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

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Let the computer do its work of organizing your genealogy

It seems like every so often someone comes along with another "wonderful way to organize your genealogy." Usually, the systems involve some series of folders, color coding or some such method that will be "guaranteed to keep your information organized." I am also asked from time to time, which system I use. My answer is always the same, I let the computer do what computers do and I do what I do. I don't try to do the computer's work. Why use a computer to do genealogy if you don't use it?

What do computers do? Find things quickly. What are organizational systems used for? To find things.

Let's suppose you have ten documents. How quickly could you go through all ten documents and find the one document you were looking for? Would it help to put each document in the separate folder? Maybe, but why spend the time? Now, what if you had a thousand documents? How long would it take you to go through the stack of documents and find the one you are looking for? Would it help to put the documents in some kind of order and perhaps in file folders to "keep them organized?" Yes, very likely. What if you put the document you are looking for in the wrong folder? Then what do you have to do? Go through every folder and look for it. What have you gained?

In this I speak from years of experience. As an attorney, we created file folders for each client and then other folders for each case for the client. This worked just fine, until we put a document in the wrong file and then disaster. I cannot tell you how many times over the years we spent days and days looking through files to find one document.

All paper filing systems rely on an imposed set of criteria. We call this a cataloging system. Whether you use dates, names, colors, numbers or whatever, you have to impose this cataloging system on the separate documents in order to find them again once they are filed. You have all probably seen a doctor's office filing system with movable shelves and color coded files. Did your doctor ever lose your file? It has happened.

All genealogical file systems, and I mean all of them, depend on this same system of cataloging entries and filing them away by surname, family, geographic area or some such organization. Oh, these systems can get complicated, think of the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Cataloging System.

Now, I have this nifty computer with a whole series of programs. Why should I reproduce any manual system of filing in my computer? Does the computer care about color coding or file folders? Not at all. Computers deal entirely with numbers. So why do you create new folders on your computer for your files? Not for the sake of the computer, but merely to make you feel good and because you don't understand how a computer works. In fact, an elaborate file system on a computer makes things very hard to find using your own methods. How many of you have "lost" a file on your computer? How many of you have any idea where that last file you downloaded disappeared to?

So how does the computer work to find things? It looks for strings (series) of characters (letters and numbers). That is it. That is all it does. So how do you organize things? Name them with unique numbers and/or letters. If I name a document with today's date and with a distinguishing name such as

2014-04-12 Birth Certificate John Doe

If you are so inclined and feel it is necessary, you can also name the file like this:


This comes from old limited operating systems and limitations on the number of characters allowed in a file name. Both of these concerns are pretty much out of date.  But if it makes you feel better, you can use all sorts of archaic types of naming systems. You might want to check and see what characters are reserved by your operating system and how long the names can be. You might want to look at a document such as this  "OS X: Cross-platform filename best practices and conventions" I use white spaces because all the systems I use recognize these spaces. Yours may not.

If I use this naming system, I automatically have three ways to find the document; the date, the name and the type of document. I could also add a place to make the title of the document like this:

2014-04-12 Birth Certificate John Doe Salt Lake City Utah

I don't use commas, periods or other characters because they are all characters and they are taken into account or reserved by the computer's operating system. Can I then find the document? Yes, in a matter of a few seconds, no matter where it is stored on my computer. But what if we want more of an explanation about the document?

Well, documents come in two basic types; text files and image files. A text file, by its nature, is completely searchable. So any string of characters (words etc.) can be found by the computer. Let's suppose I wanted to find a transcribed letter from John Doe to Helen Roe. Well, I could simply ask the computer to search for a few of the words in the title or body of the letter and find in in a matter of seconds. But images can only be searched by their title or by added words stored with the file called metadata. This starts to be complicated and the subject of other posts, some of which I have already written in the past.

One thing is sure, the more levels you have in your "filing" system the more complicated it is to find anything. Now, whatever system you use, if you become proficient in it, becomes your preferred system. If you are of a evangelical bent, you then try to convert everyone to "your system." If you are inclined to try and make money, you develop you system for sale or in kit form. But if you have a computer and use it, you can save your time and money and let the computer do the organizing.

Now really, what about genealogy? It is really quite complicated. A simple naming system probably won't give you all the information you need. Guess what? For just a few dollars, you can purchase a genealogical database program that will do all the organizing you will ever need. Any one of dozens of programs all allow you to enter information about your family and attach documents; both text and images. Once the documents are attached, it doesn't really matter where they are stored on your hard drives as long as the program can find them. The trick here is to keep all of the documents in the same file at the same level and make sure you copy the files with the program when you make a copy. That's it. That is my system entirely. I put everything in one huge pile in one huge folder and let the programs all find the particular documents attached to every individual in my file.

Now, no system is perfect. Files will always be lost. But trying to "organize" the already organized computer is silly. Use the programs to attach documents to individuals and families. Use the names of documents to find them on your hand drives. That is it.


  1. Duh! Slaps hand on forehead. Thanks!! I just upgrade my XP system and am transferring my files back. This is a perfect time to rename. This is going to be so much easier.

  2. James, including the date in the file name is really not necessary. The computer will record the creation date (as well as modification and accession dates among others) in the meta data attached to the file and most search systems allow you to specify one or more of these dates in the search criteria.


    1. The problem is that the date recorded by the operating system changes. It is not that the date has an particular significance as a "date" rather it becomes an accession number. You can use any system of accession numbers you choose. But the number should give you an idea of the time depth of the creation of the file.

  3. I agree, James, that the imposition of an analog-based system of organization on a digital platform is not optimal. The allure of a "perfect new system" has led me down the path to chaos! I've had so many false starts. Add to that the necessity of data migration every few years, and now the move to the cloud!

  4. If something isn't simple, it won't be used. Period. I've created all kinds of fancy data management systems, but have learned 1) that the analysis of my data takes place in my head (not my software) and 2) if it takes more than two steps to find something, I won't even try. So thanks for the reminder to use the computer for what it is good at doing, so I can focus what I do best!