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I have been trying for over 15 years now to come up with a system of folders for my family documents. As I'm sure most of you know it can be difficult.

Without making duplicates of each document how do you sort your files? Meaning if I have a birth certificate for someone, I also want to include that document in the parents folder but don't want duplicates floating around. Additionally, when someone gets married and starts a family of their own, two previous families are combined.

How should I organise my electronic files so that they're associated with all the appropriate individuals but are not duplicated?

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Steven, your question invites expressions of personal opinion rather than a definitive answer based upon evidence and expertise. Perhaps you could rephrase it after reading the FAQ at genealogy.stackexchange.com/faq#dontask –  Fortiter Jan 9 '13 at 0:59
See: meta.genealogy.stackexchange.com/questions/1561/… for discussion about this question following on from @Fortiter's comment. –  lkessler Jan 9 '13 at 6:21
Steven, I've edited your question to make it more specific. I hope I've preserved your intent; please correct me if I've got that wrong. –  ColeValleyGirl Jan 9 '13 at 11:14

7 Answers 7

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The best way to organise your digital documents is the one that matches the way in which you work. It will enable you to store, search, analyse and display information in the shortest time and with the least effort because it matches the way you think.

Unfortunately, few of us begin genealogy with a crystal-clear and firmly fixed idea of how we will go about the tasks that confront us. So we borrow someone else's file system or seek recommendations from experts.

But the way in which your information is stored can also shape the way in which you use it. Some relationships between people and events jump out of the files I have stored. Others are hidden away because I tend not to look at, or even to think about, some documents at the same time.

That explains why experienced and knowledgeable genealogists have responded to your question in such very different ways. In each case, they have described what works for them. If you think like the writer, then his or her scheme is the one for you. If it turns out that you don't agree on the basic philosophy, then that filing system might be a source of frustration for you.

In the end, you need to make a choice and try it out. You will learn which aspects are terrific for you, which are mildly annoying and which (if any) will make you think about giving up family history entirely. Then you will have a better idea of how you like to work and what style of file system to switch to.

The great thing about this site, is that you can gain a very good appreciation of the philosophies and practices of each of the people who have proposed a system by reading their "collected works" in the archives. Track the contributions of each one to decide if you think that their approach is similar to the way you work (or would like to work). Then follow the recommendation of the one who is "best for you".

I will not offer a recommendation because my filing system continues to evolve. I read aspects of each of the suggestions made and say "Wow, that is great" and follow up with "But...". An unkind observer might call my files a mish-mash of systems, I say that reflects the fact that I have an eclectic approach to family history practice. It may not be perfect but it supports the things that I want it to do. And that might be a realistic goal for you.

What do modern genealogists do when they have no internet connection? They reorganise their files, again.

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I think the right way is with source-based folder organization. The highest level is the source type. Next level depends on the source type, but it could be the location, jurisdiction, person, repository, or whatever is applicable. It will become clear once you try it.


  (by name of photographer)
  (by name of contact)

... You get the idea.

If you don't like the order because folders are sorted alphabetically, then you can add a letter or number prefix to put them in the order you want, e.g.


With source-based data organization, you know where to file everything and there will always be just one place to file it. This compares to family- or name-based organization which requires multiple copies or links to source information that pertains to many people.

Very often, we genealogists have to go back a look at a source again, either to check what we originally got, to see if we missed anything, or to do a new search of it for information that we weren't looking for previously. With source-based organization, you will have in one place all the information you previously found, and you will be able to easily determine what you don't have and now need.

I have a similar answer on another question.

p.s. I recommend storing physical items in binders the same way.

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While this is a beautifully clean system with a single unambiguous location for every document, it does appear to preclude browsing by person (as in, "What do I have on Aunt Minnie?"). For some people that may be too steep a price to pay for an elegant organisation. –  Fortiter Jan 9 '13 at 4:51
@Fortiter - That is what your genealogy software is for. To provide the index into your source materials. Go to Aunt Minnie in your genealogy program. See what sources hang off her. But if you try to store everything on Aunt Minnie in an Aunt Minnie folder, then the Census record will have to be copied 8 times (for her husband and 6 kids). Birth certificates 3 times (each parent and the child), etc. –  lkessler Jan 9 '13 at 5:00
I organize my documentation in a similar way (by events and sources). Filenames include the appropriate details. Two advantages, not mentioned by Mr. Kessler, are 1) the ability to have multiple documents referencing the same event, i.e. obituaries from 2 different newspapers and the funeral home, and 2) the option to store shorter excerpts (indexes, transcripts) as collections in a text file. –  bgwiehle Jan 9 '13 at 15:00
I organize by source and repository. That system scales up better than any other I've tried so far. To answer Fortifer's question of how to browse by person, I am currently experimenting with the writing software Scrivener from Literature and Latte literatureandlatte.com to keep notes about source material which has not been analyzed yet and won't be attached to that person in my genealogy software. Scrivener is designed for research and can be a virtual 'binder' holding both your research notes and the supporting documents you might want to incorporate in any reports. –  Jan Murphy Nov 30 '13 at 18:11
  1. Use your genealogy/family history software to organise your electronic documents (by associating them with the appropriate sources/individuals/places or other entities in your database).
  2. Underpin it with as simple a folder structure as you can devise. I structure mine by high-level document type (BMD record, census record, MI, Will, Land record, photograph etc.). If a sub-folder structure is necessary (because of the likely volume of documents) I'll divide by geography and/or time-frame. (I'll always include these elements in the name of the file).

This way requires you to have the self-discipline to enter every document into your software and make the appropriate associations, but that's no bad thing. It makes it very quick to decide where to store each document by asking what? and maybe when? and where? but never who? and that's the most volatile element. And it makes it easy to find or add to the documents associated with an individual or family.

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I assume you're talking about ordinary folders on the disk of your computer Steven. If so then there is no ideal way of organising/distributing your files between them. As you point out yourself, a simple hierarchical arrangement of folders does not easily model the associations within your family tree.

Most folder systems allow you to make multiple entries for the same file. In other words, allowing the name of your file to be entered into the directory or catalog(ue) of multiple folders. This contrasts with making physical duplicates of the file itself. However, support for this core functionality through the user interface of operating systems like Windows seems to be vanishing [I might just be unaware of where they've hidden it these days].

Even with this facility for avoiding duplication, though, there is still no ideal. I organise my data mainly on a surname basis, i.e. a main folder for each distinct surname (rapidly approach the 50 mark), and sub-folders for the different types of file associated with them. This is a very coarse organisation and obviously finds ambiguity where a document applies to two surnames, such as a marriage certificate.

This is one of the major benefits of using a software program to organise your data, and to keep track of those associations and even different file versions. The way the data is physically held on disk, or in some database, is then largely irrelevant to you - the need for performing backups being a possible exception. A good software product then presents a virtual organisation of your data to you that is more closely related to family trees and to genealogy.

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+1 for the suggestion of using pointers (Windows shortcuts) instead of duplicating files. –  Jan Murphy Jul 5 at 13:16

I have really two answers to this question.

Since my principle storage is electronic. I'll start there.

How you organize your electronic folders may relate to how and how much you actually save. I try to save things that are not readily available elsewhere. This means that I store few census records, and now fewer and fewer marriage and death records. I do store pension files, deeds, deed indexes and probate records. Unless someone has sent me the paper materials, I don't set out to store any of my research materials in paper form. I store all of my research reports in electronic form. I used to send them broadly to cousins (ala, spam the family), but I find myself blogging much of that work now. I save many e-mails to pdf.

The computer filing system I have used since the 1990s is summarized below.

Note: I have patronymics in my family tree and the spelling of some names changed over time. The word "surname" doesn't quite describe top level organization; here I'll use the term "family lines." Hopefully the examples below are helpful.

Top level organization: Each of my ancestral family lines (as in a pedigree) has a high level directory; I call each a "log." I prepend these folders with the word "log" (including an underscore) so that these folders will group together and can be forced to sort at the very top of my Genealogy directory. For example

enter image description here

Each of the family lines has a default subfolder system that classifies a "generation," and each of direct ancestors has a first level folder. I assign a subfolder to the other children of my ancestors (siblings). For this purpose, I use a numbering system that is not unlike Register or NGSQ to track each "node" of my direct ancestors in the family line. An example follows.

Other than for the higher level direct ancestors, I don't create a folder for the other children (siblings) unless I've actually conducted research about them.

enter image description here

For every surname, I have a "dump" folder, too. I use this for information about the larger family and for things I don't want to categorize further at the time. These "dump" folders carry the same general name, "XXX [surname assigned to the family line] and Related"

From time to time research turns into a what for this purpose, I will call "negative proof." From time to time, I create "Not" folders to hold that research. So, for example:

enter image description here

Under the main folder/directory, "Genealogy" I have a number of other folders. A few examples follow:

  • Genealogy General. This folder contains electronic version of my genealogical reference materials. For example, in this folder and its associated subfolders I have Black'sLaw, Evidence Explained, Numbering Your Genealogy ...., etc.
  • Descendant Researchers. This folder contains family files shared with me and some e-mail histories. Usually there is a subdirectory that carries the name of the collaborating researcher. For example, probably the largest folder in that section is titles, "William Smith," who I've been collaborating with since the 1990s.
  • Album. This folder includes the work I'm doing to digitize family collections.

Somewhat on topic, I blog and work to develop full citations for the entries in my family file. I take full advantage of the note keeping features of genealogical software. The benefit is that today I don't really obsess much over the drive organization the way I did in say 2000. If I have recorded the author and title of a source in my file or on my blog, I can almost always find that puppy and all my related related research notes.

As above, I don't set out to "store" any materials that are readily available from "stable" sites on the internet. I may download a birth or census file for the purpose of attaching it to an e-mail, or use it to create graphic for a blog article. I'll more than likely delete that electronic file after I've finished that work.

I do invest some worry time in the material paper files and collections that I hold, as these generally represent privately held materials that have not been widely circulated. I work to keep those materials in tact (even in the original order received); most are stored in archival format (archival sleeves, etc.). Dictated largely by dominance, those materials are generally organized by surname (family line), researcher name, or collection/repository.

Updated: When I digitize collection materials, each item (scan) is given a descriptive number or code. I write the code/number on a sticky dot that goes on the face of the archival sleeve. An example of a code is "600T-1063." The first set of code represents the resolution and file format (so 600T stands for 600 dpi, Tiff). The second group of numbers represents the electronic scan number (part of the file name; ultimately intended to be part of the metadata).

Update 2: You asked specifically about where to store birth information about children--whether with parents information or the folder about a married adult. I don't think I really have a black and white rule, but my direct ancestors families are organized in the male ancestor's line--so most of the records about my maternal ancestors are stored under their husbands' family line. Research about my maternal ancestors sister-siblings, however, are stored under the father's family lines.

There are well documented paper storage methods that recommend storing information by record type (birth, marriage, death, deed, probate, etc.). That system didn't work as well for me, maybe because I have patronymics and, even when I don't, there are so many similarly named persons in my different family lines.

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Folders should begin at the surname level. Anything else is unfriendly toward future users of your collection.

Pretend that you want to donate your files (physical and digital) to a library or society in five years. Go ask them how they would like them organized, so patrons can find and utilize them. Do they want a file marked "miscellaneous birth certificates collected by and related to Steven O'Neill" or "O'Neill family records collected by Steven O'Neill"?

Break up your files into 8 or 16 surnames minimum (I probably have 60 or 70). Large surname files can be further divided into collateral lines, or by source type (or both). Use your own judgement when a file is too large (100 pages? 500 pages?). I'm doing a one name study on my surname, and have it divided into clans.

When determining your sub-folders, keep the library in mind. Do they want them organized in the order they were collected? No. Do they want to learn the secret coding system you made up? No. Do they want a copy of your software, which is required to find any particular file? No.

Keep it simple so any researcher, age 12 and above, can use it. You don't need copies of records that are easily found online. If you wish to avoid duplication, keep a wife's birth certificate with her parents' family file, and write a note to see her marriage in her husband's family file. Then on the marriage certificate, add a note to find the wife's birth.

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Is a library going to want a collection of readily-available electronic documents, divorced from its context (the documentation of your conclusions and their sources, be that a print-out or a common electronic document format)? And if the question was about physical documentation, I'd expect any library to apply its own cataloging standards. –  ColeValleyGirl Jan 9 '13 at 12:59
As I said in my answer, readily-available documents need not be saved at all. You only need to preserve the hard-to-find and privately-held documents. Our library and historical society both keep large collections of local "family files" that researchers have added to over the years. Their contents are not individually cataloged, just rows and rows of surname files. The library is now working toward accepting family files in PDF form for their website. –  Rusty Erpenbeck Jan 9 '13 at 19:09
Sorry -- missed the 'easily found' piece in the last paragraph. But the question is still about electronic documents, not physical documents. –  ColeValleyGirl Jan 9 '13 at 19:44
The same holds true for electronic documents. They need to be easily searchable by whoever inherits them. And if a 4th cousin asks you to share your "Johnson" file, you should be able to do that effortlessly. Just keep it friendly, easy to search, easy to share. –  Rusty Erpenbeck Jan 10 '13 at 0:54

This answer has been revised -- the beginning of this answer addresses the problem posed in the question about source material like birth certificates which name more than one person.

I store my electronic documents by record type and record group, with subfolders for each vendor if necessary (e.g. if I have census images from both Ancestry and Heritage Quest). The basic principle is to keep things organized by the record group they came from. Family documents and other materials which do not originate from a commercial vendor are grouped together in a 'personal archives' folder. Files originally sent from cousins or other correspondents are kept in folders marked with the correspondent's name, along with 'printouts' of emails which contain transcriptions or other genealogical discussion.

This allows me to group an image together with other like items on the same microfilm roll. If I have pages from a City Directory, I can keep all the pages from the same directory together -- the title page, the pages which describe the town, the numerical directory, the alphabetical directory, ads, information on organizations, and so on.

If I have multiple pages from the Vital Records to 1850 from NEHGS for that town, I have the pages that explain the abbreviations, the publication data, and other material, plus all the pages I found from that volume, grouped together in the same folder.

I can have all my 1940 US Federal Census pages together with a blank form for that census, the enumerator instructions and list of questions from IPUMS, and other supporting material for that census. If I'm reading an image and I can't remember what the column header says, the reference material I need is right there.

If I have supporting documents about a data collection (e.g. the National School Admissions registers on Find My Past), like the chart of which schools are included in the collection, I can save that in the folder along with the digital images and PDFs of abstracts from that data set.

Now -- the people who file by surname are probably asking But what if you want to find all the material about the same person?

There are advantages to having a folder system based on places and on people for the material you generate yourself -- your own research reports, your notes, your Source Checklists, and so on -- but it is madness to store the actual source material, the census records and birth certificates in those files as your permanent storage place. It's not practical to make copies of those kinds of sources for each of the people of interest mentioned in them, even in digital form.

It's much easier to make a Genealogy Source Checklist in Excel so you can see at a glance what you've looked for, and what you are missing -- for an example of how to make one, see Crista Cowan's YouTube video.

I use the writing software Scrivener when I am working on a project. In Scrivener, I can link to all the images, all the abstracts, my research checklist, and all the other material I want for the project I'm working on.

After I have completed the initial analysis of the source material, I can also retrieve the images by looking at the person of interest in Family Historian or Clooz (the images are linked to the relevant source, not to the person, but it's easy to find the sources).

If the images have not been processed and filed yet, I can find them in my 'intake' folders, sorted by which vendor they came from and what dataset. This suits my workflow, because I find it most effective to process like items together for the initial data entry (all baptisms at once, all 1940 Census records at once, etc.)

Why do it this way? If you maintain a strict separation between your own work product, and the material which you have collected from somewhere else, then you can send your cousin your own files of "what you have found on a particular person" without also sending them other people's copyrighted material which you do not have the right to share.

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