Organizing Your Family Records
A Filing System
Once you begin collecting information you need to organize it or:
- You’ll waste time searching through stacks of papers at home,
- You won’t remember which sources you’ve searched, and
- You’ll never see your dining room table again.
In previous editions of this book, I told genealogists how to set up a paper
filing system. In the event you’re a young person and don’t remember “old-time”
filing systems, they consisted of file folders, file labels, hanging file
folders, papers, charts, filing cabinets, etc. Well, don’t do that. (Not as your
primary way of keeping track of your genealogy information. You’ll still need
some folders for hard copies of documents.)
The very best way to organize your genealogy is to use specialized software for
the purpose. I recommend Family Tree Maker. The current version is 2009. Is it
the “best” program? Not necessarily, but it’s the one with the most users. Since
FTM 2008, the program is newly-built from the ground up, not a remodeled version of
previous incarnations of the program.
FTM isn’t the only good genealogy software on the market.
The Master Genealogist
is probably the “best” software available, but it isn’t easy to learn. Listen
for recommendations from your genealogy friends.
There is a disadvantage to FTM. The parent company telemarkets. They want to
sell you expensive subscriptions to
Ancestry.com. And your subscription includes
automatic renewals (credit-card bill surprise!). Before you make a subscription commitment, curb
your enthusiasm and decide how much time you’re planning to devote to this new
hobby. Don’t sign up for services you don’t use regularly. Ancestry.com offers a
free trial of their online sources. Activate it only when you’ve arranged to
call in sick at work for two weeks or a month—whatever the trial period is.
Take your laptop to the library and use Ancestry’s services there. This assumes
your available leisure hours coincide with the library’s hours of operation and,
with gasoline prices like they are, that you’ll ride your bicycle to and from.
Better idea: cancel your DirecTV premium channels and apply the money to an
Ancestry.com subscription. Use a virtual credit card number to sign up. You know
about those, don’t you? Your “real” card number is cloaked and the pseudo-number
has the dollar limit and expiration date you set for it. There won’t be an
automatic renewal on that number. (Virtual credit card numbers are a good idea
for any kind of Internet purchase. Go to your credit card’s website and put
“virtual numbers” in the information search box. Learn how!)
If you’re really on a restricted budget, there’s a very good free—really free
(no advertising)—genealogy program.
Personal Ancestral File
is a free download
from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
There are drawbacks to computerizing your genealogical research:
- If you don’t back up your files and store them off-site and online, you could
lose it all in one awful hard disc crash.
- If you dump everything into the program without citing your sources you can add to the world burden of “genie-mythology” that is, a massive amount of information with no idea where it came from.
The advantages, however, are tremendous. So if you’ll learn to make frequent
backups and always take the time to include sources as you enter data, you’ll
enjoy the organization genealogy software can provide.
You’ll still need a paper filing system to save hard copies of some documents.
Scan documents as you acquire them and link them to data in FTM with the “media
task pane." Then file them in labeled folders in a system that makes sense to
If you need paper forms to take with you for some event beyond the range of your
laptop’s battery, download some from several websites that offer them free.
Google: free genealogy forms.
To read a really interesting book on the topic, see Ann Carter Fleming’s
Organized Family Historian: How to File, Manage, and Protect Your Genealogical
Research and Heirlooms.
Successful Data Entry
Open Family Tree Maker or whatever software you’ve chosen. Start with yourself
and begin entering names, dates, and places. And sources. If you know the
information from having been there, enter yourself as the source. Otherwise,
always say how you know what you know. If your mother told you about the event
(such as your birth), she’s the source you cite. Whatever you look at or listen
to is your source and you identify that source that in your genealogy program.
Enter women with the names they were born with—their “maiden” names. If you
don’t know their maiden names, enter only their first names. (“Grandma” is not a
Leave off courtesy titles (Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., Dr., Rev., etc.) in name
fields. Put that information in the note fields.
Do enter suffixes like Jr., Sr., III, etc., in the name fields.
Do not enter surnames (last names) in all upper-case letters. Yes, perhaps
you’ve seen advice to the contrary on this one. But it’s old-fashioned and
outdated. I was in a library many, many years ago. A history professor was at
the next table reading an article in a periodical primarily devoted to genealogy
topics. “Why are the last names all in capital letters?” he asked. “Oh, yes,” he
answered his own question, “Genealogists don’t read articles, they just raid
them for names.” Ouch! When you eventually publish your family history and use
data from your genealogy software, it’ll look funny with surnames set in
upper-case type. Don’t do it.
Genealogy software will standardize dates. FTM 2009 will also standardize place
names. The magic word, jurisdiction, comes into play here. Since many of the
records genealogists use are filed at the county level, place-name entry needs
to include the county. Think from larger entity to smaller on this one. “USA” is
the country, then the state, then county, and then local name, if there is one.
And the format is the same for foreign countries—from country to smaller
Consistency is the key to good data entry.
Organizing Digital Files
Scan your old photos and the photos you discover as you find family members with
collections. Do the same for documents. There are two good ways to capture these
images. Use a flat-bed scanner or a good digital camera. (My definition of a
“good” digital camera is a single-lens-reflex digital Nikon or Canon.) — See
more about equipment in the Genealogist’s Toy Box chapter.
Scan photos and documents at no less than 300 dpi. Use the “color” setting on
the scanner even for black-and-white documents. Set your digital camera to save
images as .raw files, then save those as .jpgs to work on and keep the .raw file
as though it were a negative.
Organize folders on your computer in a way that makes sense to you.
When you receive an e-mail with important information, use the
"save as" function to store that e-mail in the appropriate
Make backups of your photo and document files on archival CDs. If you think all
CD media is created equal, there’s a surprise in store for you at
Use the “Media” task pane in FTM 2009 and make links to images stored on your
When you’re ready to back up your FTM 2009 files, you can choose to back up only
the data, not the attached media files. It’ll make your backup files much
smaller. Be sure to backup all of your files regularly!
The best book to read about organizing your digital files is
Organize Your Digital Life: How to Store Your Photographs,
Music, Videos, and Personal Documents in a Digital World by
Aimee Baldridge (National Geographic Society, 2009). (See
details about it on Amazon.com.)
[Get Started] [Is Family History For You?] [Home and Family Sources] [Organizing Your Family Records] [Beginning Your Research] [Federal Census Records] [Courthouse Research] [Military Records] [Ethnic Genealogy] [A Broad View] [Correspondence] [Sharing Your Heritage] [A Genealogist's Toy Box] [Glossary]