Managing Digital Files for Family History Research: Tips and Tricks for Organization - Small Legacies

Managing Digital Files for Family History Research: Tips and Tricks for Organization

By: Eve Rhett

One of the most intimidating aspects I faced when I first became a Family Historian was figuring out how to manage all of the digital assets that I knew would inevitably pile up.  For that reason, before I even got started on any Family History research, I took some time to think through how to best organize my digital resources. I am hoping that by getting organized up-front, I can reduce frustration down the road!

Here are some of the important things to think through before you get started: file formats, folder structure, naming conventions, note taking systems, storage and backup plans, and how those materials will be shared with other family members now or through the generations.  

Let’s go through each of these items in a little more depth:


What File Formats to use for Digital Photo Storage and Organization. 

What file types will you use?  I already had a robust system in place for saving, backing up and storing .JPEG photo files so I decided to save all resources possible in that format for my Family History projects.  That included how I would start scanning all the hand-written family tree notes from my Great-Grandma!  You may decide to use PDFs or just go with whatever file types the materials come to you in.  Think through what works best for you.


How to Use GEDCOM Files to Organize Family Tree Data

One of the major file formats you’ll want to become familiar with is the GEnealogical Data COMmunications (GEDCOM) file format.  This is the file type that stores Family Tree data.  Anytime you use an online Family Tree service such as, the core data about your family including names, dates and relationships can be exported to a GEDCOM file.  That exported fie can later be use to import your family tree data into any other software that is compatible with GEDCOM files.

When I was first getting started with researching family history, I decided that I didn’t want to be beholden to paying a subscription service every year for the rest of time so I found a way to install software on my computer that can read GEDCOM file types.  The software I picked was Roots Magic but there are several options available, some of which are free.  Now I can be confident that, even if I cancel my subscription to, I can export my GEDCOM file and still see and update my Family Tree data.  

Folder Structures: Tips and Tricks for Organizing Digital Files  

Will you save all of your digital resources in one large “Family History” folder or will you break it down in some way?  I decided to create 4 top-level folders, one for each of my 4 genetic grandparents plus one extra for anything related to my husband’s family.  Everything I collect related to each of those respective family trees goes into the corresponding folder.

You could do a similar structure but just have 2 folders, one for each of your parent’s families.  Or maybe just one for your family and one for your spouse’s family.  Think through what sounds most manageable to you and go with that!

Naming Conventions: How to Label Digital Files 

To make it easier to locate files as they accumulate, you’ll want to think about what naming conventions you use to save digital files.  I decided to save every digital asset using the following naming convention: 

Last Name, First Name, other names or details of what the asset is – location – Year – Source (where I received the resource from). 

Not every asset needs every one of these pieces of information but if it’s available and important, this is the order I put the information in. 

Here are a few examples of what that looks like in practice:

  • Rapacz, Stanley - Arriving Passenger List – New York – 1906
  • Rapacz, Stanley - Chicago & North Western Railroad Employment Record - 1935-1970
  • Rapacz, Stanley & Louise – Census - 1950
  • Rapacz, Stanley - Obituary - The_Daily_Tribune_Tue__Sep_3__1957

By keeping to this naming convention from the start, it is now easy to quickly see all of the files that I have related to any one particular ancestor.

How to Organize Note Taking on Your Family History Project

Inevitably, you will need to take notes on something that you find during your research.  I try to keep as much information as possible in my GEDCOM family tree file to keep things simple.  However, it’s not the best format for saving things like narrative descriptions or stories. 

When I first started as a Family Historian, I asked a few friends (who are also their families’ historians) how they manage their notes.  Most used services like Microsoft OneNote or Evernote to keep track of these little bits of information.  Those are great services and I’ve used them before, mainly at work, to organize a vast number of notes over time.  These programs would be a great way to handle this aspect of Family History documentation.  

    However, I personally wanted something that could be easily kept in the same folder structure and naming convention that I was planning to keep everything else.  For that reason, I found a pretty Word document template that I like and now I use that to create “Narrative” documents on an as-needed basis.  Whenever I have something I want to write down, copy or keep for future reference, I open up that template and save it for the ancestor in question.  For example:

    • Rapacz, Stanley (1881-1957) - Narrative

    I save these files using the same naming convention that I use for all of my other files so now I see the “Narrative” document with my notes in the same list of files as everything else related to that ancestor.  

    My plan is eventually to have a narrative document for each of my direct-line ancestors.  Down the road, I can edit and print those documents and keep them with any physical items or photographs that I have related to that family.  For now though, it’s just were I jot down any notes that come up as I work on my family history research so that information is not lost on random scraps of paper.

    Storage and Backups: How to Save Important Digital Family Files 

    Computers die, servers crash and hard drives get lost or damaged.  With any type of digital resource, especially one as important as your family’s history, it’s critical to have a storage and backup plan. 

    For my Family History resources, I decided to employ the same back up system that I have for all of my other digital files.  I keep what I’m currently working with on my computer.  Then everything that is not currently in use I save on 2 removable hard drives, which I store in a fire-proof box.  I also keep a backup copy using a Cloud storage service so that if something happens to my physical location and all of my computers and drives are ruined, I can rest assured that my digital assets are safely backed up on the Cloud servers. 

    This may sound like overkill and you’d be more comfortable with a single back up but this system helps me sleep at night.  Think through what storage and backup solutions work best for you at the outset so you can rest assured that all your hard work and valuable history will be protected.

    Sharing Information: Tips and Tricks for How to Share Family History 

    As I write this, I am realizing this is one area that is a very good idea but one I haven’t yet established in my own Family History planning.  So let’s think this through together and come up with a plan! 

    First, I think we need to decide who we’d like to share access to the Family History digital resources with.  In my case, I’d like to make sure my sisters have access to these resources.  That way they, and their children, will have access to the family history in the future.

    Second, we should determine if we want others to have access to our resources now or not until after our passing.  I’m comfortable sharing that information now so as a next step, I’ll reach out to them to see if they are interested in having that access now through the Cloud service I utilize to back everything up.

    As I stated above, I decided to save all of my family history digital resources in the Cloud.  The Cloud service I use does allow folder sharing so that is one easy way to ensure that others can have access to our Family History resources.

    If you’d prefer to wait and share your digital resources only after your passing, another option would be to include instructions to that effect in your Will or Trust documents.  That will ensure that your wishes are known for where your physical and digital family history resources should go when it’s time to pass it along to the next generation.

      Thinking through all of these details regarding digital file organization up-front will help reduce a lot of frustration.  It will also save you time down the road in trying to find or re-organize files.  Additionally, it will ensure that future generations will have access to all of the resources that you have collected and preserved for them.

      Eve began her journey as a Family Historian following the Covid-19 pandemic.  Glad to be back with loved ones, she spent dedicated time documenting the memories of her grandparents and aunts. 

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