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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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Organizing Genealogy: Example of Organizing Digital Genealogy File Folders

This post goes with the other recent posts about organizing. It might make more sense if you start with them as it goes more in-depth on topics mentioned in those posts. 

I've mentioned in the previous posts that I use a mixed system for organizing my genealogy files. I only focus on digital filing at this point. I am still in the process of digitizing my paper files but I no longer worry about changing the paper system. My goal is to end up only with digital genealogy files even though I do use paper, sometimes (those items would be "active" items, not things that needed to be filed away).

Also, keep in mind, this example is not about storing heirlooms or photos which might be used for research. If I took a photo of an heirloom/digitized photos, those would be treated as digital images and storing the physical item would be handled as archival safe storage, not filing genealogy material.

(BTW, in my previous post I mentioned not creating a convoluted system. This might sound pretty complicated to you but it's much harder to explain than to implement. This is actually the most simplified option I've been able to come up with. Trying to adapt to online research after decades of doing genealogy makes organizing hard. I still get a lot of my best research from on-site work. But I'm a genealogist, I want to research more often than when I can get on-site. That research has often fallen between the cracks because it doesn't happen intentionally. This system is all about getting that online research into my great process. Your situation will be different but I know how helpful it is to see examples so I'm showing you how I've mixed filing systems.)

Mixed Digital Filing Folder System

Top-level "Level 1"

  • Digital Images
  • My Family
  • My Husband's Family

In reality I currently have this as "Digital Images" and "My Research" and then within "My Research" a folder for me and a folder for my husband. Within each of those it's then split into maternal and paternal. That's too many folders within folders and I need to change it. I wanted to point this out as you'll see this in the example images.

"Level 2"

  • Digital Images are subdivided by either creator/location, repository, or subject. I subdivide folders as needed (so I can browse to what I need, not get lost in too many folders). This applies to everything, not just digital images.

Digital Images Folder (Document Copies)

Here is the same image of the digital images folder I showed in the "problems" post. This needs to be cleaned up but at least illustrates what I'm talking about.

I think of these folders as being by location unless an item can't be (obviously) filed by location. However, it's important to understand that I very easily think of records based on the creator such as the National Archives (goes in the NARA Recs folder), the state that created the record, the county that created the record (within the state files are folders for the counties I have records from), or other jurisdiction (so within the CT folder, there are towns, not counties).

Almost all my research involves county jurisdictions so I tend to file things like newspapers into a repository folder. Yes, a newspaper is attached to a location, but I would end up with a lot of towns/cities that I might not need folders for. Not every town has a paper so you might use the nearest town but with online newspapers, it's not that hard to find articles picked up by a paper in a more distant location. Newspapers are one of the problem items to pull if you try and gather related information by browsing files. This wasn't such an issue before searchable online papers!

I point this out because I've done what makes sense for how I think about records. Your system must work for you. Make sure and read the post about organizing problems before you consider using the system described here! 

In general, the research folders (level 1 being my family or my husband's family) would next contain:

  • Surname folders, initially treated as branches and then broken out into each surname as I do more research.
  • Folders for types of items like notes, plans, reports.

Research Folders

Below is an image of my maternal side folder so you can see the mix of surname folders and item type folder. This is actually somewhere between level 2 and level 3 (this is what I've said is a level 2 branch that I've begun subdividing into surnames. The "type" folders are within the maternal branch folder.).

As a note, the "Grandmother's files" folder is where I've started digitizing my grandmother's research files. This just gives you an idea of a customization. I will eventually incorporate those files into mine but I just needed to get them digitized, first. It took long enough to clean out all the duplicates from her file folders before scanning them. 

This is further complicated by the fact my grandmother never cited a source. I have a four drawer filing cabinet full of her research, with many, many, many copies of documents, but not a citation to be found. When I write about the long-term issues of cheating the genealogy research process, I have experience of what I did wrong as well as inheriting a large quantity of research from someone who didn't know there was a process. 

I can't file document copies she made until I figure out what they are copies of! It is far too much research (much done in county courthouses or via correspondence with cousins, i.e. I may never be able to find those items via my own research) to ignore it but I also can't actually start using it.

"Level 3"

These are custom to what kind of subdividing helps me browse to what I need. 

You should not only rely on browsing to find material so I consider this my failsafe. If Evernote isn't an option anymore, this is better than chaos. If I forget to add a link to a report, notes, plan, correlation, this is better than nothing.

My mixed system is about easy filing. But it's not how I want to FIND my research. It is a reasonable option if a better search system fails me (such as Evernote shutting down operation or me giving up genealogy for a decade only to discover Excel won't function the way I need).

To give you a fuller picture of my system, I am trying to start using Evernote as my active retrieval system. Previously I hadn't been comfortable "trapping" everything in Evernote and I still won't be using it to store images of documents. The system described above is how I will file back-up copies from Evernote as well as document images (I might add a document image into Evernote but I will not focus on getting every document image into Evernote).

I believe Evernote will be an easier way for me to take genealogy notes (which means it's where I'll also create plans and summarize results from a set of notes). I can also more easily link related items. I will continue to keep my Excel research log and I'll probably write formal reports in Word (I use a lot of automation features in Word which is why I'd create reports that way). I have found an automation to create research log entries in my Excel log when I create a genealogy note in Evernote (i.e. the automation is set-off when I start taking genealogy notes, not from all genealogy-related Evernote notes).

Automation is a a 21st century way to do great genealogy, despite the interruptions. It's not a way to skip most of the tried and true organizing and research process tasks (you might be able to automate the tasks, not skip them). Automation lets you work faster while still following time-tested methods. These digital file folders give me a back-up as technology changes and are something another genealogist or archivist could easily understand when I want to pass my research to someone else.

Evernote is like an active file cabinet system/cross-index for me that happens to also be a place I can take my notes. I've been using it to organize "everything else" for years because I never could find that material, anyway. The other digital folders (described above) would be like archival files. Finding a balance between something that is easy to use right now, and will still be useable in ten, twenty, or more years, is really hard. I can easily find solutions for one or the other but both is a bit trickier.