16 October 2020

Make Your Genealogy Documents Speak Volumes

Census sheets, ship manifests, birth, marriage and death records. These are the documents that bring your ancestors to life. Without them, you have no tangible evidence for your extended family.

The digital documents I collect are the heartbeat of my family tree. And I spend a good deal of time processing and caring for them.

My goal today is to get you thinking about how you handle your digital documents. What can you do to be more efficient? More thorough? More careful? More importantly, how can you make your family tree more valuable?

Careful work pays off in the form of a highly reliable family tree.
Careful work pays off in the form of a highly reliable family tree.

Note that I have very few paper documents, and I've scanned them all into digital files. You won't find anything about color-coded binders and folders on this blog.

I have a vast collection of meticulously annotated, logically filed, safely backed-up documents. I make a habit of putting each new digital document through a series of steps. After downloading the digital document, I:

  1. Name the file in my usual style, which is most often LastnameFirstnameEventYear. For example, MartuccioMariaDeath1801.jpg. Note: I name census sheets and ship manifests for the head of the household or the traveling group.
  2. Crop the image in Photoshop to remove excess background or an unneeded facing page. Many old Italian birth and death records have 2 or more records in an image.
  3. Enhance the contrast so the document is easier to read, if necessary. Photoshop has a few good controls for this.
  4. Add a title and description to the document file's properties. These 2 field carry over when I drag and drop them into Family Tree Maker. I follow a pattern like this:
    • Title: 1801 death record for Maria Martuccio
    • Description: From the Benevento State Archives [followed by the exact URL of the image]
  5. Attach the image to the appropriate person(s) in Family Tree Maker. I turn the earliest image I have into a person's profile image.
  6. Create a source citation for each fact in the document.
  7. Add a notation to my document tracker spreadsheet so I know I've got this document.
  8. Keep the image file in a special folder, waiting for my weekly backup of all new files.
  9. Move the file to its final destination in my collection of digital family tree folders.
Annotated images tell you exactly where they came from.
Annotated images tell you exactly where they came from.

Yes, it's a lot, but it all serves my goal: To have the best family tree as a resource for anyone with roots in one of my ancestral hometowns. I want to be the absolute go-to family tree because of how carefully I document every fact in my tree.

Consider these ideas for your family tree document handling and care:

What do you say? Is your family tree—your legacy—worth doing right?


  1. Thank you! I'm new to FTM and knew I was missing something. You answered my question!

    1. There's always more to learn in FTM. I think we get set in our ways and forget to look around once in a while.

  2. I’m attempting to print my family tree information now that ancestry is charging to give me access to the data. I have family tree make also. How can I print all the sources where they can be read (full page) all at once? I have 4 trees and doing it individually is overwhelming. Thanks for your help.

    1. Download your trees as GEDCOM files and open them in Family Tree Maker. I can't imagine wasting all that paper!