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

Saturday, June 23, 2018

An Update on Organizing Your Genealogy

A couple of years ago, I did a couple of popular webinars for the Brigham Young University Family History Library called "Organizing Genealogy Files" and "What's in that Pile? Organization for the Disorganized Genealogist." Since that time, I have had a number of questions about organizing personal genealogy files. So, I thought I would be a good idea to revisit the topic.

I can summarize organization in a number of steps as follows:

  1. Choose one main family history database program to use as your primary organizational tool. This can be an online program such as the Family Tree or or or some other program or it can be a desktop program such as Family Tree Maker, RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, or Ancestral Quest. Use this primary program to enter all of your information about your family. 
  2. Digitize all of your documents, photos, slides, everything. You can buy an inexpensive, very usable flatbed scanner for less than $300. As you scan your documents, attach the scanned images as sources to all the individuals in your primary database program. 
  3. Organize your paper records by creating an accession system. You number the first document #1, the second document #2 and etc. Then the computerized database has a list of all the documents with a short title/description. This description could also be the formal citation to the document if you want to have that information available. The documents are then filed using either file folders or boxes. You can then easily find a document by its number and by searching the database. 
  4. Keep your research logs, notes, and timelines etc. online in a general purpose program such as Google Docs or another easily accessible program. You can also keep a copy of your database list of documents online in Google Drive or some other accessible program and have it available when you add new documents or need to find or refer to a document. 
  5. You can use a dedicated photo program such as Adobe Lightroom to organize the photos or you can just keep all of them in one huge folder and keep the record numbers and or dates as part of the title of photo/file. 
If you have a digital copy of the document or photo attached to your primary family history or genealogy database program, you will find that you do not need to refer to your overall list very often, if at all. 

If you think of this as an overwhelming task, then it will be an overwhelming task. But if you just start numbering or attaching and digitizing, you will soon see the results in being able to find most of the information you are really interested in finding. 

Please, please, always preserve the original documents. You can find a lot of information about document preservation from the Library of Congress Preservation Directorate. By the way, this system is essentially exactly the one used by many Archives. Sometimes their classifications and physical storage are more complicated, but essentially, they number the items and put them in storage boxes or on shelves and create a catalog of the documents showing location and ID number. 

If you like, you can color code, cross-reference, add comments or make scrapbooks or whatever, but none of that really adds anything to the storage method described. 


  1. So helpful, now I just have to start.

  2. Personally, I have one refinement to overall sequential numbering. And that is to place everything by who or where I got it and number sequentially from within that. Everything from my parents is together. Everything from one of my 3rd cousins is together. Everything from my Provincial archives is together. Everything from Ancestry is together.

    Next time I'm going to talk to my third cousin, I review the material he gave me and I know what he has and hasn't provided. Next time I go to the Archives, I know what I have and have not obtained. For Ancestry, I do subdivide by document type and person so I can easily see what I've already found.

    1. As long as you have a searchable list of all of the documents, the actual numbering and filing system is arbitrary. You can even color code the files or whatever, but the key here is having a master file list of all of the documents.

  3. I contend that we live in the Age of the Search Engine. A system similar to James's numbering system where the catalog of genealogical items is built into a program such as Ancestral Quest using the Notes screen, and including key words makes the entire collection of items searchable. The documents are numbered without significance but linked to each individual in your database. I have a book that describes this system in detail called, The Last Organization System You Will Ever Need. It works for me. Richard Rands -

    1. "The Last Organization System You'll Ever Need for Your Genealogy Stuff" is described at The concepts are similar to those in this Genealogy's Star post. The steps Mr. Tanner outlines can save years of genealogy disorganization and frustration. Bravo!