3 Methods for Organizing Your Genealogy

3 Methods for Organizing Your Genealogy

Do you have a house full of genealogical records that are completely unorganized? Did you inherit genealogy from someone else and don’t know what to do with it? Well, there are three methods of organizing your materials so that you can access what you need quickly in the future.

Before I can explain the methodology, let me reveal something that you must accept as fact.

There is no one right way to organize.

The only wrong way to organize is to have a big old pile of stuff that people will eventually toss in the garbage rather than sift through. Your organization efforts must simplify your retrieval process. If you can quickly find a document or photo, then you are using the right system for you.  

BE WARNED that organizing takes time.

Generally, you will not be able to organize a room with multiple file cabinets filled to the brim and overflowing in an hour, or a day. Sometimes the project will take weeks if not months to tackle.   The best advice is to:


You do not have to look at a stack of papers, research, photos, and such, and feel like everything has to be organized at once. Develop your system as you slowly work through your discoveries. That way, if you need to make any changes, you make them while your system is still flexible enough to accommodate any modifications.  

Additionally, when you make a new discovery, determine where the document, photo, or note should be filed and then place it there.

Entire websites and books are written about the specific tools and materials you can use to store your physical documents, photos, and memorabilia. In this post, you’ll consider which method you’ll use to these mechanical specifics.

Method 1: Organize By Family

The most common method of organization in genealogy is by family. In simple terms is one folder per family consisting of a father, mother, and their children. The information in this folder may include the standard genealogy charts specific to this family, vital records about the family members, photos, stories, journals, research notes, etc.

Remember that the parents in this folder are children in other families.

As such, their information would need to be copied and placed in the folders of their respective parental families.

Additionally, many of the children will form their own families. The documents in their parental family will need to be copied into folders where they become the spouse/parent.

Some suggest that you keep a log in your files that indicate that additional source items are in a certain file. This would allow you to place all items pertaining to a person prior to marriage in the file folder of their parents. Any item pertaining to life after marriage would be placed in the folder of marriage.

You would create a log stating that a married person’s birth certificate is located in the parental file folder. On the flip side, a death certificate for a child would be mentioned in the parental file folder but placed in the folder where the individual was a spouse.

Files are labeled with the husband’s name and years.

So, if the family was Lewis Brown, you would label the file BROWN, Lewis 1918-1978. You might even need to add the wife’s name, especially if you have multiple ancestors with the same name or if one ancestor had multiple wives.

For instance, one of my male ancestors had two wives. His first wife would be discussed in the file labeled SMITH, Andrew N 1855-1933 & Emma Ward. The second wife would be discussed in the folder labeled SMITH, Andrew N 1855-1933 & Mary Etta Webb.

Method 2: Organize By Type

Knowing that the need to make copies of source items to be placed in multiple folders or to keep accurate cross-referencing logs might be cumbersome, some people elect to group their items by type. This system groups:

  • all interviews with interviews
  • all photographs with photographs
  • all birth certificates with birth certificates
  • and so on.

Items are identified by the principal individual(s) and ordered alphabetically.

  • Interviewees’ recordings are labeled with their name and then filed according to their last name.
  • Photo albums are grouped by the principal family names and then arranged by last name on a photo album shelf.
  • Loose photos are generally arranged by owner’s collection (Aunt Margie’s photos. Grandma Maggie’s photos) and then arranged chronologically  as much as possible.

There are limitations with this method as well, but the focus is keeping similar type items together with less need to make copies or cross-references.

Method 3: Organize By Project

Some genealogists remind me of homeschooling parents that love unit based learning rather than a progressive system. These genealogists would be better served by organizing their material based upon the projects on which they are working.

If you are writing a family history about people from Connecticut, all files associated with the relatives from Connecticut would be grouped together.

If you are creating a scrapbook about your mother, then pull out all of the photos, documents, and memorabilia relevant to your mother’s story in one file box.

Organize your material based on your end goal or the projects you are working, on rather than by family or by type.

The drawback of this method is what do you do with the material you have that is not part of a particular project?

You can simply create a miscellaneous folder and hope for the best. Or slowly adopt the file by type or family methods.

Which method do you use?

These three methods of organizing your genealogical material can also be mixed and matched together creating a process that serves you best. Once you know the overall plan for filing your content, you can then examine the specific naming systems, labels, archival quality folders, binders, and page protectors you will need to accomplish the task.

Which method best describes your organizational preference? Do you have a different approach that’s not listed above?

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

5 thoughts on “3 Methods for Organizing Your Genealogy

  1. In 20+ years my system has evolved into the simplest possible; hanging files by surname. Only when a file has too many pieces of paper do I divide into individual person folders. For people with lots of documents I might add subject folders; Probate, Deeds, etc. Women are always filed by their birth surname regardless of the name on the individual documents. Documents pertaining to persons other than direct ancestors go into folders labeled Siblings of ____ _______. My database, on Reunion in my case, is my primary organizational and finding aid. Each document is recorded in chronological order in the notes section of a person’s record. In the case of multiple people on a document, I just file it in the folder of the person most important to me. Guiding principle: Keep it Simple, or less time spent organizing and filing means more time for research.

    Mary Herzog

  2. Found your blog via Randy Seaver's "Best of …". Great post.

    I'm a "couple" filer. However, once a person marries, I move all of their files from their parents' file into the new couple file. My computer files work the same way. So my own files are in with my husband and not my parents. The exception would be early records that include the whole family, such as group photos or census records showing the person as a child. I could make copies, but I'm not one to do that.

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