There are a variety of ways to organize your research. No matter which way you do it, you must do it! This is one of those things that is highly recommended but not always followed. When it comes to genealogy, the only thing worse than a brick wall is disorganized information. If how to organize your research is a bit of a problem for you, then have no fear! Here are some helpful ways to overcome this problem. *Warning: this article contains technical information and you should be computer literate and have a solid understanding of organizational methods*
Is your research all on paper, all on the computer, or both? There are different methods for each of these that work exceptionally well.
This may not be easy for some people to follow because it is logic intensive using variables, place holders, or constants.
This is going to be a lot easier to go through and do than what you think. Although you could use a database program like Family Tree Maker, what if you elect not to? One way I’ve managed my 10+ GB’s of information is to sort the family just like how my own pedigree is sorted.
You start out with 4 main folders,
- Paternal Family
- Maternal Family
- Dual Relations (you’re related to them more than one way)
- Common Relatives (these people you’re not related to, but share relatives with other people)
Paternal Family – Name this folder after your father’s family.
Maternal Family – Name this folder after your mother’s family
Dual Relationships – You can call this folder ‘Duel Relationships’ or something more fitting to your liking. The purpose of this folder is to contain the links to the people to whom you are related to by dual connections. If they are a relative to you more than one way, then they go there. Or rather, a link to their folder will go here.
Common Cousins – There are many times when you come across a person of interest that isn’t related to you, but you’re a bit stumped as to how to include their information into your research too. If they are not a blood relative in any way, then they should go into this folder.
An alternative method that can also be used with your folder system is by naming the folders per the file names. (eg. “Cemetery and Headstones”, “Photographs”, “News Bits and Articles”, etc. Using a combination of these folder systems is not recommended unless you’re at the expert level for organization and computer literacy. You can use this folder as a standalone or you can use this within the preceding method as a nested folder system.)
Now that you have your main folders to work with, you can begin organizing your research into an easy to work with structure.
Files Names – This is going to be a major source of your ability to organize, search, and check information quickly. Here are some recommended naming formats for your files.
- [Record Type] – [Surname of Blood Relative First & Middle Initials] and [Spouse Surname First & Middle Initials]
Record Type – This can be any genealogical or archival type of record.
Surname of Blood Relative – Your structure should always be based on blood relations to you. This name should always come first when naming files. You have options too for their first and middle names, but once you pick a format you should really should stick with it.
- Surname – Wright
- First Name – Samuel, Sml, S
- Middle Name – Bell, B
This leaves with you with 6 possible combinations to name your file. If you settled on using “Wright Sml B” and you turn up with a Samuel Benjamin Wright you’re related to, then his records should obviously be different, such as “Wright Sml Ben”. Don’t use something like “Wright Sml B” for Samuel Bell and the use “Wright Samuel B” for Samuel Benjamin, so make the middle initials names. That’s the best way to keep things separated.
If you have a family where they recycled names in every generation, this will be helpful in sorting some of them out. Additionally, if you have a line of generational names (I, II, III, IV, V, etc) then you would just put that after the middle initial if they have one. “Wishart Jms III” is not the same person as “Wishart Jms IV” but if you have a picture with both gentlemen in it then the picture name would be something like this “Wishart Jms III IV” and if you have 3 generations in the same picture then it would be “Wishart Jms III IV V”
Spouse Surname – This person (usually) is not related to you other than by law. When you have second and third marriages, there are a couple ways you can handle this. Maiden Name-Married Name-Married Name (etc..) Such as, “Smith-Jones-Miller-Lee MJ”. This person’s maiden name is MJ Smith, she married a Jones second, a Miller third, a Lee fourth. Always use the maiden name.
Q: What are Record Types?
A marriage record for Samuel Bell Wright and Jane Smith would look like this: “MR – Wright SB and Smith J “. I try to abbreviate things if possible.
For example, Marriage Record = MR, Death Record = DR, but DC = Death Certificate. The difference between a death record and a death certificate is the former is at the county level while the latter is at the State level. The same is true for the birth records and certificates.
For things that are documents, I simply use “Doc – ” followed by whatever name it is attached to. “Family Bible -“, “FB -“, or “Bible -” is another file name I use. I’ll cover most of this within everything else to follow. Some other record types are: Draft Cards from WWI, WWII, (DFT WW1, DFT WW2, or you can use Draft, or some combination of these), Naturalization (NAT), Christening (CHR), Baptism (BAP), Divorce (DIV), Military Enlistment (MIL EN), Military Discharge (MIL DIS), Land Warrant (LW or War), Bonds (Bond), Social Security Death Information (SSDI), Obituary (Obit), Adoption (Adopt), Photographs (Photo or Pic, I prefer the former), and other record types like this. Just as long as you pick a name for something, format, or style and you stick with it.
Q: What about land deeds?
Well, that’s either Land Purchase (LP), Land Sale (LS), Deed (Deed), or Land Record (LR) depending on where, when, and how I am using the file. For organization purposes, I prefer to use the LP and LS versions. Take your pick, but whatever you use, stick with that format only.
Q: What about group pictures or documents that have multiple people on it?
Well, I try to encapsulate the entire thing into a single title. For example, I have a picture with 75 people. There is no way I can list all 75 people, even by surnames, into the file name. Instead, I call the picture by what it is “1906 – 50th Wed Ann Lindsey-Maddin”, with my blood relative being first, even though she is the bride in this case.
What about photos all taken on the same day or during the same trip? In those instances, I use the format [Event] – [Year] – [Misc] – [##].
Event – This can be a Reunion, Vacation, Birthday Party, Meeting, etc.
Year – self explanatory
Misc – This is anything you want to include, be it the place, the people in the picture, what they’re doing, time of day, etc.
## – 01, 02, 03, etc
Q: How do you handle things out of the newspaper then? Is it a Doc too?
I don’t do the same thing for those. I use a different format such as “News – [YYYY-MM-DD-PP*] – [Newspaper Name] – [Surname(s)]”
*PP is the page number, eg. 13, 03, B1, etc; This is also sourcing your information.
For the pictures that have a few or even several people in it, If possible I abbreviate their names such as “Photo – Drake CC KS Sr Jr DD AW GZ”.
It doesn’t really matter if you put the initials in birth order or alphabetical because what you’re doing is creating a searchable database by titles only. (This works exceptionally well in XP+, and even easier in Win7+.)
For example, if I wanted to bring up every file with “KS Sr”, I type that in as the search term (but without the quotes). I’ll get every file with “KS” and “Sr” in the title, but since I have tens of thousands of files, this is a lot easier to sort through, regardless of the folder system I am using.
A feature started in Windows 7 is tagging. This isn’t like Ancestry or Facebook tagging either. Tagging in Windows 7 allows you to fill in more information about a file. Across the bottom of the screen where the file information is, you’ll see “Tags: Add a tag”. Just click on the “Add a tag” and input names, places, years, etc. If you don’t see it, expand your window size until you do. Do not use this as a commentary about the file.
Q: How do I best use tags?
Well, if you abbreviate everyone’s names such as “CC” in the file name, but you want to get better search results, you can use the tags “Calvin” and “Coolidge,”. Make sure you separate your tags by semicolons too. Do this instead of “Calvin Coolidge”. You’ll thank yourself later.
Searching by tags is better when you have group files or multiple photos. In cases where you have “Reunion – 1975 – 01” you can add tags to each of those files as the person’s name or place, or both. If there is 15 people in the “Reunion – 1975 – 01” picture, you can add each of their name as a tag.
HINT: Don’t repeat words in tags. Meaning don’t use “Calvin Drake”, “Otha Drake”, or “Kermit Drake” as your tags. Instead use “Drake” once and then “Calvin”, “Otha”, “Kermit”. Like Google, the more search terms you use, the more you can refine your results. Also, this will not work on PNG or GIF files. It will only work on JPG/JPEG files.
HINT: You can select multiple files and enter in tags for all of them at the same time. Tags are also found under Properties>Details where you can also include more information if you wanted to. Also, you can Copy/Paste with the Ctrl+C/V functions as well. Any shortcut that saves on the typing helps.
Remember, this is your searchable database of files you are building.
Q: I have a lot of cemetery pictures too, what about those?
I use “Headstone – [Surname] [First Name and middle name or initial if known]”. I also replace Headstone with Footstone because sometimes I have pictures of both.
Be sure to always tag your pictures too.
If it’s just a general cemetery picture, I would abbreviate the cemetery name from “Lower Buffalo Cemetery” to “LBC” and then use the full name as a tag.
Q: For multiple pictures of the same thing, person, or place?
I use the suffix ” – [##]” and in cases where I know I have one hundred of more, I make sure to use ” – [###]”. Renaming files is not as easy a FAR (find and replace) method in Word or Excel.
Q: Anything else?
This will hopefully give you some guidance in creating your own searchable database from your files. It doesn’t matter what the extension is either, just as long as you use the same format for everything. That’s the most important thing: once you pick a format, you stick with it. I can’t stress that enough.
It’s a good system, it works very well if you understand how to use it, and when coupled with other programs like OneNote, you’ll find your research methods will become more streamlined and information more easily accessible.
And don’t worry if you have hundreds of files already. It takes time and effort to implement this system. Any new files you acquire, just put them your folder system, tags and all, as you collect them. Keep working on it a little bit at a time and it’ll get done.