18 June 2019

3 Simple Rules for Managing Your Digital Genealogy Documents

My on-the-job organization skills help a lot with my genealogy research.

How did you begin this all-consuming hobby called genealogy? You may have started your simple family tree for a school project, or your kid's school project.

At some point, we each decided to get more serious about genealogy. We started looking for documents on genealogy websites. We tried to find our parents or grandparents on a census sheet, and we downloaded the images to attach to our family tree. Then we branched out. We found our grandparents' brothers and sisters living with their spouses and kids. Then we looked for ship manifests with the names of our immigrant ancestors.

It becomes addictive before you know it. Time passes, and we have a decent collection of facts and images.

Follow 3 simple rules and you'll always know where to find any digital genealogy file.
Follow 3 simple rules and you'll always know where to find any digital genealogy file.

But what do we do with all those census and ship manifest images?

I started downloading census images in 2002 when I got my Ancestry.com subscription. Seventeen years later, I have 732 census sheet images in one folder. I have 414 ship manifest images in another folder.

You may have a lot more than that. My census collection is small compared to the size of my family tree. That's because I don't have a single blood relative who was in a census-taking country before 1900.

It wasn't long before I realized I had a problem. I had to figure out how to organize the census sheets, ship manifests, and everything else I was finding. I wanted the alphabetical organization of files in folders to make it easy to find any one image.

I had to name and organize the files in a way that would always make sense to me.

GeneaLOGICAL™ Organization

These are my 3 basic rules for taming my collection of genealogy document images.
  1. Have one main FamilyTree folder. Mine backs up to a cloud automatically.
There are a limited number of genealogy document types. Filing by type makes great sense.
There are a limited number of genealogy document types. Filing by type makes great sense.
  1. Have a sub-folder for each type of document:
    • census forms
    • certificates (birth, marriage, and death documents)
    • city directories
    • draft cards (registration cards for World War I and II)
    • immigration (ship manifests)
    • military records (different than draft registration cards, these detail a person's military service)
    • naturalization (declaration of intent, petition for citizenship, and actual citizenship)
    • passports (applications)
    • photos (including grave marker photos)
There's no doubt what's where and which file is which. All it takes is a simple naming pattern.
There's no doubt what's where and which file is which. All it takes is a simple naming pattern.
  1. Name each file for the main person, last name first, and include the year. For example, in my immigration folder I have:
    • IamarinoPasquale1902.jpg. That's my great grandfather who came to America once and stayed.
    • IamarinoPietro1920-p1.jpg and IamarinoPietro1920-p2.jpg. That's my grandfather who came to America at a time when ship manifests covered two pages.
    • IamarinoPietro1958.jpg. That's Grandpa when he was a widower and went to visit his mother in Italy for the first and only time.
    In my census folder I have images named for the head of household:
    • IamarinoPasquale1910.jpg
    • IamarinoPasquale1915.jpg
    • IamarinoPasquale1920.jpg
    That's clear, right? Now here's an exception because my grandfather had a cousin with his same name:
    • IamarinoPeterLucy1930.jpg. That's Grandpa and Grandma Lucy.
    • IamarinoPeterMarie1930.jpg. That's Grandpa's cousin and his wife Marie.
    For Birth, Marriage, and Death records, it's Lastname Firstname Event Year. For example:
    • ZeollaPasqualeBirth1821.jpg. The 1821 birth record of Pasquale Zeolla.
    • MarinoFrancescoDeath1844.jpg. The 1844 death record of Francesco Marino.
    • IamarinoAngeloAntonioPozzutoAnnaelenaMarriage1817. Marriage records get the groom's name and the bride's name for clarity. Thank goodness for long file names. This is the 1817 marriage record of Angelo Antonio Iamarino and Annaelena Pozzuto
I've seen countless debates about family tree file storage. They all look too complicated to me, and not helpful at all. Some people suggest keeping the document images in folders separated by family.

If I had a separate folder for each family or each last name, I'd have an insane amount of folders. And where would I put my great grandmother before she married my great grandfather? In the Caruso folder or the Iamarino folder?

My file names would have to be much longer, too. How would I know the CarusoGiuseppe1900.jpg was a ship manifest and not a census form?

Say I need to look at my great grandmother's brother Giuseppe's 1905 New York State Census record. I know exactly where to find it. It's in the census forms folder, and it's named CarusoGiuseppe1905.jpg.

After 17 years, I haven't had a split-second of regret about my file-naming and filing system. A place for everything, and everything in its place.

Is your filing method driving you crazy? Are you wasting time trying to find the right image? Are you ready for a genealogy file do-over?

A word of warning. I use Family Tree Maker, and I let it copy all images into a single media folder. That way, anything I do to my images' names or locations has no effect on my family tree.

Your setup may be different. Don't dive into a big file naming project before testing what it will do to your genealogy program. Let's get organized!


  1. I started years ago with a folder on my computer named SURNAME and sub folders for each ancestor NAME and in it are all files for that family. Now years later it’s clunky and messy and needs major renovation... it’s just that now there’s so much it’s daunting! And I have other genealogy projects that take up my time. I should give it all to my daughter to organize lol.
    I love reading your tips, and I like the way you refer to past posts. When I do get around to organizing your helpful posts won’t be hard to find.

    1. Thanks, Dianne. I was lucky that I realized so early that I needed a good system.

  2. Once again, I hear myself saying, 'OH MY GOSH - this is just what I've been needing!' Thank you for not only the great information, but also for all the time I'm going to save not having to dig so long for a file.

    1. That's the perfect response! If it's taking you too long to find a specific file, this system will end your troubles.

  3. Nice article, your file system almost mirrors mine. My main folder is called genealogy. My docs or records are in the subfolder Records. Then I have folders that match my simple tree names such as MyFamily, Filipiak-Gloede (husband's family), McAbee (my half siblings father's family. If a subfolder such as births get too many, I will create subfolders based on surname with in the birth folder. My census folder has subfolders for each census year. Like you, I find I think in terms of documents, not surnames. Also, in my file names I like underscores to help reading them. I am a little dyslexic and this helps me.

    1. Charlene, I do like your underscores idea. Iamarino_Peter_Lucy_1930.jpg instead of IamarinoPeterLucy1930.jpg.

  4. I often say that the best organization system is the one that works for you - the one you'll keep up with. And thus it needs to be pretty simple as yours is - easy to navigate and remember. (That side, I still file by couples' surnames and sort families within the surname. Still works for me.)

    1. I can't imagine filing by name. I've got 21,000 people! But you're right: the best system is the one that works best for you.

  5. Great ideas here! I have similarly modified my file-naming system and it has created order out of chaos -- at least for those documents I have gotten to :-) More to do, but a system helps.

    1. I think it's always good to set a strategy to use going forward, and to clean up past work whenever you can.

    2. Hello DiAnn: I have family photographs which I will be leaving to a local archive (no kids). I therefore organize them by:
      1. Fonds name abbreviation
      2. Date and location
      3. Subject
      So a title might look like this:
      HEG-1945-05-17 Ottawa-Daughters Nicole & Marie-Hélène at Parliament Bldgs
      HEG being my grandfather Hector E. Gauthier.
      Date format: YYYY-MM-DD so they remain in chronological order in the folder.
      I figure that if anyone ever wants to search the database, they can use a search to find individuals' names, places, etc.
      PS LOVE your blog! -- Denise

    3. Thanks for both the input and for reading my blog!

  6. I have been researching this topic and yours seems to make the most sense. On top of what you described above, if you tag each of your documents and photos with metadata or descriptive file names, you can search a person's name and it would bring up all of the media you have for that ancestor.

    1. Mark, please expand on this. I add a title and description to my image files. How would you go about searching for names? Are you searching in File Explorer (assuming you're on Windows), or some other way? I have been very satisfied with the Everything program. I recently needed to find a particular photo of my uncle, and Everything was the only way I could find it.

    2. 'Mark' didn't answer you but I think I can. By 'metadata' he may be referring to keywords. In my process, keywords are names. Those are added to every single image file I have, 25,00 or so of the ancestors, and can be found most simply through the Windows Search box at the top of every Windows screen. So if I type in with quotations, "Olive M Harris" it will instantly bring up every file of hers, regardless of what folder it's in. Metadata can be read and searched through various other programs but Windows will do most of the time. It also reads locations and record types that have been added to the images, in the metadata, as well as file-names. I keep my file-names short and depend almost entirely on the metadata. I don't use Windows for writing metadata and it doesn't read everything either. In any case, I don't have the commonly-used folder structure based on surnames/record-types and locations.

      MRIN Filing System+ at https://jlbeeken.gumroad.com/l/mrin-filing-system-plus

  7. Hi DiAnn, You stated I use Family Tree Maker, and I let it copy all images into a single media folder. That way, anything I do to my images' names or locations has no effect on my family tree.
    Does that create a second copy of the image within Family Tree Maker? Such that you now have 2 copies of the file -- one in your original filing system and then one in FTM Media folder?
    I am getting ready to start this project and reading all your posts regarding processing the data from images and putting them into FTM.

    1. Hi, Marian. Yes, FTM creates a media folder on my computer with a copy of all the media (photos, documents, PDFs, video, sound) I add to my tree. They don't have the same file names as my originals, though. They have whatever title I give them when I put them in my tree. For example, "1754 birth record for Vincenzo Iamarino". My tree has 31,000 people, so this one folder has 15,000 items!

  8. Thank you, thank you for this post! I used it to fix my files. I was doing by last name, but inside each was just a jumbled mess. Now I have these subfolders inside my name folders and I took the jumbled mess and placed the items in the subfolders! Now I am going into each subfolder and renaming the items so they are in order. I already feel like my files are more helpful!
    I just found your blog this weekend and am reading through all your posts. Thank you again!