scattered books and genealogy files

What You Need To Know To Organize Your Genealogy Files

Know the basics to organize your genealogy files successfully. Learn how to start with a organization system you build for your own genealogy research.

Every year January rolls around and I get the organizing bug. I love researching new organizing systems.

I might be an organization junkie. [Okay,  I AM an organizing junkie.]

I am also an organization flunkie.

I see all of those pretty organized homes. organized calendars/planners and even organized genealogy files.

Pretty, color coded files and binders. Beautiful, nested folders in Dropbox. Perfectly organized photo display walls.

I jump into organizing an project but never last more that a couple of weeks.  I have just never been able to stick with one system for very long….especially a genealogy one! Anyone else?

Are your genealogy files disorganized? Let's talk about what you need to know to organize your genealogy files.

Are you thinking to yourself THIS will be the year you organize your genealogy files?

Let’s look at why we [I mean “I”] have failed in the past before we look at how to start this new year off right.

The Reason We (Again, I mean “I”) Have “Flunked” Genealogy Organization in the Past

The reason keeping my genealogy files organized eludes me is really quite simple:

I have been trying to go full force into someone else’s organization system.

Read that again.  (I’ll wait.)

A successful genealogy organization system is one you build for yourself and use consistently.  Take that to heart. Internalize it!

You may get ideas from others – even me –  but there is no one correct or magical way to organize your genealogy files.  

Once I understood that, I was able to begin building my own system and organize my genealogy files successfully. 

I share below the components of my organization system.

Use what works for you.  Change what does not work for you.

The Basics to Organize Your Genealogy Files

1. Habits and Time

A habit is a regular practice developed over time.  

Your genealogy organization system will require establishing habits for filing and recording your research.  Consistency – NOT Perfection – is key.

I cannot stress the importance of consistency!  Regardless of the system you create and use, if you are not consistent, your genealogy file system will fail.

2. Your Filing System

File your digital and paper files using the same system. That will simplify your filing and save time when you search for a document.   A nesting folder system is one such solution.  Here is an example created for the Talbott family files.


  • Main Surname (Talbott)
    • Births
      • Joseph M. Talbott
      • Boss Henry Talbott
      • Charles M. Talbott
    • Deaths
      • Joseph M. Talbott
      • Boss Henry Talbott
      • Charles M. Talbott
    • Marriages
      • Boss Talbott/Esther Richardson
      • M. Talbott/Rosa Bowen
    • Census Records
      • 1790
      • 1800
      • 1810
      • [Add each census year you have records for.]
    • Military Records
      • Revolutionary War
        • David G. Talbott
      • War of 1812
      • Civil War
        • John B. Talbott

Here is another nesting folder system.  (This is the one I use.)

This system works well as nesting folders on your computer and as paper file folders for hard copies.

  • MAIN SURNAME (Talbott)
    • Individual Ancestor (Boss Henry Talbott)
      • Birth, Marriage, Death Records (Family Bible, Marriage License, Death Certificate for BHT)
      • Census Records (1900-1940)
      • Military Records (Draft Card)
      • Wills & Estate Records 
      • Records for wife during their marriage years* (Esther Lee Richardson Talbott)
      • Records for children while living in father’s household. [Once a child leaves father’s household, the  male child gets his own folder.  A female will go into her husband’s folder from the point of marriage.] (Arthur Crafton Talbott)
    • Individual Ancestor (Joseph Merritt Talbott)
      • Birth, Marriage, Death Records (Family Bible, Death Certificate)
      • Census Records (1860-1940)
      • Military Records (None)
      • Wills & Estate Records
      • Records for wife during their marriage years (Rosa Bowen Talbott)
      • Records for children while living in father’s household. (Boss Henry Talbott)

Determine ahead of time how you will label your folders and documents. Be consistent across all paper and digital files for quicker retrieval when needed. An example I use is:

[Document] + [First Name] + [Last Name]    becomes  “1880 Census Bossy Talbott”

Label your documents/folders in a way that makes sense to you.

Tip: Ask yourself how you would look for this file, then set up your labels in that manner.

3. Your Family Tree Software

Housing your family tree online is a popular option, but should not be the only place you record your family tree.  An online family tree is a great way to share your research with family and other researchers.

Just remember, if you have a family tree on or any of the other online sites, you do not own your tree.  If something happens to the website, you could lose your information.

Use a genealogy software program to record your research and family tree on your own computer. A number of programs are available and all have their supporters. I have used Family Tree MakerRootsMagic and Legacy, both of which I like very much.

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4. Backing Up Your Genealogy Research

Back up, back up, back up!  Backing up your research is crucial. Don’t risk losing your hard work.

Tip:  Schedule monthly back up of your research on your calendar.

Cloud Back Ups

Backing up your genealogy files and photographs in the cloud is a good practice.  Depending on the amount you need to back up, both free and paid options are available.

  • Dropbox – I use Dropbox for years and love it!
  • Google Drive – I use Google Drive every. single. day.  It’s easy and syncs across all my devices. And…it’s free.
  • Backblaze – Another nice low cost option.
  • iDrive – iDrive is also a great option. You can back up multiple devices which is always a plus. Both free and paid subscriptions are available.

External Back Ups

Use an external back up for safe keeping your research, too.

  • USB Flash Drive – Flash drives are convenient and portable. Your backups on a flash drive will slip easily into a safe deposit box or other storage easily.
  • External Hard Drive – I use an external hard drive to back not just genealogy files but everything of importance on my computer.

This January – or whatever month you are in –  start your genealogy organization system with these four components:

  1. Habits and time
  2. Filing and labeling system (that fits you!)
  3. Your genealogy software
  4. Your back up plan

Start slow…..Learn what works for you……Be CONSISTENT…..Be successful!

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23 thoughts on “What You Need To Know To Organize Your Genealogy Files”

  1. Pingback: Friday's Family History Finds | Empty Branches on the Family Tree

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  3. Hi Lisa.

    Thank you for the post…very useful! 🙂
    I use Family Historian on my laptop as my primary database… but have a full tree exported onto Ancestry as well.
    My core data is backed up to the Cloud (OneDrive) each week and also a local copy taken onto a hard drive… all my research notes are written up in OneNote which is also backed up to the Cloud.
    Cheers – Graham.

  4. Great resources! Organizing is on every genealogist’s mind. I tried every method I could find over the past 15 years but I outgrew each of them. I finally created a source based method to organize my research and now it’s a breeze to find documents and to quickly file away the new ones that arrive.

    1. What is a “Source based method”? I am just starting out and have stopped research in order to organize what I have so far & perhaps recheck/verify my data. Please clarify for a newbie!

  5. Hi! I’m curious as to how you’d handle very common last names? I have Whites, both on my biological dad’s, adopted dad’s and on my mom’s sides…and no, they aren’t related! Lol.

    1. Oh my, and I thought I had a lot of ancestors with the surname White! Depending on your family tree software, you may be able to color code different family lines which helps make each line easier to focus on. For any paper files you keep, color code the labels for each line, so you know which family line a file goes with.

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  11. I am sure my system is all my own! And in that system, way back in the way back (Maryland 1600s, England prior to that), I have Tallbott, Talbot, and my very favorite, Tallbutt. Can’t any of it is “proven” beyond one marriage, but that collection of leads lies mouldering in my files, awaiting “someday”.

    One of the best strategies for me is to not allow myself to become frustrated. If people will not hold still (like, there are fourteen guys with the same name, and they all named a daughter Margaret), I set stuff aside. A month, a year…whatever time it takes. Sometimes the puzzles work there way out in my sleep(!), then I can go back to that pile of paper, and it is not so intimidating anymore.

    Dead people are not going anywhere – they will be waiting right where I left them, whenever I get back to them.

  12. I organise my people with a separate folder each on my NAS drive for everyone. The folder contains all the electronic media that I find. The folder is named by date of birth Surname Forenames, with the DoB as an 8 digit number, year, month and day e.g. 19251225 Smith John. These are then automatically sorted in date order, and if I don’t know any data, the day, month, or exact year, digits are replaced with 0’s. If i find someone was born in 1900 but don’t know the exact day or month, then I use 19000000. When I find more info, I can edit the folder name. (this system also works for any documents you may have too, e.g. utility bills using the date issued).

    Hard copies are also filed using individual numbered tabs, and info listed in an excel “index” file. Excel is a great way to store info, fully filterable, searchable, and you can have multiple sheets for different subjects within the same file. I get dividers numbered 1-100 and find I can get 75 numbered file dividers in a 9 cm deep file along with 4-5 sheets for each person.

    I always use maiden names for females, even when they have married (and re-married). Documents stored in the folders just have the forename and description, e.g. Mabel Birth index, John marriage cert.. Documents with multiple people listed, family census returns, can be saved for each individual listed.

    Works for me..

  13. As a professional organizer, I love your approach: “There is no one correct or magical way to organize your genealogy files. Here’s what I do. Use what works for you. Change what does not work for you.” I always tell clients: “I will work with your natural tendencies, and together we’ll create a system that works for YOU.”

  14. I do not subscribe to the theory of ‘whatever works for you’. That’s like telling a 5-year old to go for a walk in traffic with the caveat, ‘It will be complicated but never mind, you’ll figure it out.’ There are ways to get a grip on reality from the start.

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