Getting Organized

genealogy file keeping

A never-ending topic for genealogists, how to deal with all the notes, files and papers that quickly accumulate when you are doing your family tree research. Keeping track of the information itself isn’t that difficult, especially if you are using a good genealogy software program. If you’re not, it’s still reasonable to organize your family tree with pedigree charts and family group forms.

But what will soon take over your desk and your life, isn’t the information itself, but all the paper. Newspaper clippings, all kinds of certificates, letters, photos, maps and more photocopies than you can shake a stick at. It’s the documentation that will bury you.

When I first wrote this page, I didn’t have much of a system to share but I have since put a great one together that I will outline for you. This is my way of keeping all my genealogy paperwork organized.

First, you need a batch of file folders and hanging folders, as well as a file cabinet drawer or box to keep them in. I label everything in pencil so I can make changes but it doesn’t work great for these photos, so they may be hard to read (click the pics for a larger version). My system is based on one file folder per family, organized by surname in each hanging folder. Like this:

genealogy organization

Very neat and tidy. And this little box holds history that spans a few hundred years. The plastic tabs on the left indicate the surname, with one surname for each hanging folder. Inside the hanging folder, are individual family folders.

genealogy file keeping

Each individual family folder is labelled by the husband’s full name and a number indicating the generation sequence. In this photo, Gordon is 1, and his father William is 2, and his grandfather Peter is 3. I can’t always remember off the top of my head what the relationships are so this means I can keep them in order easier. Cousins who are not in my direct line don’t get a number and are tucked to the back of each folder. I typically only collect reference material on my direct ancestors, so this isn’t too big of an issue for me.

family tree research


Each folder then has a computer-generated family group sheet clipped to the front. My software program makes these up for me. I use it as a kind of index to show all the individuals who belong to this family. Children are kept with the family group until they are married, at which time they are represented with their own family group. So someone’s birth records go in with their parent’s folder, but their marriage records would go in their own folder along with their spouse.

All my various photocopies are then kept within the folder for that family. I tend to put census records on top, then births and then deaths. But I don’t organize each folder to strictly.


Overall, this is my system for storing all the source documents I collect for anyone (photos go elsewhere). My folders contain records for births, deaths, marriages, divorces, military service, tax records, wills, census entries and more. I sometimes keep copies of articles on people who are historically important but this is mainly a system for keeping my primary source documentation.