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Organizing Your Family History Documents

Helpful Tips


It's amazing how many people I have worked with over the years that struggle greatly with file organization. Files were found all over their hard drives, even in Windows System folders, in the "root directory", or the Program Files folder. When scattered all over the hard drive, these files essentially become "lost". Scattered files and folders become very hard to back up when they can not be easily located.

How will you organize your digital collections? The most important piece of advice? Keep your collections under one primary folder. Typically "operating systems" like Windows or Macintosh will have a "My Documents" folder. You can use this data folder as a good starting point in centralizing your family history documents. Under this primary "My Documents" folder, you could create a "My Family History" folder.

By keeping all your file centralized under one principal folder, this also allows you to easily backup your entire family history document collection. AVOID putting your centralized folder in the "root directory" on the system disk. In other words, you should not see something like this: c:/My Family History. Trust me on this as the reasoning behind this is to complicated to fully explain here. It does involve however the ability to restore your Windows operating system and not overwrite your data files that are in the root directory.

Suggested Tips

  • Creating good filenames goes a long way towards helping you later search for that file using your operating systems file explorer. Describe what the file is about. Is it a census record, an obituary, birth certificate, scanned story, and so forth? An example of a filename might be:
    1874, Birth Record, John McBride, Placer, California
    The filename doesn't have to be grammatically correct. The elements of the file content are in the filename and allow for searchability. There are other ways to create your filenames as noted below.
  • I would suggest putting a date in front of your file names. By doing so, your files will always be sortable and can display in a timeline list. It is also helpful in creating search criteria. This is my preference only and you may decide you don't like seeing years in front of the filename.
    1874 - Birth Record - John McBride in Place, California

    Dates are easily sorted in the following formats:
    19840326 for 26 March 1984
    198403 for March 1984 OR
    1984(03) for March 1984 - the month tends to stand out more
  • Let's say you have a digital document where you are uncertain as to what time period they were created. These could be old letters that your grandfather wrote to his family. Just estimate a time period. If you estimate that the leltters were probably written some time between 1940 to 1949, then just put a little "s" after 1940 like this.
    1940s - Letter - Charles Hudson to Son Allen Hudson

    The file will sort in the group of photos that have 1940 in front of them. I would avoid using the "tilde" (~) before the year to represent "about" (~1940) or using the word "about" in front of the year. You lose the ability to sort files in a folder. You could do something like "1910~" but I'm not sure that would be clear to everyone, but hey, you are in charge.
  • The question comes up whether you should put spaces between certain characters. It is perhaps a visual preference. I like to put spaces before and after the character "-" as you have probably noted in the filenames above. If you don't use them, the filename just becomes a single long string of connected characters that may not display as well in the File Explorer.

    There is nothing magical about using spaces between characters. Some of us still remember the old days of MS Dos where we were limited to only EIGHT characters. We can now have up to 256 characters in a filename, but that does any and all the number of characters of the subfolders as well.
  • If the time period for the event is more broad, say 1930 to 1950, you could name the file as such:
    1930-1950 - Letter - Charles Hudson to Son Allen Hudson OR
    1930 to 50 - Letter - Charles Hudson to Son Allen Hudson

    There is no set way to do this, but if you keep the numbers in front of the filename, creating search criteria is easier, and the filenames still sort in a "timeline" fashion.
  • I will also add other information following the date to show what type of document it is. Examples could include:
    1892 - Marriage - John A McBride to Emily Bonnefield OR
    1913 - Travel to Londonderry - John McAninch to Visit Family OR
    1903 - Death Notice - James Harris McBride OR
    1926 - Newspaper Article - John McAninch and His Stagecoach Business

  • I would recommend keeping those filenames fairly short, probably around 60 characters is good. If they become too long, the filenames are "clipped" or become less easily visible in the File Explorer.
  • Another important aspect of naming files. A large percentage of computer users are likely Windows users, and NTFS is the most commmon file system used. If you are an Apple Mac user, the most common file system is MacOS. They are pretty much compatible in reading filenames, but with slight differences.

    For Apple MacOS users, you are only limited to not using the character ":" (a colon). You also can not start a filename with a "." (period).

    For Windows users, you can not use these characters: / ? < > \ : * | " and also any character you can type with the Ctrl key.

Organize Your Documents by Surnames

The following represents various subfolders. In the "My Family History" folder (or whatever you have named your folder), there is a "Surname" folder of common ancestors and collateral line cousins. Under each surname folder are located the specific individuals for that surname. I typically put a birth year in front of the name, as it helps to create a sorted "timeline". Under each individual's folder are located the "events", like certificates, photos, obituaries, newspaper articles, etc.


Add Birth Years Before Individual's Names


By adding the birth year before your ancestor's name, the names in your main surname folder will be sorted by these birth years. This is helpful if you have several generations of "Charles Meyers". You more quickly focus on the one person you want to look at.

Add Married Names to Women's Names


If your female relative gets married, put their married name in parentheses, such as Margaret McBride (Hudson). If there are several marriages, then put each of the married names separated by a comma in the parentheses such as Lennettie Faye Cowley (Rasmussen, Ericksen, Mosley, Davis).

Keep Spouse's Together In Your Folders


You could keep the spouse(s) and their children in the same folder as your direct ancestor or collateral line cousin instead of creating additional separate folders for them. This will minimize the number of subfolders you create. This is also helpful if you don't really have all that much information about them.

Keep Families Together

Image #1
Image #2

There is a pretty good reason for keeping a family together under your primary ancestor. This might include the spouse as well. There will likely be many photos and documents that pertain to members of the family. You will minimize duplication of these files by keeping them in this family group.

Image #1: My great-aunt Blossom Rasmussen (Fellner) had a husband and one daughter. They are listed under a subfolder called "Family".

Notice also a folder called "Photos". There is a folder with "Personal" photos. You can keep all the photos of your ancestor's early life, up until they get married and start their own family. When their family starts, all new photos would go under the "Family" photos subfolder.

In the case of Blossom's husband, Albert, any photos of his early life would go under his folder. The same for LeVon, their child.

Image #2: Let's say you have some information about Albert's family or even their daughter LeVon. Albert is the spouse of a great-aunt, so his family is not really in my family line. What do I do with Albert's family's information? Probably the best solution is to upload to FamilySearch, and then you don't have to store it in your own folders. However, you could just create a "Family" subfolder under Albert and place his family members in there. The same would be the case for LeVon and her family information, though she never got married.

Here's another scenario. If you are keeping all the photos from a child's early life until marriage in the family folder, what do you do with the photos of this child's, now adult's married family life? If they are direct line ancestors, do you just keep the early life photos with the family and married life photos in their folder? This is where it can get rather convoluted.

I personally would leave the photos or documents separated. For example, I have a lot of photos and documents of my great grandmother. I keep all of her early life items in her folder, but once she got married to Charles Hudson, she now belongs to a family. Any photos that pertain to she and her family would go into the "Family" folder under her husband.

However, documents that pertain to her, like certificates, newspaper articles, stories, obituary, and so on would be kept in HER folder.

It's not purely black and white in these situations. You will just have to think this through in your own mind and decide what you want to do.

Example of a "Timeline"


Notice the image on the right. There are a couple of folders labeled with dates. I kept all of my dad's Navy Days photos and documents together in one folder. That was also the case of his University Graduation. There is also a folder (not imaged) of all of his university, medical degree, and state licenses that I kept in one folder.

If I am looking in his folder for a specific file (photo or document), using the dates, I can more quickly hone down my search to a specific period of his life.

Example of Multiple Subfolders


When I first started out, I created multiple subfolder like those in the image to the right. Other subfolders could have been "Videos", and so on. I found that having to look through multiple subfolders for an item became more tedious. I stopped using this type of folder organization probably 25 years ago. You can always use a hybrid of this type of organization though.

What to Do With Items Where Multiple People Are Listed?

We all have family photos or stories that belong to MULTIPLE family members. Where do you store those items? If they are stored in a sibling's folder, how do I know there is a photo or document for a different individual?

Option One:
Because computer storage is fairly inexpensive, you could consider putting a copy of the photo or document containing several people into each of their folders. The disadvantage? Suppose you want to make an edit of the photo or a document. You would have multiple file edits to do, or 1 file edit and then have to copy the newly edited file back into the separate folders again. I had initially done this years ago, but stopped after awhile, when realizing the above issues. If you have finalized versions of photos and documents, then this option would be a viable one.

Option Two: I used to create file shortcuts to the directory holding the actual file. For example, let's say there is a history of my grandfather that mentions several different people in it. I could create a "shortcut" to that file and place these shortcuts into each of the individual's folders. The shortcuts are not actual files, but use an icon to look like a file, but when "opened", it opens the actual file in the folder where it is located. This actually works quite well … until you start moving or reorganizing your file folder structure. Once you do that, the shortcut link becomes broken.

Option Three: Metadata!!! You can have ONE photo, but everyone in the photo will be tagged to that photo, and therefore easily searchable. Metadata is a great way to add dimension to your subfolders.

Option Four (Best): Upload all those photos and documents to FamilySearch, where you can tag or attach many different people to one file. FamilySearch becomes the database for your digital documents and photos. Those items also become easily shareable with other family members.

What is Metadata?

Metadata is "invisible" data that is embedded within the digital file and will always stay with the file. This invisible data includes items such as titles, descriptions, keywords, location data such as city, state, & country, along with many other items.

Photo metadata is a little different than document metadata. How you create metadata for documents depends on the software being used. Not all of the fields are available as they are with photos. For example, Microsoft Word allows you to add some searchable fields in the "File Properties - Summary" tab. Available fields to use include the following fields: Title, Subject, Keywords, Comments. However it is great to note that Windows File Explorer or Apple Finder, both do a great job at searching through all Properties Fields, as well as the filename and also the words that are in the document itself.

An example: My wife is a great journal keeper of all the different family events that have happened in our lives. She has kept a computer journal since the 1970s. There are many times that we will think about a family in a past place of residence, or when we camped in Yosemite, or whatever event. It is very easy to just put in the family's name, or the word "Yosemite", etc and any files that mention those items will begin to popup in a list of potential files.

While putting additional metadata into a Word document may provide some increased searchability, the file search functions of the operating systems is probably powerful enough in most cases. It is still helpful to at least use the "Keywords" (or "Tags") fields since they are more quickly accessed than having to "read" through all of your Word documents.

In Summary

Create a Good Organizational Strategy BEFORE You Start Collecting Files

You do not need to adopt any specific organizational strategy. We tend to organize in a way that we as individuals "think" and organize in our mind. You can always try out a few ideas and ask family members or others what they think. Ultimately, in the future it is your posterity that will need to know how to access and find your documents. Creating an organizational system BEFORE you start collecting very many documents will help to alleviate trying to later find out where you previously stuffed them in your computer. This can become a painful task of trying to find your files, revise labelling, creating duplicates, or accidentally "losing" files.


Preserving Our Heritage

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

Site Maintained by:

Stephen A Meyers of Idaho Falls, Idaho