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Organizing Your Digital Files

Updated: Dec 29, 2018

   Thanks to those who provided feedback on last week’s blog.  The case study format seemed to work for many of you, so perhaps I’ll try to do something similar once a month.  Now back to organizing!

   I haven’t added any new piles in the past three weeks, so that’s good.  As I’ve tried to take a document from my to do file each day, I’ve found that the “piles” tend to be on my computer desktop.  I have to make an effort to file there as well.  My digital filing has evolved over the years and is probably still evolving.  

   Two weeks ago I explained my paper filing strategy and as I said, I use an Ahnentafel filing system.  About two years ago, I replicated the 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.  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.  

Notice that it moved 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 grandparents.  Hopefully someday I’ll identify these individuals and their information will drop easily into place.


   So now I have a place to put all of the documents for each family including the collaterals…the siblings of the ancestors.  Well, that got messy pretty quickly.  I needed another level of filing.  Here’s an example from one of the files that has yet to be cleaned up…yes, this is a work in progress.

One of the first questions to answer is how are you going to consistently name 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.  Because I use a Mac I don’t worry about spaces and have 255 characters to add additional information if necessary (although longer names can get messy as they typically will get truncated in your file view).


   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

     1854-12-4  Moughty, Bernard Baptismal Transcription

     1917-12-11 Daly, Michael Declaration of Intent

     1977-2-12 Daly, Ann Jane (Martin) Funeral Card

Because 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. I use the surname name that appears in the document, and then note the maiden name for woman. If a record provides a different spelling or incorrect name, I’ll use the name 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, Bernard 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 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 1864-1916; marriages 1870-1941; deaths 1878-1966.  Marriages still have to be completed back to 1864 (1845 for Protestant marriages) and deaths back to 1864.  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, 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.  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.   

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.


   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!

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