Organization

So anyone who follows me on Twitter (which should be you, if you use Twitter, link in the blue bar!) knows that I have been doing a massive genealogy overhaul. I have decided to organize myself and all of my digital goodies I have floating around on this computer.

It is not an easy undertaking. It has involved many random folders with unlabeled images scattered in various locations on both hard drives and flash drives, and the last two times I've worked on it have involved me sitting at the computer for 6 hours at a time.

(Including bathroom and Dr. Who breaks, of course. And spending a week out of commission because of the flu.)

But digital organization is important for the same reason that labeling and organizing real photos and records is important--how is someone (including you) supposed to remember/recognize an important document if they have no way to determine what it is?

What I'm learning now, as I'm organizing and labeling certain data I've had for about 5 years now, is that by the time you "get around" to this sort of thing, you no longer remember the things you might need to know in order to perform the task. Oops.

But hindsight teaches, regret only demotivates.

So the valuable question is: How should I label, organize, and store my digital family history data?

How should I label my family history data?

To give a suggestion of what I prefer to do, here is a file name of a census record from my collection:

"Loveless, William_1870 RockCo NC Census."  
Last name, First name_Year Abbreviated county name State Type of document

Just by seeing this file name, I know it's William Loveless and his family from the 1870 Census, in Rockingham County, North Carolina. Anyone who looks at it can probably figure out the same thing. They may not know who William Loveless is, but they would have a much easier time figuring it out if they had to do so.

Come up with a system that works for you and makes sense to you. Then stick to your system. If you do this every time you download a digital file, you never have to go back and figure it out again later. Unless you're like me and you only label census records.

So, I think the important emphasis for this question is how you SHOULDN'T do it.


  1. Do not do nothing. If your file labels are the same tags they received when you downloaded them from the web or uploaded them from your digital camera, they are totally unsearchable. As helpful as the file name "DSCN1027" is of a digital scan of 5 obituaries from the Keatts line, it could certainly be improved. Something as simple as KeattsObituaries1 (in the event of multiple pages) can be more helpful than random numbers and letters. This is identical to a shoe box full of old photographs with absolutely nothing written on the back and no one who remembers who they are. Tragic.
  2. Beware of shortcuts. Once we understand the importance of labeling our files, the realization sets in that it becomes a boring task. We find ways to abbreviate and cut corners to make it easier. But is your system possible to follow by someone other than you? Is it consistent? Is it searchable? And perhaps the most direct question of all: Is it a fat hot mess? If yes, What are you gonna do about it? (That's where I was about two weeks ago, FYI)
  3. Deal effectively with delegation. Do you have multiple family members working from the same family tree, or different lines? Are they working off of at least a similar pattern as you? Because if you ask a beloved niece/granddaughter/cousin/brother to help you and you do not give them specific instructions in regards to organization and labeling, it may end up being more of a hassle than a help. Simple instructions of how you would like them to label their documents and photos can help tremendously.
  4. Be aware of how you plan to organize the information. There are a variety of ways to organize family history information--everyone has their preference and what works for the way they think and their family. But however you choose to do it, your file labels should help you organize. If you label all of your photos and documents by geographic location and you want to organize them by the first and last name of the people to whom they apply, that information won't be readily available to you just by glancing at the file name. This is exactly the kind of inconsistency we want to avoid because the time I spend trying to figure things out is time I will never get back.
On that note...

How should I organize my family history data?

The answer to this question is truly different not only for every family, but for each genealogist at their phase in the process. When I was a novice, I organized everything geographically because it was easiest for me to differentiate between my father and mother's families. My mom's family was from Maryland and Tennessee, and my father's was from Virginia and North Carolina. But as my mother's family grew in terms of the information I uncovered, I discovered many people who were also from Virginia, and my system fell apart. Because of that, my suggestions are:
  1. Be adaptable. If something doesn't work anymore, change your approach. Something else I used to do that I found ineffective was keeping documents separate from photos. That created a mess in which all of my family history data is strewn between My Documents, My Pictures, My Downloads, My Desktop, and my flash drive. By being adaptable, I can change this. And by being determined despite my current fever coming and going, I will vanquish too!
  2. Keep it simple. I have found the simplest way is to organize by last name. I started out with folders for entire lines by last name. Within that folder, I have begun creating individual folders for people by first and last name. I'm not sure that this will work for me in the long run--sometimes I want to scan over all of the documents for a line quickly so I can find any unfinished projects of mine. I have quite a few digital copies of cemeteries I have never touched because they take time. If I shove them into a folder within a folder, I may never get back to them again. My desire to be organized cannot further contribute to my weakness for procrastination.
  3. Make time to organize. I honestly don't think my organization issues would have gotten as bad as they are had I just done it little by little over time, especially during dry spells when I had no new data coming in. Had I seen organization as a part of what I have to do as a family historian, I would have treated my data much differently.

How do I store my family history data?

There are no long-term data storage options when it comes to digital media. There is no such thing as a hard drive or a flash drive or a server that will last forever. I am terrible at losing flash drives, and they have a relatively short lifespan. External hard drives can live even less time, as I just discovered. Because mine, you know, BROKE!

So, I want to get away from constant fussing with storing things on a flash drive and a computer. I'm willing to let someone else do the heavy lifting on storage for me at this point. In order to get a more maintenance-free digital storage, I recommend online data storage. There are quite a few options available. Before you choose yours, keep a couple of things in mind.
  1. Do your homework. Family history data isn't just your sensitive data--it's the sensitive data of other people. Before you start using just any data storage service, find out if it's secure. How long has the website been around, or likely to be around? Do they have a free storage option? Do you prefer a paid service? How much storage space do they offer? How much space do you need? Do they cancel your account for inactivity? Do they allow other people to see and download your data by default? Decide what features you want, and determine who is able to give you those features for the right price.
  2. Make sure it's something you can/will use. This was why I ultimately decided to go with Google Drive. Everything I own and use is Google-based. And even though Google Drive only offers 5 GB of space, they don't count any Google Docs from that limit. So if I convert my data into a Google Docs format, I can potentially have unlimited space. The fact that Google Drive comes with a desktop app that allows me to open it almost as a folder on my computer allows me to work seamlessly with my other files and programs. Google Drive also has an Android app which will allow me to see and access that data on both my Kindle Fire and my phone. That accessibility was impressive, and something I really want to see played out in how I do family history work.
  3. Alternatives to Google: Here are a few of the other options I explored. If you are a Windows/Hotmail user, you already have access to online storage in Windows Live Skydrive. They offer you 7 GB of free storage. The interface for it is similar to Windows 8, which may give it a certain learning curve. The largest free storage limit I have found so far comes from MediaFire, who offer a ridiculous 50 GB. The interface looks very straightforward and easy to use. Set your files to private if you don't want the whole world to be able to download them though.
From this experience I have learned a fundamental difference between true organization and cleanup. Cleanup is when a mess has been created, and the mess is put away the same way it always has been. Organization in the actual change in behavior that keeps the mess from happening. My goal for my family history endeavors is to be organized so I can avoid the hassle of cleanup. I know that as I achieve that, my productivity will only go up, as well as the satisfaction I find in genealogy done right the first time.