Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Organizing all the genealogy stuff

Yesterday, I spent some time helping a friend with some research issues. The experience reminded me of one of my most insecure issues in my early schooling: the notebook issue. It was inevitable that someone in one of my school classes would have this fabulous notebook, with everything arranged perfectly in tabs, with separators, while my notebooks were usually a messy pile of papers. I always started out with good intentions, but everything I did, for all my classes, seemed to turn into piles of paper. Yesterday was no exception. My friend had a perfectly organized notebook with copies of  all the documents in page protectors and carefully written and very neat notes.

There was just one problem with all this neatness; she couldn't find anything. Every time we talked about an ancestor, she had to page through her huge notebooks and try and figure out what she had done and what information she had. This got me thinking about organization again. I have my sources and my documents digitized and attached to the individual ancestors. It takes me just seconds to go to any ancestor and find all the documents I have attached. I finally realized that page protectors and notebooks do not necessarily make a very organized way of handling a lot of genealogical information.

Regularly, someone asks me about organization. This is a hot topic for conferences and classes. Everybody thinks there is some unique or special way to organize a huge number of documents. Some use color coding, special file folders, numbering schemes and a multitude of other guaranteed ways to make finding everything a lot easier. Without knowing it or realizing what they are doing most of the time, the organizers are just following in the footsteps of 1000s of years of librarians. Librarians and archivists have been organizing huge piles of everything from clay tiles to rolls of parchment since man could read and write. So, why re-invent the wheel? Why not simply study what libraries and archives do and copy them? Better yet, why not use the most modern methods of organizing huge amounts of information?

That is exactly what I do. But on a much smaller scale. The good news is, I have a system. The bad news is that the system takes more time than I have spent so far. I am still in the middle of the system. For the past few years, I have been in the digitize everything stage. I have now begun to organize the digitized documents so that they are attached to each person mentioned in the document. That is the time consuming task. I have made good progress the last two years with my grandsons helping, mostly with digitizing and some other tasks. In a recent post, I outlined the digitizing procedures. In this post, I will assume the piles have been digitized and discuss the way the individual documents get organized so they can be found and used as necessary. To accomplish this, I do not need anyone's fancy organization plan. I have an extremely adequate one already. The way to organize is simple: use the tools you already have. In the case of all these genealogically important documents, the tool is the genealogy database program. Since some of the early Personal Ancestral File program versions, there has been a rather simple way to organize a huge pile of documents, photos and other media. That is attaching the separate items as sources to an individual's events using the program itself.

I still have a considerable number of documents to digitize, but the pile left is a lot less than it was even a year ago. It has taken a lot of time and some money, but now I am now on the downhill side of the digitizing pile. Furthermore, I am well into the organizational stage of attaching documents to my individual ancestors. There are two ways to do this: either have an actual digitized copy of the document in a file on my computer or find a copy of the document online and use a link to the document as a way to see the actual copy. I could also store copies of my documents online and use a link, but one of the important steps is allowing access to the documents to anyone in my extended family. This can best be accomplished by using a way that they can see the documents without having to pay for a subscription to some program or another. For example, if I find a document on and link to the document on, then the user must have a subscription to to see the document. If the copy of the document is on my computer however, I must provide a copy of the document with the database file I share with any family member.

Most of the genealogical database programs today do not incorporate a copy of the document into their data files, instead they rely on a link to the documents on your computer. It seems that even the people with beautiful page protected notebooks either allow the documents to default into the storage location on their hard drive chosen by the program or end up with the documents in various folders all over their computer. Subsequently, they have a lot of broken links to documents. Some of the programs will go out and search for the documents, but if the documents have been moved to another external hard drive, they may not be found. To solve this problem, I simply keep all the documents I attach in one huge folder. That way all the documents can be moved at one time. Yes, I am back to the pile system, Everything goes into the pile. But now, with a computer, I can find any one document in seconds. Even if the documents become detached for some reason, it is a simple matter to find them in the huge common file. Also, if I use multiple programs, which I do, all of the files for all of the programs are in one folder.

Having all the documents in one file folder, including photos, makes for a huge file. In my case, the current working file is over 21 GB with 9,440 items. These are the documents being attached to the programs. The pool of documents waiting to be attached is huge; right now it is over 683 GB with 67,258, plus another 243 plus GBs of 24,748 items and a third file of over 25 GBs with 4,526 items. You can see, I have a long hard climb to get out of this pile. The three or four different files are separated by a division between my family and my wife's family and also by whether or not a low level sorting has occurred. Oh, I almost forgot, I have the Overson Glass Negatives file that has 6,153 items in over 152 GBs.

Now, obviously, this system may not work for everyone. There are certainly people who would go crazy trying to manage all this information. Maybe I have, but maybe, just maybe I haven't. So far, the system works a lot better than page protectors.


  1. I am a notebook girl and have everyone I have ever written since I was 12. Over time I have got notebook smart and now always keep the fist 4 -5 pages free. As I write, I number the pages then use the blank pages at the front for the index, so I index as I write. I also have a digital index system and have recently renewed my love for OneNote!

  2. This is a very, very interesting concept. The one-folder system would be a little outside my comfort zone, and something I hadn't considered at all before, but I'll have to think about it. One thing I wonder about is that I have about 1000 pdf books. With your system, I could attach the book to each relevant person, but it's still saved only once. I wonder if I would want the books in with the documents. Probably would.

    1. The computer doesn't care whether it is a book or a document. That is an arbitrary classification. All such documents fall into the larger category of genealogical stuff on your computer. You can always divide stuff up in sub-folders but the idea is to make backing up all of the documents possible at one time.

  3. James, I think your system is actually the one that makes most sense now that we're computer-oriented and vastly cloud-based. Computers can be used to search, link, store, etc., so there is no need for complex or even semi-complex filing systems on our computers that mimic what we do in the paper filing systems. I have been filing my computer files in the same method as my paper files for years now. And I have several times had to revamp or reorganize as changes came along. Those changes in my filing were because we went from the old days in Windows with 8 character file name limits to now virtually unlimited characters file and folder names. Another change came about when suddenly larger and larger hard drives became available and then they became cheaper and cheaper to purchase. And now the cloud comes along and we have yet another opportunity for filing changes. All with the thought that we want to make it easy for others to find our stuff later. I struggled when first using Evernote. I wanted to make notebooks within notebooks to mimic my paper filing. But Evernote is simple and allows notebooks to be stacked at one level. It took me a while to realize that I didn't actually need that old system. The tagging and the search capabilities within Evernote would make the filing system unnecessary. Once I let go of my old thinking on the subject, the ease of working with Evernote was wonderful. So, Evernote's filing is similar to your one-folder digitized filing.

    1. Thanks for your response Cyndi. Look forward to seeing you at RootsTech again this year.

  4. My system is similar to this. For many years Reunion for Macintosh has been my master filing system, and as I "process" a source document of any kind, Reunion assigns it a source number. So if I have a paper that represents this source, they're filed in binders numerically by the source number that Reunion assigned it as I entered it, with zero regard for what kind of document it is, or what family it belongs to. If I ever need to see a paper copy of the source, it's as simple as querying Reunion for the number, and then looking in the appropriate binder for that number.

    My computer filing system for electronic sources is setup within a single folder, which has sub-folders as needed to match the categories of media that TNG (The Next Generation of Genealogy Site Building) is expecting - so documents, headstones, histories, multimedia and photos. Then within these folders are other subfolders whose main purpose is to sub-divide categories so I don't end up with thousands of items in any one folder - so headstones has sub-folders for country and county for example.

    I have never been able to wrap my head around schemes that involve surnames or families because inevitably you find items that apply to more than one surname or family.

    1. Exactly, thanks so much for the insight. I should use this myself since I use Reunion also as one of my programs.

  5. It's a great idea to have all of the genealogy "stuff" in one folder so it's easily transportable. Right now I have a folder on my hard drive called "Genealogy Documents." Within that I've created subfolders such as Birth Records, Death Records, Immigration and Naturalization, etc. I haven't organized my ancestor photos into one folder yet (I need to do that).

    Oh, and I have so much more scanning of documents and photos to do. It's overwhelming!

    Thanks for your post!

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a wonderful day!