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Organizing Digital Genealogy Files

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

Thanks for the feedback from last week. I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that I am completely organized...nothing is further from the truth. It's a process and a journey that doesn't happen all at once. Since I began tackling this a few years ago, I have organized and "fixed" a number of files but there are still some that need work. So don't beat yourself up over this.

   Last week I explained my paper filing strategy and as I said, I use an Ahnentafel filing system, a system I've used for many years. This is just one of many ways to organize...the right system for you is the one that works, and it may be binder, color coding, surname or something else.  About three years ago, I decided to replicate my paper system to my digital files.  Prior to that, I had folders by surname with lots of documents, not well organized.  When I looked for a Bernard Moughty, I’d have to dig through bunches of files to figure out which Bernard the document referred to.  Bernard is one of the names that repeats in every generation of the Moughty family and through all the collaterals.

   I began with my Ahnentafel listing. I explained this last week, but the Ancestor Chart above shows you the numbering system.  My system begins with my three daughters, so the records go back for both my family and my husband’s family.  My girls are numbered 1a, 1b and 1c.  My husband and I then become 2/3.  By looking at the chart above, you can see that the number of the next generation is double the existing generation. My dad is 6 (double my number of 3), his father is 12 and his father is 24. The mothers are double plus 1which is why I number the couple.

Notice with the example above, that the numbers move along quite nicely until 48/49 and 50/51 which are missing. Divide 48 in half and you’ll discover that the numbers represent the parents of my Ukrainian great grandfather.  Hopefully someday I’ll identify these individuals and their information will drop easily into place. 60/61 represent my 2nd great grandparents. Divide that in half, and 30/31 are my great grandparents, 14/15 are my grandparents, 6/7 my parents beginning with my mother. The big question with this method is what to do with the collaterals. William Moag and Mary Rush had 13 children. Child number 5 was my great grandfather, so he appears in the main list as number 30. Notice at the next level, the children of William and Mary are listed in birth order (with no #5). Each level continues forward, so in the example above, child #1, John had 14 children and Charles John (child #2) had two children.    So now I have a place to put all of the documents for each family including the collaterals…the siblings of the ancestors. On collateral lines I also add in a file folder for the family of the spouse. John's wife was a Dawson.  I've done most of the collateral research online, so I download the documents and file them in the appropriate file. Normally I would not print out a paper copy. It's important that you decide on a standard way of naming your documents. Drew Smith offers some great suggestions in his book, Organize Your Genealogy, but whatever you come up with it needs to work for you (and your computer operating system). And, it needs to be something you can use consistently.  Another place to check for ideas is CyndisList.    Most of what I file are either documents or photographs.  I’ve started naming them first with a date, then surname, given name and category of document.  I can add additional information if necessary although longer names can get messy as they typically will get truncated in your file view. Clicking on the document will allow you to see the entire name.    I’ve been doing a lot of research in civil records in Ireland since they are now online.  Over the years I’ve spent a great deal of money buying copies from the General Register Office, so I do have copies of some records in my paper files.  In most cases, it’s easier to just go and get the digital copy than to scan the paper copy, but that’s your choice. Here’s how I name them:      1886-12-20 Daly, Michael Birth Q4; Vol. 4; Pg. 124 (old GRO indexing system)      1854-12-4  Moughty, Bernard Baptism Transcription      1917-12-11 Daly, Michael Declaration of Intent      1977-2-12 Daly, Ann Jane (Martin) Funeral Card With the addition of the online images of civil records at IrishGenealogy the GRO began using a new indexing system. For those records I add the Registration District name and the Group Registration ID (GRID). I only add the year if the registration was done outside the year of the event. Those records then are listed:

1892-12-12 Sprague, Rachel Hewston Birth 1893 Ballyshannon GRID 9037008.

1897-8-14 Moughty, Mary (Glennon) Death Mullingar GRID 4214043

1906-9-19 Moag, Charlotte and Sam McMurray Marriage Newtownards GRID 1967762

Because of the way computer systems sort, I use the year, followed by the month and day for the date. If I don’t have an exact date, I’ll use just the year or year and month.  Sometimes, especially with photos, I make an educated guess on the year. This allows all of the documents to be listed in chronological order in the folder. I use the surname that appears in the document, and then note the maiden name for women. If a record provides a different spelling or incorrect name, I’ll use the name as it appears in the record, and then the “standardized” name as I would file it in parenthesis.

   Next are the siblings.  The direct ancestor already has his own file.  The siblings of the direct ancestor are added to the file with their parents.  Each get their own file folder and are numbered by their birth order.  In the example below, the oldest, Patrick was the direct ancestor so his siblings are 2 Mary, 3 John and 4 Anne.  For the females I use their married names in parenthesis if known, for my own sanity!  The documents on the parents are then listed in date order.

This process continues as long as you have children of children. (See example above) Currently Irish civil registration records are available online at for births 1864-1919; marriages 1864-1944 plus Protestant marriages from 1845-1863; deaths 1871-1969. Deaths Indexes are available from1864 to 1870 but no images are available for those years.  You can do a lot of collateral family research with what is available now.  Prior to civil registration you can search for church records at RootsIreland (subscription).  In addition, Ancestry and FindMyPast both have indexes to the images digitized by the National Library.  FamilySearch has an index to Civil Registration until 1958 for the Republic, but the images can only be accessed at a FamilyHistory Library or Center.  IrishGenealogy also has church records for specific counties.    Some people have asked me why collect information on all of these other people? Collateral research can be the way to break through your brick walls and can help you identify family groups. As I discovered when I "found" one of John Moag's descendants, he had the Family Bible. If you are using DNA these other names are important in determining relationships to your DNA matches.    Here are a few other things that work for me.  I’ve made the decision to use .jpg or .pdf as my default file format.  I know that .tiff is a higher quality and better format for saving pictures, but the documents are very large and many software programs and online trees only accept .jpg or .pdf.  I’ve found that once I file in the digital file, it is easy to connect the pictures and documents to my genealogy software (Reunion). Having them in the correct place to start with prevents the links from breaking. I have also recently moved all of my files to the Cloud (in my case, iCloud). Unfortunately, Backblaze, my backup software, doesn't back up Cloud files, so I'm looking for an alternative solution.    When I have a picture or document that includes multiple people such as a census, I file it in the folder of the head of family and then move an alias of the document to the files of others.  This saves space.    As I said last week, I’m sure that many of you have your own digital filing system and I’d like to hear how you file.  You may have a better system.😀 Happy Hunting!

Father's Day is next Sunday and many of the DNA companies are offering discounts on their kits. This is an especially good time to purchase Y-DNA kits from FamilyTree DNA. Also check out Vivid-Pix Father's Day Card promotion. You can find these offers on the Promotions page.

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Jun 24, 2020

Thanks, Anita. I think the term "shortcut" is what I call an "alias" on the Mac. I'll have to remember that. When I googled "alias" and windows I ended up with a very technical descriptions which didn't sound anything like what I was trying to explain.😀


Thank you for excellent illustrations and explanations for your digital filing system. I do something very similar. The main difference is that I give the husband and wife separate folders, and add dates to the name (1850-1931).

Instead of omitting the ancestor from the children list in the parent's folder, I insert a 'shortcut' there - it can be handy, when filing copies of something to more than one sibling's folder.

As you have done, I number the filed items with dates. I decided to do that because of wanting a timeline. Now, I can open a specific person's folder, look at it in 'list view' - voila - I have a timeline! : )

I like the hint of…


Jun 21, 2020

Glad it's helpful. Anyone else what to let people know how they organize?


Donna, thank you for sharing how you organize your digital files. The examples are really helpful and have given me some ideas for improving what I am currently doing.

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