How to get your family history organised


19 March 2020
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Get your family history records organised and under control with Denise May Levenick's top tips for genealogists.

Efficient family historians known that an organised filing scheme for paper and digital materials saves a lot of time. If your present filing scheme is more of a hassle than a help, consider updating your system to make it easier to use and make the most of your valuable research hours.

Step 1: Review your current method

Most probably you work with both paper and digital files, with research and family documents stored in file folders, binders and on your computer. Review your current method of organising and filing by asking yourself a few essential questions:

1. Do you prefer paper or digital files or would you like to retain both?

2. Do you have enough space to store physical paper files?

3. Are you able to purchase additional computer hard drive storage space or cloud storage as needed to accommodate backups and a growing digital library?

4. Do you have the necessary computer skills to manage a digital collection and digitizing projects?

Then decide which method might be best for you:

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In this scheme, paper rules. Any digital files are printed and filed in a paper system for reference. The digital images may or may not be filed in a correspondingly named computer folder system.


This strategy aims to minimize or eliminate paper files. Paperwork is digitised and artefacts digitised and organised in a digital file management system. Heirloom original documents and photos are preserved in archival storage, but most research paper is eliminated.

A combination

Paper and digital files are organized in a kind of mirror system; that is, paper file folders stored in a filing cabinet and computer file folders both follow the same naming structure and pattern.

Step 2: Gather your supplies & kit

Plan for success by gathering supplies and reviewing the skills you need to efficiently set up your new filing system:

  • Paper – You’ll likely need file folders and a filing cabinet, or dividers, sheet protectors and binders. Coloured folders can help organise research by family lines
  • Digital – You’ll need an up to date computer running the most recent operating system for your PC or Mac platform to ensure compatibility with security software and cloud storage services. It’s a good idea to keep at least one local back up of your digital files, preferably on an external hard drive
  • Paper & digital – You’ll need filing supplies as well as digital storage devices, and acid-free archival storage folders and boxes suitable for your keepsake artefacts

Step 3: Start with your paper files

  • Work with one family at a time to gather materials and assemble in folders or binders
  • Choose to sort and label papers by name, surname, family group, location or source. Use whatever seems best suited to your research

Step 4: Conquer the digital chaos

  • Help yourself be more efficient by setting up a simple intuitive computer filing system that mirrors your current paper filing system, if applicable
  • Locate all genealogy-related digital files inside one genealogy folder and it’ll be easier to find files and manage data back-ups

Step 5: Preserve heirloom documents, photos and keepsakes

Preserve family keepsakes in archival quality acid-free preservation storage folders and boxes. Locate your home archive in a place free from extreme changes in temperature and humidity.

Step 6: Backup your files

The materials in any filing system are at risk from personal or natural disaster. Protect your work and your family legacy with regular digital backups and offsite storage.

Written by Denise May Levenick is a family historian, writer, speaker and presenter for webinars and workshops. She is the creator of award-winning family history blog the Family Curator.