So over on Facebook, there’s a new group called The Organized Genealogist which now has upwards of 1,200 members (apparently there a LOT of disorganized genealogists out there – glad to know I’m not alone!).  We trade helpful hints and ideas of how to organize certain aspects of our genealogy lives.

Valerie Craft (Begin With Craft) posted a message to the group showing the system she uses on her Mac for her digital files.  I’m proud to say that it’s almost identical to the way I do it with a few minor exceptions — one being that I’m on a Windows PC.  In helping one of the other members work through getting her filing system set up, I realized this was something I actually knew a little bit about, and decided it would make a good topic for a blog post.

I am NOT saying there is a right way or a wrong way to store your digital files.  This is the way that works best for me.  You may find a way that works better for you.

Location, Location, Location

The first thing you need to do is determine where you want to keep all of your digital files.  I am partial to Dropbox because I can access it from my PC, my laptop, my iPad, and my smartphone … but you may decide that you want to have a “root” folder in your “My Documents” folder.  I’m calling it a “root” folder because that is where everything will start (and it also sounds a little bit genealogy-y doesn’t it?)

It really depends on how many files you plan on storing in there and how much virtual storage those files will take up.  I have a total of 41 folders and 58 other documents in my Dropbox folder, which take up around 11 GB of space.  Only about half of that is related to genealogy.  If your hard drive is large enough to save everything there, then by all means do that if it tickles your fancy.  Whatever way is easiest for you.

Regardless of where you store your digital files – one thing will never change.  Backup, backup, backup!  Thomas MacEntee sends out a reminder on the first day of every month to backup your files.  DO IT!

Building your foundation

Once you have determined where you want your “root” file, go ahead and create the folder.  I’ll use My Documents as an example (but the same steps will be taken regardless of where you put your folder – as long as you’re in Windows).  **screenshots were made using Windows 7, but are very similar for XP and Windows 8 – or so I’m told).  Click the “Pearl” in the bottom left corner of your screen (the little Windows button).

Select “Documents” (or “My Documents” if in Windows XP). This opens your Windows Explorer.  (I moved my files out of the way for purposes of this tutorial – you will probably have more than this in your folder).

My Documents

Right click on the RIGHT side of the explorer window. You will get a menu. Down toward the bottom of the menu is an option that says “New.”  Hovering over it brings up more options.  Click on “Folder.”  It should be at the top of the list. (sorry – couldn’t get a screenshot of this).  (This can also be accomplished by using Ctrl+Shift+N)

Your newly created folder is called – strangely enough – “New Folder.”  The name is highlighted, so start typing.  Let’s call this folder “Genealogy Stuff.”  Press enter when you’re done typing.  You’ve created your root folder.

New Folder

Breakin’ it Down

Hover over the “My Documents” folder on the LEFT side of your explorer window.  You will see a little arrow just left of the folder name.  Click on that little arrow to show the folders in your “My Documents” folder.  Then single-click on the folder you just created.  The RIGHT side of your explorer window should display a message saying “This folder is empty.”

Empty Folder


On the RIGHT side of your explorer window, create a new folder using one of your surnames and the process you used above.  Repeat this process for each surname you have.

Within the appropriate surname folder, you will make a folder for each individual with that surname.  For women, I keep them in the surname folder of their maiden name and add their married name to their file name.  For example, my great grandmother’s folder is called “Mary Alice Egan Schneider.”  She is filed under the Egan surname folder, but now I can distinguish her from her mother “Mary Alice McDonnall Egan” and her daughter “Mary Alice Schneider Lanctot” (yes, I have three generations of Mary Alices) because I have added their married names as well.

Within the individual folders, you can further segregate your document types if you want by creating additional folders.  I don’t.  I want to be able to see everything I have for a person in one place.

In Windows 7, you can see your file hierarchy in the address window at the top of your explorer window.  This is one of my folders in Dropbox.  If I want to go up a level, I can just click on the name of the folder in this little window.


Note: this feature is not available in Windows XP.  You will have to use the little green “up” button to go up a directory level. 

Up button





What about the places they lived?

I do the same thing with information I find on localities.  I created a folder in my “Genealogy Stuff” folder called “Localities.”  In that folder I have a file hierarchy that goes like this: Country > State (or equivalent) > County > Town/City.  This is where I keep maps, county histories that I’ve downloaded, or any other locality-specific information that may help me understand the kind of lives my ancestors led and what was going on during the time they were residents.

File Naming

Everyone has their own way of naming files.  Mine is relatively simple: [First Middle Maiden Married] [year (if applicable)] [type of doc].  That’s it.  No magical formula, no special code words.  So if I have a census record for my great grandfather, it will look something like this: “Harold John Crowe Sr 1930 US census.”  My great grandmother’s census record would be “Mary Alice Schneider Lanctot 1915 SD census.”

Any other information will be contained in the metadata (that’s a whole other tutorial/webinar/degree program, and won’t be discussed here) and/or in my citation information within my database program and/or superimposed on the document itself.  (This aspect of my digital filing system is a work in progress).

I hope this helps get you closer to identifying a filing system that is compatible with the way YOUR brain works.


Do we share ancestors? Email me: lostancestors AT gmail DOT com

Copyright 2016 - Jenny-ology.com

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My Digital Filing System for Genealogy (Windows) — 23 Comments

  1. This is basically how I have mine set up with a few exceptions. Instead of placing the genealogy folder under My Documents, I just set up a new library folder called Genealogy. Then in there I have several folders, including one called Surnames, which houses my surname folders. It’s linked to the files on my F: drive.

    I also keep the wife’s information up until she marries with her father, at which time after the marriage, it’s stored with her husband.

  2. This was a great one to read for me, as I’m still in the early stages of “getting organized” after receiving all my family’s materials and my dad’s huge Reunion file. Using a Mac, I’ll have technical differences here and there, but the general ideas are the same of course.

    One question:
    What do you do with documents that apply to multiple people? E.g., an image of a census sheet with a whole family… father’s and n children’s stuff goes in their surname folder, while the mother’s goes with her maiden surname folder. A copy for mother, and how many copies to cover the others?

    • Dave, I try not to duplicate files. It just clogs up your hard drive unnecessarily. Instead, create shortcuts to the document or image in everyone else’s files. Then you have a direct link to the file, but you aren’t duplicating it. In Windows, you would right click the file and select “create shortcut,” but on a Mac, I think you click on the file and press Command + L (had to borrow Valerie Craft’s instructions on that Mac part).

      Then, if your genealogy software allows it, add the event to the head of household or main person in the document, then “share” it with others that are named.

      Hope that helps a little. Let me know if you have any other questions. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I too have a dislike of duplicating files, so your response makes sense to me. My only concern is for the possibility that links might not ‘convey’ properly if I were to, say, copy some files to provide to a relative, or migrate all my stuff between computers. I guess I’d just have to take care on that front.

    On a related note (how to organize various things) I have built a google spreadsheet (for easy family sharing) that lets me capture most of the important data from censuses (censi?), including stable direct page links into the Internet Archive (where available). Wouldn’t want to use the same spreadsheet for everyone, but at least for tracking info for a particular family group (and nearby relatives) it has been fairly handy. I can also accumulate rows about ‘possible’ relatives (by surname or whatever) for further consideration down the road (without mucking up my genealogy database with them until I know they’re related via more substantive sources!).

    It’s also been handy to have a google doc to build up an inventory of the materials my brother lent me, since he never got around to doing much organization. I can share it with him and others, as needed.

  4. >Thomas MacEntee sends out a reminder on the first day of every month to backup your files. DO IT!

    Backups should be done more often than that. My HD failed at the end of the month. You should get an online backup service such as Carbonite, Mozy or iDrive. You should also have a local backup (internal/external) too.

  5. I follow almost exactly this scheme for my filing, EXCEPT I file women under their maiden names only. Besides firmly believing that women are their own individuals, I have some other reasons as well:
    I have many Belgian and French-Canadian ancestors where women kept their maiden names for all official purposes, and I have several women with multiple marriages within my family. There is one woman who was married 3 times: by her second husband she is mother-in-law to one great-uncle, mother-in-law to his half-sister, and mother-in-law to another great-aunt in a different line; by her third husband she is mother-in-law to another great-aunt, and for some reason unknown to me, she and her son by her first marriage share a gravestone with my great-great grandmother.
    For the wife or husband of a very peripheral person, I use the name of a new (empty) folder merely as a cross-reference, as in “Watrous see Barnes”. If I collect more significantly more information or that person becomes more prominent, I will create a folder for him/her and move the files.

  6. I know what you mean, Melba. I do file them under their maiden surnames, but I include their married names on their folders. This is because I have too many people with the same name, and I don’t want to accidentally put anything in the wrong folder. I do the same thing with the men – if their names are similar, I will put the wife’s first name in parenthesis in the name of the folder. That way, I can keep them straight as well.

    For those VERY collateral lines, I have a “Collateral Lines” folder where I keep all of those folks. They may or may not make it into my tree.

  7. What do you do with your photos and images of things like birth, marriage and death certificates? Do you file them under the My Documents Folder? I tried to create a new Library in Windows 7 for Just my Family Tree Stuff and it would not let me do it. Something about the folders be optimized for certain types of files. That’s why I am wondering if you can store the photos in with the documents. Right now, mine are all over in separate files.

  8. I have found that for me the easiest way to uniquely name my ancestors is to insert their birth year in their name. I use Family Tree Maker and Ancestry.com; they both handle numbers in names without a hitch. Example” William 1944 Smith; William 1922 Smith; William 1900 Smith etc.

    • Sandra, I usually don’t create a folder for a person until I know their surname. If it’s a wife (which is usually the case), I just create a folder for her in the husband’s folder until she gets a maiden name, then you can move it where it belongs.

  9. I really enjoyed this post. For Christmas my husband bought me a external hard drive. My thoughts are getting all my research organized. I am excited to get started. Would you know if FTM2014 would work on an external drive? Then I could organize all my note and citations from the external hard drive. I would appreciate your thought on this idea. Sincerely Lynn

    • I’m not sure about that, Lynn. I haven’t used FTM in several years, but I can’t imagine it NOT working on an external drive. I run my RootsMagic from Dropbox and it works fine. Good luck!

  10. Over the years my files have had so many different names and your’s probably have too, Jenny. I last had on my D: drive under a root folder called _Genealogy and then a subfolder called Vitals and BDM went in there, then I had another subbie with more folders for all my major surnames. I had folders for wills, military and the list goes on. Until I read a blog by Calvin’s Genealogy where he wanted all his files together on one page so he could see and get in one go. Sounded good to me.
    So I started to fiddle with a folder called Surnames with a subbie called Williams – Zanker (which is my paternal and maternal lines and Lavender – Craggs which is my hubbie’s family lines). In those folder I made a folder for every major surname. Once done I used just the Windows File Explorer to search my entire Genealogy folder for, say Williams and I moved all those files into the Williams folder and on I went with every surname until they had all been moved into the relevant surname folder.
    Then the re-naming of each file had to be done, there’s about 4000 of them and that includes my genealogy photos which are separate from my day to day photos.
    This is what I ended up with:
    [Birth] 1916 Bruce Gladstone Williams [certificate]
    [Death] 1981 Bruce Gladstone Williams [certificate]
    [Marriage] 1936 Bruce G Williams and Myrtle L Zanker [certificate]
    [Military] 1942 Bruce Gladstone Williams [record-NatArchives]
    [Newspaper] 1952 Bruce Gladstone Williams [Coota Herald]
    By doing this for every Williams in the folder they sort by type then date and I don’t have to look through lots of folders to get the info for one person.
    Photos are in a subfolder in this Williams folder.
    It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, most people still like to separate different types of documents but after using that method for a number of years I found I was creating duplicates. Now I don’t have duplicates because all the files for one Surnames are all happily living together in one folder. Even the location, Maps, building and headstone files/photos are in there.

    • I took a genealogy class years ago, and I couldn’t remember how they recommended labeling the digital documents. Your example reminded me. Thank you.

      I am currently uploading all my churches central database as they back it up daily for free.

      • Paula,

        Funny you should ask … and I suppose I should update this blog post at some point because I’ve completely redone my file naming convention since the “Genealogy Do-Over.” I now name my files (including photos) as:
        [SURNAME] [First Middle] [yyyy mm dd] [document type]

        This way the files stay in chronological order in the folders, creating a sort of at-a-glance timeline. If I have photos with multiple people in them, I name the image using the individual I want as the “main” person, then tag everyone else in the metadata so they are still searchable. I attach the photos to each individual in RootsMagic, but I just use the one image for everyone (instead of creating a copy for each person unless I think it needs to be done).

        Hope that helps!

  11. Pingback: Organize Your Genealogy in 2016! - Lisa Lisson

  12. Thank you Jenny Lanctot for your article and all the comments from everyone. I have been picking at genealogy for many years now in a very semi disorganized way and now I have so many great ideas from you all, I can’t wait to get started with them. Thanks again for sharing.

  13. Thanks for you ideas on the filing system. I found that mine was somewhat similar as well but I use the last name first with an underscore and then the balance of info as you have. One problem I seem to be having is that Windows 10 is telling me that my file names are too long when I try to move files from one folder to another. Any suggestions? I don’t like cutting the file names too short sense it is helpful to see all the info in the file name.

    • Norma, I know that file names are limited in Windows. I think the limit is 150 characters. And that’s for the entire path. So if you have too many levels of files, you’re going to run into problems. Consider moving your main file (and all its contents) so that it’s not buried in any other levels of files.

      Hope that helps!

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