How to Organize Your Genealogy Files

Woman at table looking at genealogical tree
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Piles of copies of old records, printouts from genealogy websites, and letters from fellow genealogy researchers are sitting in piles on the desk, in boxes, and even on the floor. Some are even mixed in with bills and your children's school papers. Your papers may not be completely disorganized -- if you're asked for something specific, you can probably find it, but it definitely isn't a filing system that you would describe as efficient.

Believe it or not, the solution is as simple as finding an organizational system that suits your needs and research habits and then making it work. It might not be as simple as it sounds, but it is doable and will ultimately help to keep you from spinning your wheels and duplicating research.

Which Filing System is Best

Ask a group of genealogists how they organize their files, and you're likely to get as many different answers as genealogists. There are a number of popular genealogy organization systems, including binders, notebooks, files, etc., but there truly is no individual system which is "best" or "correct." We all think and behave differently, so ultimately the most important consideration in setting up your filing system is that it must fit your personal style. The best organization system is always the one that you will use.

Taming the Paper Monster

As your genealogy project progresses you'll find that you have numerous paper documents to file for each individual that you research -- birth records, census records, newspaper articles, wills, correspondence with fellow researchers, Web site printouts, etc. The trick is to develop a filing system that will enable to easily lay your fingers on any of these documents at any time.

Commonly used genealogical filing systems include:

  • By Surname: All papers for an individual surname are filed together.
  • By Couple or Family: All papers related to a husband and wife or family unit are filed together.
  • By Family Line: All papers related to a specific family line are filed together. Many genealogists begin by starting with four such ancestral lines -- one for each of their grandparents.
  • By Event: All papers related to a specific event type (i.e. birth, marriage, census, etc.) are filed together.

Beginning with any of the four systems mentioned above, you could then further organize your papers into the following categories:

  • By Location: Papers are first grouped by one of the four genealogy filing systems listed above, and then further broken down by country, state, county, or town to reflect your ancestor's migration. For example, if you chose the Surname Method, you would first group all CRISP ancestors together, and then further break the piles down into the England CRISPs, the North Carolina CRISPs, and the Tennessee CRISPs.
  • By Record Type: Papers are first grouped by one of the four genealogy filing systems listed above, and then further broken down by record type (i.e. birth records, census records, wills, etc.).

Binders, Folders, Notebooks, or Computer

The first step to starting an organizational system is to decide on the basic physical form for your filing (piles don't count!) -- file folders, notebooks, binders, or computer disks.

  • Filing Cabinet and File Folders: File folders, probably the most popular organizational tool for genealogists, are inexpensive, very portable, and easily hold papers of different shapes and sizes. When dropped, however, file folders can become quite a mess -- with papers thrown out of order, and possibly misplaced. File folders make it easy to consult documents, but you have to be diligent about making sure the paper is put back where it came from. Once you've generated a lot of paper, however, the file folder system is the most flexible and expandable.
  • Binders: If you're someone who really likes to keep things together in one place, then organizing your printed genealogy data into binders may be a good option for you. This method standardizes your genealogical records into a regular size paper format. Documents that you don't wish to three-hole punch, can be added in polypropylene sleeves. Binders are portable and don't require a filing cabinet, however, if you do a lot of genealogical research you may find that binders eventually become too cumbersome on their own.​
  • Computer Disks, CDs, and DVDs: Transcribing or scanning genealogical documents into the computer can save quite a bit of space, and computerized organizational systems can greatly speed up tedious tasks such as sorting and cross-referencing. CD-ROM quality has also greatly improved, supposedly lasting indefinitely under proper storage conditions. But, will your descendants 100 or more years from now have a computer that can read them? If you choose to use your computer as your primary organizational system, consider also making and preserving copies or printouts of important documents.

Once you get started organizing your genealogical clutter, you'll probably find that a combination of storage methods works best. Some people, for example, use binders to organize "proven" family and file folders for miscellaneous research on unproven connections, neighborhood or locality research, and correspondence. It is important to keep in mind that organization is and always will be a work in progress.

Organizing Your Genealogy Using File Folders

To set up and use file folders to organize your genealogy records you will need the following basic supplies:

  1. A filing cabinet or file boxes with lids. The boxes need to be strong, preferably plastic, with horizontal inner ridges or grooves for letter-size hanging files.
  2. Colored, letter-size hanging file folders in blue, green, red, and yellow. Look for ones with large tabs. You can also save a bit of money here by purchasing standard green hanging file-folders instead and using colored labels for the color-coding.
  3. Manila folders. These should have slightly smaller tabs than the hanging file folders and should have reinforced tops to last through heavy use.
  4. Pens. For best results, use a pen with an ultra fine point, felt tip, and black, permanent, acid-free ink.
  5. Highlighters. Buy highlighters in light blue, light green, yellow, and pink (don't use red because it is too dark). Colored pencils also work.
  6. Labels for file folders. These labels should have blue, green, red and yellow strips along the top and permanent adhesive on the back.

Once you've assembled your supplies, it's time to get started with the file folders. Use different colored file folders for the lineages of each of your four grandparents -- in other words, all folders created for the ancestors of one grandparent will be marked with the same color. The colors you select are up to you, but the following color choices are the most common:

  • BLUE - ancestors of your paternal grandfather (father's father)
  • GREEN - ancestors of your paternal grandmother (father's mother)
  • RED - ancestors of your maternal grandfather (mother's father)
  • YELLOW - ancestors of your maternal grandmother (mother's mother)

Using the colors as outlined above, create a separate folder for each surname, writing names on the hanging file tab insert with the black permanent marker (or printing inserts on your printer). Then hang the files in alphabetical order in your file box or cabinet by color (i.e. put the blues alphabetically in one group, the greens in another group, etc.).

If you're new to genealogy research, this may be all you need to do. If you have accumulated a lot of notes and photocopies, however, it is now time to subdivide. Here is where you need to choose how you want to organize your files. The two most popular methods as discussed on page 1 of this article are:

  1. by Surname (further broken down as needed by Locality and/or Record Type)
  2. by Couple or Family Group

The basic filing instructions are the same for each, the difference is primarily in how they are organized. If you aren't sure yet which method will work best for you, try using the Surname method for one surname and the Family Group method for one or two families. See which one suits you best, or develop your own combination of the two.

Family Group Method

Create a family group sheet for each married couple listed on your pedigree chart. Then set up manila folders for each of the families by putting a colored label on the file folder tab. Match the label color to the color of the appropriate family line. On each label, write the names of the couple (using the maiden name for the wife) and the numbers from your pedigree chart (most pedigree charts use the ahnentafel numbering system). Example: James OWENS and Mary CRISP, 4/5. Then place these manila family folders in the hanging folders for the appropriate surname and color, arranged in alphabetical order by the husband's first name or in numerical order by the numbers from your pedigree chart.

In the front of each manila folder, attach the family group record of the family to serve as a table of contents. If there was more than one marriage, make a separate folder with a family group record for each other marriage. Each family folder should include all documents and notes from the time of a couple's marriage. Documents which pertain to events prior to their marriage should be filed in the folders of their parents, such as birth certificates and family census records.

Surname and Record Type Method

First, sort your files by surname, and then create manila folders for each of the record types for which you have paperwork by putting a colored label on the file folder tab, matching the label color to the surname. On each label, write the name of the surname, followed by the record type. Example: CRISP: Census, CRISP: Land Records. Then place these manila family folders in the hanging folders for the appropriate surname and color, arranged in alphabetical order by the type of record.

In the front of each manila folder, create and attach a table of contents that indexes the contents of the folder. Then add all documents and notes which correspond to the surname and type of record.

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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "How to Organize Your Genealogy Files." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Powell, Kimberly. (2021, September 8). How to Organize Your Genealogy Files. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "How to Organize Your Genealogy Files." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).