Organize Your Digital Genealogy Files

Learn how to organize your digital genealogy photos and files.
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If you use a computer in your genealogy research—and who doesn't!—then you likely have a large collection of digital research files. Digital photos, downloaded census records or wills, scanned documents, emails... If you're like me, however, they end up scattered in various folders throughout your computer, despite your best efforts. This can really complicate matters when you need 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. Use your file explorer (e.g. Windows Explorer, Finder) to search for documents using keywords such as surnames, record types, etc. A number of free file search tools are also available that offer additional search features.
     
  • Check My Pictures, or other folder where you store your photos, for any digital or scanned photos or documents. You can also search using common image file extensions such as .jpg, .png or .tiff.
     
  • Open your genealogy software program to learn where it stores its related files. 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 DVD, USB drive, or other digital media, then include the name/number of and physical location of that media 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 or Family Research to contain all of your genealogy files. I have mine as a sub-folder in my Documents folder (also backed up to my Dropbox account).

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. Within the county folders, I have subfolders for record types, as well as a main "Research" folder where I maintain my research notes. 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.
 

Use Software Designed for Organization

An alternative to the do-it-yourself method is to use a program designed for organizing computer files.

Clooz 
An organization program designed specifically for genealogists, Clooz is billed as an "electronic filing cabinet." The software includes templates for entering information from a variety of standard genealogical documents such as census records, as well as photos, correspondence, and other genealogical records. You can import and attach a digital copy of the original photo or document to each template if you wish. Reports can be generated to show all documents contained in Clooz for a specific individual or record type.

Photo Album Software 
If your digital photos are scattered across your computer and on a collection of DVDs or external drives, a digital photo organizer such as Adobe Photoshop Elements or Google Photos can come to the rescue. These programs scan your hard drive and catalog every photo found there.

Some also have the ability to catalog photos found on other networked computers or external drives. The organization of these images varies from program to program, but most organize the photos by date. A "keyword" feature allows you to add "tags" to your photos -- such as a specific surname, location, or keyword -- to make them easy to find at any time. My tombstone photos, for example, are tagged with the word "cemetery," plus the name of the particular cemetery, the location of the cemetery and the surname of the individual. This gives me four different ways to easily find the same picture.

One last method of organization for digital files is to import them all into your genealogy software program. Photos and digitized documents can be added to many family tree programs through a scrapbook feature. Some can even be attached as sources. Emails and text files can be copied and pasted into the notes field for the individuals to which they pertain. This system is nice if you have a small family tree, but can get a bit cumbersome if you have a large number of documents and photos which apply to more than one person.

No matter what organization system you choose for your computer genealogy files, the trick is to use it consistently. Pick a system and stick to it and you'll never have trouble finding a document again. One last perk to digital genealogy - it helps eliminate some of the paper clutter!