Saturday, April 18, 2009

Organizing Your Digital Genealogy Files

Where did that photo of great aunt Jeanine go? You know you saved it on your computer somewhere... As genealogy moves more and more into the digital realm, you'll need to have a system for organizing your digital files. It doesn't have to be complex, and there is no one right way to set up your digital filing system. The important thing is that you have one that works for you.

Start by taking a look at the files you already have on your computer. Are they photos, census records, scanned in birth or death certificates, etc? Consider your current filing system for physical items, like paper certificates and original photos. If you have a good filing system that works for your traditional files, you may want to follow the same type of system in organizing your computer files.

Here are some suggestions for ways to organize your files. Take what ideas work for you, adapt them, combine them, and even comb the web for some more ideas.


  • Keep a central log or index of your digital files. This method can be used no matter how you organize (or don't organize) the files on your computer. Use a spreadsheet or even a table in a word processor. For each file on your computer, note the full name and file extension, the location on your computer, the given name and surname of each individual associated with the file, and brief description. If your genealogy software automatically assigns unique IDs for individuals in your file that don't change, you'll want to include this number in your log, as well. If not, you may want to consider also noting the birth year along with first and last name because, chances are, you have at least a few individuals in your file who share a name. While this method may seem a bit cumbersome in the beginning, it will really pay off as your genealogy database grows larger. In addition, you may choose to organize your files into one central location on your computer or CD-roms, but it isn't an absolute necessity with this system.

  • Personally, I like to keep my digital files in one central location on my system, along with keeping a log. It just makes it that much quicker for me to find, as well as making my genealogy backups much easier. I use a folder called Genealogy in the My Documents folder on my computer. Under that, I break it out into my grandparents' surnames. For example, I have a Witbeck folder, an Ohm folder, a Taylor folder, and a Binney folder. In each of those, I then have a few more subfolders that divide out the digital files by type, such as Photos or Census Records.

  • You can keep the bulk of your digital files on CD if you have limited storage space on your computer. Just give each CD a unique name or number that you can reference in your central log or index so you know what is on each separate disc.

  • Some genealogy software programs will allow you to import all of your digital files into a scrapbook feature, as a source, or into the note fields. This method may work well if your genealogy file is small, but if you have a large file with more names, it's likely this system will very quickly turn from useful into futile.

  • There are software programs designed for organizing digital files. Clooz bills itself as "an electronic filing cabinet that assists you with search and retrieval of important facts that you have found during the ancestor hunt." This software is only available to Windows users, and the current cost is about $40. However, this may take much of the work out of setting up your file system.



Whatever method you choose to organize your digital files, the important thing is that you have a method that works for you. If you take the time now to set up a filing system, you'll reap the rewards later as your files increase and your genealogy research produces more and more results. And you won't ever again have to spend hours digging through your computer looking for that old photo of great aunt Jeanine.

2 comments:

PSU Mom said...

Good advice, I need to practice some of this organization!
Thank you!

CJ said...

One of the overriding principles of all my genealogical work is that it must be transparent, accessible and transferable. Inscrutable, byzantine, arcane organizational schemes tend to bog down in overhead and are anathema to free collaboration. What good is my work if no one else can easily figure out how it's organized?

The issue of collateral rellies aside, the fatal flaw of Ahnentafel- or color-based systems is that they're irremediably tied to the tree root (me). A cousin wishing to prune an Ahnentafeled branch from my tree to graft onto his will be forced to renumber, refile, re-index, rewrite and/or re-color everything. Overhead. Lots of it.

So after years of trying other systems, I'm back to the same one you use: documents are filed primarily by surname, secondarily by document type, numbered sequentially as they're filed, and an entry, including a brief description and bibliographical information, is made on that folder's index (log) sheet. The system is simple and accessible, requires minimal overhead and, as I've converted to digital records, works unmodified on computer. It also allows me to reference a record with a straightforward Record Locator Number that points me right back to the document. For example, if next to my grandfather's date of birth I see RLN "CUL-BIR-133" I know immediately it's Culver Birth record #133, and the document takes just seconds to retrieve.

Same on computer: One directory per surname with subdirectories for census, birth, marriage, military, etc. Each filename begins with its RLN, usually followed by some descriptive text, e.g., "BAR-MAR-093 Nickolaus and Franceska Bartsch's marriage record.JPG". Document 000 in each subdirectory (e.g., "RIC-MAR-000 INDEX.TXT"; I keep mine in plain text for future accessibility) is the log file. This makes locating files a snap, ensures that the index file will sort to the top of any file listing, and makes synchronizing my physical and electronic files super easy.