Saturday, October 2, 2010

Sorting Saturday - Managing Your Genealogy Digital Files

I will admit this right up front: I do not do well with paper. I print off pages from the Internet, have scraps of notes laying around, notebooks with information from seminars, brochures - you name it. These scraps of paper seldom get filed.

On the other hand, I'm more of a fanatic when it comes to organizing my digital files. Why? Because by doing so, I have dramatically increased the likelihood of finding the piece of information that I am looking for. And finding it faster.

My digital file tool box includes the following:

  • 75 gb external USB drive dedicated solely to genealogy files (yes, I keep it backed up)
  • Flatbed scanner - I scan everything at 600 dpi as I don't know what files I may want to publish in print format. I always make a smaller, web friendly version of the same file and add "sm" (for small) onto the filename.
  • Microsoft OneNote software - this handy dandy tool comes packaged with Microsoft Office Home and Student or as a standalone product
  • The Adobe pdf plug-in for Microsoft Word - if you don't have this, you need to get it. Download here.
  • My digital camera
Microsoft OneNote 2010 is a lifesaver for someone like me who "doesn't do paper." When I find a web site that references someone I am researching, rather than print a paper copy, I select "Print to OneNote" and it saves a digital version of the page for me. Then, in the OneNote software, I select the option for all text in an image to be converted to searchable text. I enter a subject/topic identifier so I can easily see the files I have saved. I can then move all of my "unfiled notes" into folders of my choosing (surnames, locations, etc.).

OneNote also has a fantastic Screen Clipping feature which I used for the graphics in this post. Each individual clipping can then be saved as a png file which you can edit in your favorite photo editing software.

The Adobe pdf plug-in for Microsoft Office is a must-have if you want to convert a Word file to an Adobe pdf file. As an example, I may create a book about one line of the family, import photos into word, write my text, insert images of census records, etc. When my book is complete, I can "Save as PDF" and, in seconds, I have a PDF file that retains all of my layout and formatting, text is searchable and I can share on my web site, blog or Google docs. Yes, you can create your own PDF file without having to purchase a PDF creation product such as Adobe Professional. Oh yes, the plug-in for Word is Free.

Organizing Digital Files

I read an article in Family Tree Magazine a while back that offered some tips about organizing digital files. I took their basic premise and adapted it to meet my needs. Here's what the root directory on my 75gb drive looks like:

As you can see, I have created general topics for surnames, cemeteries, reference books, location research, etc. For the folders that I use the most, I've added a letter of the alphabet to aid in locating the folder. For example, "A - Surnames."

Here is my surname folder. This is where it can get a little complicated. Within each surname file, there might be in-law files. For example, for Nellie Kelly, her records remain in the folder with her parents, William Kelly and Mary Casey until the time of her marriage to Ode E. Rector. Then I begin a Rector surname folder. I have a tendency to keep the in-laws sub-folders with the primary surname that I am researching until the information on that family expands to the point where it requires its own folder.

That part of my filing system may not work for everyone, especially as your tree expands and you can't remember who married who. If that's the case, once you have a new surname (equivalent to the paper Family Group Sheet), just move that folder to the main directory for your surnames, so all of your surnames are listed in one location.

In my Bellinger folder, I have folders for individuals, and once they are married with children of their own, I may create a folder with the names of both husband and wife, as I did with Daniel Floyd Bellinger and his wife, Gladys, in the image above. As I add information to their family, I move them up one level.

In theory, I use this same sorting/filing system for my paper files - it's just that the paper files do not get updated as often as I do my digital files.

My individual and surname folders may include images such as census records, scans of newspaper articles and photographs and any other digital record I have on the person or family.

I use a similar system for my location research. The files shown above are the Nebraska counties that I research. The county histories and other historical documents that I am able to download from sites like Google books go in these folders.

Articles that I come across are also saved to topic folders. These, too, can be created to meet the needs of your own research.

I am eagerly awaiting my Flip-Pal digital scanner (they are supposed to ship this month!), so I can begin scanning the items that are too large for my flatbed scanner - scrapbooks, posters, oversized photographs, etc. Those items are so large, they won't file in a paper file folder, so it will be nice to archive those and have the digital version available on my computer.

Do you have a tip to share on organizing digital files? If so, please leave a comment below.


  1. I use a similar system with the exception that I keep documents and photos in a master file. I put links to the masters in individual files. This way I don't have to make duplicate copies of records or photos that refer to more than one individual (census, marriage, group pictures, etc.).

  2. Great job, I too find I am better organized on my computer. The paper files - - disaster.

  3. I love your comments on OneNote. I'm going to investigate how to do some of those things. I love OneNote and am learning new ways of using it all of the time! Thanks!

  4. GOOD GRIEF, you guys are ORGANIZED! I love it, but I can see that I am WAY BEHIND and NEED HELP!!!

  5. Great post! I am so glad that I am not the only one falling in love with OneNote. I love all the ways that you use it! Great blog post!

  6. Fantastic post! Many of my documents are set-up similar to this but not all. I'm in the process of clearing out the paper piles now and hope to be done soon. Wonderful ideas for One Note. I can't wait to incorporate many of these ideas into my own daily routine! Thanks for sharing!!