Sunday, 17 May 2020

Organising Your Digital Family History Files



Generally, ‘how-to’ posts are not my thing, but recently a few people have asked how I file the records generated in my genealogy research. Then, a budding family historian told me how he is struggling to stay on top of the paper mountain he’s constructing. Many genealogists already have their own preferred way of doing things, but those starting out, or experiencing difficulties, may find this post helpful.

I don’t do paper clutter. Truthfully, I’ve no original documents and few original photographs to file. So, I save everything on the computer and back it up to the cloud, and periodically to an external hard drive.

Goals of a filing system
My document filing system is not perfect. But let’s face it, I’m in this for the family history, not to become a professional archivist. If you’re like me -
  • you want something simple, easy to remember and easy to implement,
  • a way to find any document, immediately, at any time, and not waste precious genealogy time searching for it,
  • a system that helps avoid duplicating the same research, and
  • facilitates the easy back up all your genealogy records, together,
A big ask, you might think! My filing system achieves all that, and much more.

Filing system
First, a file folder named ‘Genealogy Research’ contains all my family history documents, in one place, to facilitate easy back up.

The Genealogy Research folder has four sub-folders, one for each grandparent.


In each Grandparent folder, there is a sub-folder for every one of my known direct ancestor couples, relating to that grandparent.


All records discovered for an ancestral couple and their family, after their marriage, are stored in their specific sub-folder. Documents relating to their lives prior to their marriage (e.g. copy birth registers) are generally filed in their parent’s folder.

For example, in my paternal grandfather's folder, the first sub-folder contains records for my grandparents, James Byrne and Lena O’Neill. It is simply called ‘1 Byrne-O’Neill’. The second sub-folder, ‘2 Byrne-Mahon’, relates to James’ parents, Michael Byrne and Elizabeth Mahon. The third sub-folder ‘3 Byrne-Leahy’ is for Michael’s parents, while ‘4 Mahon-McDonnell’ is for Elizabeth’s parents, etc., etc. Records for Lena O’Neill’s ancestors are similarly saved in her Grandparent folder.

I don’t have deep roots, as you can see, especially not for my paternal line. The sub-folders are named with the couple’s surnames, male first. Numbers are assigned solely so my grandfather is listed first, followed by his parents, and then their parents, etc. If your research goes back numerous generations, you may need to add further clarification to the folder name. e.g. their full names, or perhaps add their year of marriage, or maybe add a ‘marriage number’ generated by your genealogy software. Such details add nothing but unnecessary complexity in my case.

Four-Part Filenames
My files generally have a four-part naming format:

YYYY[MMDD] Category Name OptionalDescription

Date: Filenames start with the date, usually in ‘YYYY’ format, though sometimes the month and even the day, in MMDD format can be added, if necessary to portray the proper chronological order of events, as in 1867 below.

Category: The second element of the filename is the category, category being marriage, baptism, census, newspaper, photograph, death, correspondence, etc.

Name: The third element reflects the subject of the record. For individuals, the full name of the person is shown. In marriage records, the surnames of the couple are given. For group records, e.g. census returns, should I have been so lucky, ‘Byrne household’ might have been used in the name part. Keep it simple and consistent.

Optional Description: In the last part of the filename, my additional notes might reflect the source of the record, the quality of the record (e.g. index, transcription, original), maybe a location, or a ‘not found’ note, etc. I keep it short and sweet!

Bear in mind, the rules are guidelines to achieve your goals. Use what best suits any scenario.

Warning: I use spaces in my filenames. This (and probably the use of other symbols) is not recommended for computery reasons, but I didn’t know that when I started. It’s never bothered me, and I’m an advocate of the “if it ain't broke, don't fix it" principle.

Here’s the sub-folder for my great-great-grandparents, ancestral couple John Byrne and Alicia Leahy, as an example:


A top genealogy tool
As you can see, the filing system acts like a Timeline and thus has become one of my top genealogy tools. It enables me immediately spot any missing periods, or inconsistencies in the research. It’s great for highlighting missing information, too. In this case, it acts as an immediate reminder that, despite extensive searching, a death record for my great-great-grandfather has not yet been found. That’s why there’s an additional sub-folder ‘Death of John Byrne Search’.

Additional folders
A separate sub-folder might also be necessary where significant research on a relevant location was carried out, for example, or if there was a lot of correspondence relating to the couple, or, as in this case, I had to kiss numerous frogs before I met my prince. John Byrne was a brick wall ancestor for many years, hence the sub-folder ‘Unrelated Byrne Research’. He was also married before he met Alicia Leahy, so a separate sub-folder containing the records of his first marriage was created - ‘Byrne-Markey (John, first marriage)’:-


Collateral lines
While all direct ancestors have their own folder in the relevant Grandparent folder, a similar folder is created for their siblings and saved in their parent’s folder. It usually relates to their lives post marriage, though if significant research is carried out on an unmarried sibling, they might warrant their own sub-folder. Again, it is named with the surnames of the couple/individual, with the sibling’s given name added, as above. If post-marriage research is carried out on a collateral's children, a sub-folder is created in their parent’s folder, in turn. See example.


This method works extremely well for me. Consistency is the key. Save everything to the relevant sub-folder as you uncover it. You can always reorganise later, when the thrill of the chase is over.

And, don’t stress it – remember, you’re not trying to become an archivist - adapt, if anything isn’t working.

The best method for YOU is always the one YOU’RE happy to use.

And, if you need help with your paper files, Paul Chiddicks of The Chiddicks Family Tree is your man. He's written Organising Your Family History just for you.

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