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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 Research : The Basics

You need to organize your family history research. 

  • If you don't, you will continually repeat the same research---which means you're not getting to new research. 
You also need to review your previous genealogy work. This means being able to find that work. 

  • Organization is how you find your previous research. 
I can't overstate the value of organizing your genealogy!

In this post we're going to look at some often overlooked basics you MUST address before actually getting organized.

  • Personal considerations.
  • "Rules" for a functional genealogy organizing system.
  • Basic organizing systems to consider.


Hint: Your "previous research" is more than just genealogy records or documents. You want to be able to find those but there's more! Make sure you consider more than just filing copies of documents or forms when you think about organizing your family history research. Learn more with our email series for the (free) Brick Wall Solution Roadmap.

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Basics Before You Start Organizing Genealogy Research

One of the most important things you need to know about organizing your genealogy research is there is not ONE right way to do it. Your method or organizing system has to be the right choice for you and your unique research. This is unfortunately one of the things that makes getting organized harder.

Secondly, you must recognize that family history is a life-long hobby. That means your organization system needs to withstand the test of time. This actually makes organizing easier. (How does this make it easier? You no longer have to choose from so many options. You want a time-tested option and there are fewer of those. This also means you don't need to, and shouldn't, invent an organizing system!)

Now that you've accepted that you need the right system for you and that you need a time-tested system, let's look at the "rules" you need to follow to find the system that will work for you.

Organizing Principles for Family History

Here are the "rules" you need to follow to create a great genealogy organizing system.

  1. Your chosen system must work for you.
  2. You must adapt a system to your needs/the needs of each project.
  3. Your system must not be too complicated/convoluted.
  4. Your system must stand the test of time.
  5. BONUS : Your system should be understood by others so your research can be passed on to a family member or repository.

Below are explanatory details for each of these principles.

#1 You Need a Functioning Genealogy Organization System

If you don't use your system, it's pointless. This goes back to that basic about there not being one right system. There are amazing options out there but if you don't organize what you've found AND retrieve it efficiently, that system is not for you. Of course, you have to take responsibility to try and stay organized but if you are trying but struggling, maybe you need a different system.

This is why genealogy organizing is so hard. You can't just grab a tried and true system and implement it. There are multiple parts to why you might not be successfully using a system and some of the other rules address those.

#2 Customize Your Genealogy Filing System

Whether you are creating a "filing system" or more of an organizing method, it needs to fit your preferences but also your research. When I started (back in the paper-only days) I went with the common, "file by surname" option. I adapted the surname system to fit my needs. BUT, paper files were a really bad fit for my research. My entire family is from Georgia. I mainly research my father's family and they eventually settled into two counties. I know many researchers that are able to stay organized by adding locations to their surname system, not me.

I like to use my research as an example of why you need to customize because filing the results wasn't hard. The surname system was great for putting the results away. But that's not the point of an organizing system.

A genealogy organizing system is about finding what you need when you need it, ideally without needing to know the exact item you're looking for.

Using electronic filing helps me but I need to adapt my system to be able to find related material without knowing what I'm looking for. (My main problem is how often items I find while working on one project are related to a different project. I'd waste a lot of time if I had to start from scratch to find that same item again and I might not find it.) Your research will have its own unique needs. Most genealogists don't have the extreme case I have but at some point there will be an important part of your research where you need to adapt a tried and true system to your unique needs.

[If you're not quite clear on how my issue requires an adaptation of a system:

One item might need to be filed under two, three, or more surnames. You can see why digital options helped. But more importantly, I need to retrieve that item when I need it for a surname, or other "search term" that I didn't know about when I filed it. Every genealogist has this need, my case just makes filing by surname or location a problem from the start and those are two common organizing systems.]

#3 Keep It Simple

Not surprisingly, after talking about customizing your organizing system, you need to be reminded not to make it too complicated. You must use your system to both keep your material and find it when you need it. I know for my needs, I easily start contemplating convoluted systems. But they are too complex to maintain---meaning I won't use them. This is principle three but it's like the glue that keeps all the other principles together.

Your system doesn't have to be "simple," in the sense of only filing by surname (that's simple, easy to remember, you know how to do it---but too simple if you need to find something by anything other than surname). As you contemplate why you're struggling and how to adapt a system to your needs, remind yourself to keep it simpler rather than more complex. 

You want to aim for an ideal mix between customized and simple.

#4 Don't Reinvent the Wheel

Learn about tried and true genealogy organizing systems. Systems that were created before the use of computers are the best place to start. Also, try and learn about the problems genealogists have had with different systems. Look out for "I've been doing genealogy for two years and just came up with the best organizing system!" Two years is not a long time when talking about genealogy. In fact, two years is almost the perfect timespan to find, and fall for, every pitfall out there.

There are lots of potential pitfalls in organizing genealogy. You can find lots of ways to save time and effort right now, but five or ten years down the road, you're having to redo most of your research. You can avoid these pitfalls by knowing about proven systems and adapting them rather than trying something totally new. Apply new technology or ideas to a strong foundation instead of starting from scratch.

Hint: Be careful with new apps (as opposed to new technology concepts that are available in many formats). Apps rarely last as long as your genealogy will. I've seen many great uses of non-genealogy apps for genealogy. There's no problem except getting your research trapped in an app that isn't around in a year, two, or even ten years. Use new apps as long as you can easily maintain your organizational structure when they change or go out of business.

#5 Pass on your research

I won't call this last item a principle or rule but it is ideal. Your organizing system should be understandable to someone else. That's usually a good check that it isn't too complex. However, there are plenty of genealogists that can create and maintain a system that is too complex for someone else to easily pick it up. As far as your research goes, that's fine. But if you want your research to outlive you, a system someone else can understand (without written instructions) is usually needed.

Related: I've also written a post with real-life examples of problems with genealogy organizing systems, here.

Tried and True Organizing Options (Folders, Binders, & More!)

For paper files or the simplest electronic filing.

This option is file folders such as you find in a file cabinet or electronic folders treated the same way.

Go with file folders broken up by one of these options:

  •  surname, 
  • branch of the tree, 
  • document type (such as census, marriage, etc.), 
  • location, or 
  • project. 
You can also choose between filing alphabetically or chronologically for some files. 

You will have to decide which option based on your research. You can use a variety of the options above and you should be nesting folders within a main folder so you can split your files. When I started I had surname files and then a separate set of location files for items about locations (i.e. not research results). Items went in one or the other of these options, not both.

Your nested folders might use a different option from the main option you choose. For example, one main surname folder might need to be split by generation/family group, another surname by record type, another surname might need to be split by location. As another example, your main organizing method might be branch of the tree or location. Your nested folders might then be surnames for the second level and then project or document type for the third level.

What works and how many levels you split your material will partly depend if you're using paper or digital. You can have folders within folders within folders for digital.

Make sure you system doesn't become too complicated as you adapt to fit your research. Remember, you have to be able to find what you need, not just file it away.

For paper: great for sharing/easy "grab and go" research

Genealogists love using a binder. I personally can't stand the space it takes to store everything in binders but you might be focused on a use of the binder besides just storage. Binders are ideal if you want to share material with visitors to your home. They are perfect if you use paper and need to grab everything and run out the door. If you need to move your paper around the house and have others in your household that might mess up a loose file folder ("others" could be kids, pets, or a careless spouse or roommate)--binders are far more secure.

Tip: What I personally love genealogical binders for is using them like an extra monitor. I prefer to organize digitally but having a project in a binder, so I can put it in front of my computer, is great. This gives me extra monitor space because what's in the binder doesn't need to be on the monitor.

Using a binder instead of a file folder makes it easy to open and close the project without the papers getting spread around and possibly left on my desk. For this use, the binder is not the organization method but the binder does need to be organized. This is an adaptation that isn't too complicated and let's you work in different ways. Our Brick Wall Solution Research Binder Kit is designed for this use.

The Gold Standard for Paper (and adaptable for digital)

Whether you're filing paper in folders or binders, using your research log or creating a free-standing cross-index (like a table of contents for files) is the best way to find what you need. However, it is a lot of work to keep a paper index sufficiently updated. 

With paper, you really need to create a cross-index in addition to your research log so you can make additions and create different ways to find something (for example, indexed by surname vs. indexed by location).

A spreadsheet (i.e. a digital document, not a paper table) is a more robust way to do this. A digital spreadsheet is searchable and sortable. You can even keep track of items filed in different ways (the spreadsheet can contain links to digital files and tell you where paper files are found---it's a great option if you have both digital and paper files). You can likely create one spreadsheet to be your cross-index since you can search/sort by the different ways you'd need to find something.

Tip: If you are lost between paper and digital (or prefer using both), you could also create a cross-index in word processing software if spreadsheets cause you to break out in hives. Word processing software (like MS Word or a free alternative) will be searchable but not sortable (note: there may be some limited sort functionality for some tables). 

A searchable table is an improvement over a paper cross-index but not as powerful as a spreadsheet. If you won't use a spreadsheet, it doesn't matter how powerful it is!

You can also create a digital cross-index for paper-only files. That will allow you to search the cross-index even if you don't want to scan decades worth of genealogical research.

A digital cross-index can also be your ticket to a simpler filing option. If I were to start today (i.e. just be starting my research and with paper), I'd create a digital cross-index and file my papers by project surname, i.e. I'd file material based on the surname I was researching at the time. This is easy to file. I'd add other surnames or keywords into my cross-index. I'd retrieve material by starting with the cross-index, not my research log or going to my file cabinet. This would be really hard for me to create after researching for over 30-years (if I wanted to try it, I'd focus on starting the cross-index for one project at a time and ignore all the projects I wasn't working on at that moment).

(FYI, I'm essentially trying to do the above suggestion but using digital files and Evernote instead of an actual cross-index because it is so hard to start after so many decades of research. The biggest hurdle is how little time I have for my own research---I keep spending it writing blog posts like this one. More on digital options below.).

Digital Filing Systems for Family History Research

If you want to go digital with your organization, you can rely on word processing software and images and storing the files in a way that works best for you (this might be electronic file folders as described above or a mix of the options below). 

Make sure you don't have things in too many different places (for example, some in software, some in file folders, some in Evernote) resulting in missing some items when you go to find what you need. The cross-index suggestion is a way to know where to search for anything but there are other options, too. Just make sure you can find what you need when you need it.

Genealogy Software

I recommend thinking of your genealogy software as a filing cabinet rather than THE organizing system. Some software programs are not robust enough to meet all the needs of a great genealogist (and you want to aim for "great" not just "OK"). Even programs that can handle whatever you need to do, only working in your software (i.e. not using paper or the digital equivalent) is not always ideal. A good software program will let you upload/attach files which means you can use it like a file cabinet. But make sure you can actually find what you need, without needing to look for the exact document. This essentially means knowing what your search options are for the software you use.

Tip: If you like using software, that doesn't mean it has to be your organizing system. Genealogy software is a tool. Use it appropriately. Just as with physical tools, you can and should use the right tool for the job. You're allowed to have a hammer and multiple screwdrivers. You're allowed to use genealogy software and other genealogy tools.

RelatedThis post on our (new) sister blog talks about picking genealogy software using a similar method to this post's approach to organizing.


For my inter-related family, Evernote is a great solution. I have a caveat, though, I personally want to back up everything to another format so I'm not tied to Evernote (for that long-term stability and the option to pass everything on to a non-Evernote user, especially if Evernote isn't around at that point!). Backing up Evernote can be done with PDFs and/or HTML files which are as long-term viable as something like Google Docs or MS Word.

Tip: You can apply some of the concepts that make Evernote/OneNote great for genealogy to digital files in general. This isn't for the tech-averse but if you don't want a specialty program but also don't want to just use paper filing concepts on electronic file folders, you can learn about using Evernote for genealogy organizing and adapt the best ideas to digital files (for example, using keywords and the description to allow more targeted searches).

What About Organizing Old Photos?

Organizing photos can be a completely separate topic. You need to know if the photos need to be found when searching your genealogy files or if this is just like organizing any family photos (i.e. you might like them in some type of order but the point is just enjoying looking at them, not research). My family does not have many old photos so this is not an area I'm an expert in so I don't have any specific advice just for photos.

This post was designed to give you concepts to think about before you start organizing, not concrete next steps. But here's what you can DO.

Think about your research, are there clear distinctions between locations, ethnicities, surnames, branches, etc. (it might be some of these or all of these)? How do you think of your research, what would be "things" you'd think of that you'd go to your "files" to find? This might be a surname, a location, a religion, document type, type of form/report/chart, projects, etc. These are good starting points for an organizing system. You need this top-level in your mind before you can get to actionable next steps.

You don't want to learn all about filing by location if you're in a situation like mine where there aren't distinct locations. If you've got a lot of repeated surnames, you might want to learn about alternatives to filing by surname. Regardless, once you have an idea about a good way to break up your "files," you will be able to think about that option for whatever method you're learning about For example, if you are reading about using Evernote for a surname-based system, you can think if the specifics would work as well for your preferred location-based system. They may or may not. It's important to know what file categories you are realistically considering before you spend too much time on something that isn't going to work for your unique situation.

Bonus: The other half of this top-level consideration is the physical organizing system. Do you prefer paper or digital (or both). Are you a technophile or a technophobe? Are there things you've tried you liked or hated? Are there things you've already got you want to use (whether that's a file cabinet or software/app)? If this isn't simple to hold in your head, consider making a list. There are lots of genealogy organizing posts out there and you might want to add options you haven't considered to your own list so you can look for information about specific options.

Recap: Options for Genealogy Files

Here are common options for file types. Most genealogists want to organize by one or more of these options.

  • Surname
  • Location
  • Branch of the tree (i.e. grouping multiple surnames together)
  • Generation
  • Document type
  • Project

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