Tuesday’s Tip: Organizing Your Digital Files

Speaker Barbara Nuehring at the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society’s annual October Seminar inspired me, as she did so many others. She amazed her audience with fresh ideas for using timelines and basic principles of design for dressing up our family histories, then moved on to discuss various ways to use technology to enhance our research and organize and preserve our digital files.

I have since adopted her digital filing system, with some slight personal adaptations, and thought I would share it with my readers (hopefully not violating any of her terms of use—gosh! if you ever get a chance to hear her speak, jump at it!). Randy Seaver brought up the discussion of organizing digital information a couple of months ago, but I was unable to add my two cents’ worth until now. However, I consider this Tuesday Tip to be an overdue response to Randy’s query.

First of all, I have Windows XP as my operating system. In My Documents section of My Computer, I have created a Genealogy folder, in which resides many files containing research notes, copies of emails, digital photos, downloaded images of digitized records, uploaded images from microfilmed records, and the like. Originally, for each family surname I was researching, I had a folder for every year that I had research information, with labels such as “Ton Genealogy 2004” or “Hainline Genealogy 2000”. This was an inefficient way to file, as it made it more difficult to find what was needed. Even before I attended the October Seminar, I decided to re-organize my folders by adding a Documents and a Photo folder for each surname and planned to combine e-mails and research notes for each family into a Research folder. Today’s Tuesday Tip will focus on the Documents folders for each surname and how to label the files so that information is easy to find—and even analyze!

Ms. Nuehring suggested that each document be labeled thus (minus the semicolons):

Surname; First Name; Middle Name; Married Surname at that time, if a woman; Date of Document in year, month day order; Type of document; Location Document was Created listed in largest to smallest location

This automatically will place all your documents first in alpha order by individual and secondly in date order as they were created. Let’s look at an example of some documents of major life events of my maternal grandmother:

HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian – 1919 01 16 – Birth Record – Michigan, Kent, East Grand Rapids
HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian – 1920 – Census – Washington, Pierce, Tacoma – daughter
HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian – 1930 – Census – Michigan, Kent, Grand Rapids – daughter
HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian VALK – 1943 09 11 – Marriage Certificate – Kansas, Geary, Junction City
HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian VALK – 1946 04 26 – Divorce Record – Michigan, Kent, Grand Rapids
HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian VALK DeVRIES – 1947 10 03 – Marriage License and Certificate – Michigan, Kent, Wyoming Twp
HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian VALK DeVRIES – 2001 08 25 – Death Certificate – Michigan, Kent, Grand Rapids

By glancing through this list, I can see that everything is in date order. Both times when my grandmother was married, I added her new married surname to her current name, allowing the documents to remain in order. I can immediately see what surname she was going under for the different events in her life. At a glance, I can tell whether or not I am missing any of the records of major life events, and where she was living—or visiting–during those times. For the census records that occurred during her lifetime and are publicly available, I can tell at once that she was not the head of the household, but was a daughter in the households then. If there were some changes of residences or many major events happening during census years, I may wish to use the official Census Day date to label the census documents.

My system differs from Ms. Nuehring’s in the following ways: I use uppercase letters for surnames, I used dashes between sections of information, and I wrote out state names and used commas between location places (Ms. Nuehring uses no punctuation in her file names). I also used more descriptive terms for the documents, rather than Birth or Marriage, because in some cases, I have both birth records (from county libers) and birth certificates, or marriage licenses, certificates, and parental permissions for those getting married underage. If a document has more than one page, you may wish to end the file name with “pg 1 of 8”, etc.

For some family surnames, I have very few documents. For others, I may have hundreds for dozens of individuals. In the latter case, I’ve opted to further divide my surname Documents folder into folders by individual name. This is true for the Hoekstra family, so I have created a folder labeled “HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian” as well as others with my grandmother’s sisters’ and father’s names. Ruth’s mother, Lillian Fern Strong, has her documents and photos filed in the appropriate STRONG Documents and Photos folders. All information is filed by maiden name for the ladies. Cousins with different surnames that connect with me through our common Hoekstra ancestry also have their files stored in the HOEKSTRA folders. Also, records where a document is “shared,” such as the marriage certificates and divorce record for my grandmother are copied and re-labeled in her corresponding husbands’ folders (I’m researching both my Valk biological line and my DeVries step-family line). They would appear in their respective folders as:

VALK William – 1943 09 11 – Marriage Certificate – Kansas, Geary, Junction City
VALK William – 1946 04 26 – Divorce Record – Michigan, Kent, Grand Rapids


DeVRIES Adrian – 1947 10 03 – Marriage License and Certificate – Michigan, Kent, Wyoming Twp

These are the only kind of document files that are copied and refiled. For instance, I don’t have to file copies of every record that occurred when my grandmother was going by her Valk married name. They stay in the HOEKSTRA folder and are only copied to the VALK folder if my grandfather’s name appears on them as well. This will save hard drive room.

One other note: by right-clicking on each file I can access the Properties feature of each file image and list where and when I found the document (Ancestry or other online database; e-mailed from a cousin—listing their mailing address; copied from microfilm at the Family History Center—listing the microfilm and item number; or ordered from a repository, etc.). This then lends itself to being able to know what citation to use (and for more on this, I recommend footnoteMaven’s handy “Working with Citations” post, which I also plan on implementing).

The point of all this is that using this type of system, adapting it to fit your needs, is a very efficient way of labeling your digital files, making them easy to find when doing a Search in Windows Explorer, helping you to see what records you have or which are missing. Another thing I’ve noticed: say a distant cousin contacts you, new to genealogy, and would like copies of any records that you may have of her direct ancestors. It would be very easy to find these and either attach them singularly or place them in a zip folder and e-mail them, or copy them to CD and mail them via the postal service.

Next time, we’ll talk about labeling ancestral photos, using a similar labeling technique, followed by organizing your research notes and e-mails.

UPDATE: I’ve added some clarifications at an updated post here.


11 Responses

  1. My digital files certainly need some organization and I think this system would serve me well for most records. From my main genealogy folder I have two folders, one for paternal lines and one for maternal. This helps me sort out the surnames that appear in both lines but which are unrelated such as Smith and Hall. This system trips me up with the McKinnon line however as they are connected to both lines! I also have put records with a surname that they are related to but that I only have one or two records for figuring I’d know where they were – need to fix that!

    Right now I have all census records in one folder and sort them by year and then head of household ie. 1850 Carlisle, Daniel, Buchanan, Berrien, MI. Because all of his children were living with him I hesitate to copy the file enough times to have a copy for each individual. Probably inefficient and breaks down when married children are included. Several of my families were very large but I should go back and add each name through the properties feature.

    Your suggestion to also add where we found the information this way is fantastic! So simple but what a time saver in the end.

    Great post! I look forward to your future posts. If you can help me sort out email you’ll be my genea-hero!

  2. Thanks for those great suggestions Miriam for organizing our digital files. As we get more digital needs the need for better organization is necessary.

    Having a system will make life easier in the long run.

  3. Dear Miriam,
    Thanks for this great article… it came at the perfect time since I’m about to tackle the organizing of my digital files (again). I’ve used other systems and sometimes no system at all, so there’s work to be done. I appreciate the logical method you shared. Thanks!
    Sue Edminster

  4. Wow, Apple, thanks for sharing this. I bought Legacy a few months ago, and in the course of adding document images, I tried to implement a new file-naming system similar to this. I’ll have to take a look and see how close I came–and maybe rename if necessary, because this is a thing of beauty!

  5. Baby steps….I made a new genealogy folder per your instructions. Thanks for the suggestions and the visual instructions.

  6. Hah, I am totally laughing at my little faux pas… Sorry, Miriam! I know this post (on YOUR blog!) was shared by you, not Apple! But as I wrote my comment, it was Apple’s smiling face staring at me from right next to the comment box, and she hijacked my train! Sheesh…

  7. Thanks for the well organized article, It gave me quite a bit to consider.

    I’m a little old fashioned, but I avoid punctuation in file names, with the exception of underscore ( _ ), dash (-), and the period before the file extension. This saves me the problem of how to rename my files or photos if I wish to put them in a website or on a server.

  8. Great Article, I had a similar one posted a few days ago about organization, (guess we are all trying to do that these days). I do like how you renamed the files, with exception of special characters in the names its a great idea.
    My original “Genealogy” folder was a mess, I have started with Surnames, and will break down from there.

    As for the case of hard drive space, I would not worry to much as you can get 1TB for about 150$ these days, I am only hitting 1GB right now, but space is the least of my worries :). Finding stuff is better, will have to use your nameing conventions of sorts.


  9. Thank you for all your kind comments. I’ve addressed some issues and made some clarifications at a follow-up post here.

  10. P.S. No problem, T.K.! I knew what, or rather, WHO you meant1

  11. Howdy Miriam! I’m working on catching up on all the posts I’ve missed in the last few weeks. This one is a gem! Thanks so much for sharing it. I desperately need to reorganize my filing system but until now I hadn’t found a new one that suited me. I think this just may be the one!

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