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Organizing Digital Genealogy Files

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If you use a computer in your genealogy research, then you likely have a large collection of digital files. Digital photos, downloaded census records or wills, scanned documents, emails... If you're like me, however, they are scattered in various folders throughout your computer. This complicates matters when I'm trying to locate a specific photo or track down an email.

As with any organization project, there are several different ways to organize your digital genealogy files. Begin by thinking about the way you work and the types of files that you collect in the course of your genealogy research.

Sort Your Files

Digital genealogy files are easier to organize if you first get them sorted by type. Spend some time searching your computer files for anything related to genealogy.
  • Look in your My Documents (or Documents) folder and sub-folders for text files, photos, downloaded files, and other genealogy documents.

  • Check My Pictures, or other folder where you store your photos, for any digital or scanned photos or documents.

  • Open your genealogy software program to learn where those files are stored. They may be in the same folder as your genealogy software program (often under Program Files). This may include your genealogy software file, as well as any reports you've created or photos or documents you've imported into your software program.

  • If you have downloaded any files, they may be in a Downloads, or similarly named folder.

  • Open your email program and do a search for genealogy-related emails as well. These are often easier to organize if you copy and paste them into a word processing document or your genealogy software.
Once you've located your digital genealogy files you have a number of choices. You can choose to leave them in their original locations and create an organization log to keep track of the files, or you can copy or move them into a more central location.

Log Your Digital Genealogy Files

If you prefer to leave your files in their original locations on your computer, or if you are just the super-organized type, then a log may be the way to go. This is an easy method to maintain because you don't really have to worry about where things end up on your computer - you just make a note of it. A digital file log helps simplify the process of locating a particular photograph, digitized document, or other genealogy file.

Use the table feature in your word processing program or a spreadsheet program such as Microsoft Excel to create a log for your genealogy files. Include columns for the following:

  • file name (including its extension) and date
  • location on your computer
  • a brief description of the file
  • names of the primary individual(s) or geographical area(s) in the file
  • physical location of the original document or photo (if applicable).
If you backup your digital files to CD-Rom, then include the name/number of the CD in the file location column.

Reorganize the Files on Your Computer

If a file log is too hard for you to keep up, or doesn't meet all of your needs, then another method of keeping track of your digital genealogy files is to physically reorganize them on your computer. If you don't already have one, create a folder called Genealogy to contain all of your genealogy files. I have mine as a sub-folder in the My Documents folder. Under the Genealogy folder, you can create sub-folders for places and surnames you are researching. If you use a particular physical filing system, you may want to follow the same organization on your computer. If you have a large number of files under a particular folder, then you may choose to create another level of sub-folders organized by date or document type. For example, I have a folder for my OWENS research. Within this folder I have a subfolder for photos and subfolders for each county in which I'm researching this family. The Genealogy folder on your computer is also a good place to keep a backup copy of your genealogy software, although you should also keep an additional backup copy offline.

By keeping your genealogy files in one central location on your computer, you make it easier to locate important research quickly. It also simplifies backup of your genealogy files.

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