described Below:
  • Put all your family history files under a common folder, such as "My Family History". This keeps them all centralized and easy to backup.
  • Most will want to organize their folders by Surname. Create separate folders for your family surnames.
  • Under the Surname folders, you will likely want to keep your documents/photos under a specific folder, such as the person they belong to. Create folders with that individuals name.
  • How you further organize under those folders will be up to you.
Other Folder Organizing Options to Consider:
  • 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.

For my family history files under a surname folder, I create subfolders with the names of the individuals. Notice in the "Sample Images" popup that there are dates in front of the individual's name. This is so that the computer will sort the names in chronological order. I also placed the married names in parenthesis. If the female had more than one husband I would note that as (husband 1, husband 2, etc).
There are several different ways to file your documents. I used to create subfolders such as "Documents", "Certificates", "Photos", "Research", etc. however after awhile, I soon found that I like a "Time-Line" view of all files. There are not so many subfolders this way. All the files sort by year, so birth information is at the top and death events or documents at the end of the timeline.

Tips For Naming Your Files:
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • If the time period for the event is more broad, say 1930 to 1950, I could simply name the file as 1930-1950 - "+filename" or 1930-50 - "+filename".
  • I will also name a file by the type of document it is. For example: 1892 - Marriage - John A McBride With Emily Bonnefield or 1903 - Death Notice - James Harris McBride, or 1926 - Newspaper Article - John McAninch.

What about documents that mention several individuals in it? I used to create "shortcuts" to that main document and placed those shortcuts into each individual's folder. However, over time and as I moved files around, those shortcuts became invalid.
Some other options to consider might be those below:

  • Because computer storage is fairly inexpensive, you might consider putting a copy of the photo or document mentioning several people into each of their folders. The disadvantage? Suppose you want to make an edit of the photo. You would have multiple photo edits to do, or copying multiple files to the folders again.
  • Another option is to leave the main document or image copy in the "Head of Household's" folder. You could create a small text file noting that there are other files pertaining to this person in Individual "X's" folder.

There is no specific way to handle situations like this, however, as you think about beginning to file your documents into some organizational pattern, just thinking about the options you have are going to go a long way in saving you future time.

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"Surname Folder"
"Individual's Folder"
"Event or Document Folder"

Organize Your Family History Documents


Surnames
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Individuals
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Events
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Our heritage and that of our ancestors will be lost to subsequent generations unless we actively take steps to preserve it.

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Stephen A Meyers
Idaho Falls, Idaho

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