A Complete Tutorial on Genealogy Organization

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A Complete Tutorial on Genealogy OrganizationI originally wrote this post on genealogy organization almost a year ago, publishing it on an old blog that no longer exists. With just a few updates, it’s all set for the new year!

If you are anything like me, you have binders and file folders full of records, memorabilia, research, etc. on the many branches of your family tree. And you probably also have digital folders full of images with helpful names like IMG0009524.jpg. In fact, for me the digital files are the most numerous and (especially with the photographs) duplicated in various folders as I’ve imported from here, copied from there, switched computers two or three times — you get the idea.

It’s ok. We’re about to fix that.

There are many organizational systems out there. The most popular ones incorporate the surname into the filing logic, which typically makes sense. We’re tracking family lines after all. I’ll share some resources for alternate genealogy organization systems in a bit, but first I want to share the one that I think is the best.

There are no surnames involved.


My system (which has its roots in this one from Sarah O’Connor) deals with categories of documents and relies on an index file. Like the Dewey Decimal system at your local library. The formal name would be an Accession Number Filing System, which just means that as you acquire a new document, you assign it a chronological number. Regardless of the ancestor the document is connected with.

Don’t panic. It’s really simple.

Let’s Start with Digital

First, I created my categories in a new folder on my desktop. I used the categories Sarah created (vitals, legal, newspaper, etc.) and added one of my own (census). I named the folders with the initial code plus the full name so they’d be sorted in the way I wanted and so I’d remember which code I’d picked for each category.

Here’s a screenshot of my folder list:

Genealogy Organization: Categories

The first folder is where I download documents I find online (from Family Search, Ancestry, etc.) that I need to catalog and index. The named folders are where each document lives — once. I backup my folder, but I do not have the documents copied from place to place so I never know where exactly to look.

I then went through all the digital files I had, culling out the ones that did not pertain to my direct line. I’m focusing on my direct line right now and will get around to looking up the cousins of my great-grandparents another day. I moved the files into their proper folder and assigned a number to them.

Starting with the first file in the first folder, I gave it “CN10001”. If I ever reach 100k documents for a single category, I can add another digit. Or commit myself to an institution. Whatever works.

Here’s what the first images in my Census folder look like:

Genealogy Organization: Census Files

Creating the Index

I started over with 10001 for each category (so I have a CN10001, a MC10001 and a VD10001) so the final number in each category is ostensibly the number of documents I have for that category. Once all my files had been numbered, I created my index.

This file took me a bit, since I wanted to list every. single. piece. of. information. And that’s not what the index is for.

The index is meant to be a guide in locating the correct document, not to be a replacement for said document. With that in mind, I began listing only the following information for each family member listed in the document: Legacy RIN, File ID, Type, Surname, Given Name, Direct/Indirect, Date of Record, Place of Record, Date Acquired, Citation.

There are multiple ways to use this index, and you need to use what works best for you. For me, here’s how I’m using it:

I’m entering in each name as it appears on the document (so my grandmother in the 1940 census is listed under her married name… since she was married several years earlier).  The purpose for me is to be able to sort or filter the index by name so I can see what records I have for a given family.

I can also filter by record (File ID) so I can see who is listed on a particular document. If I filter by RIN, I can see which documents I have for a particular person. I can also sort by place to see which records I have from that geographical location. The date of record may not be necessary in the index, but it will help identify which census is which and give an overview of a timeline. In theory anyway.

Here’s what the index looks like:

Genealogy Organization: Index Example

So let me go over each field and where the information comes from.

Legacy RIN: the number assigned to that ancestor in Legacy Family Tree, my software of choice. This is necessary to identify which “John Smith” we’re talking about since as we all know our ancestors loved to name children after other family members. Love the sentiment, but makes it fun for us!

File ID: the accession number of the file… the filename of the document (CN10001) is the File ID (CN10001). Easy to identify and locate.

Type: usually the category, but can be slightly more specific. I’ve used “WWII Registration” for an item in the Military category.

Surname and Given Name are self-explanatory (I’m entering them in exactly as on the document, spelling errors and all right now. While this may play havoc with my idea of filtering by name, it makes sense at the moment).

Direct/Indirect: how the person was mentioned. For example, in my grandfather’s obituary, his parents are mentioned. My great-grandmother was not the subject of the record, so it’s not a main record for her. But it’s an indirect record, as it is evidence for the parent/child relationship and I want to link it to her.

Date of Record: the date of the document. Not the date the document was recorded at the courthouse or whatever, but the date the information was written down. If dates are older than January 1, 1900, Excel’s built-in date functionality won’t work. I can get around it by entering this date as YEAR MONTH DAY (ie: 2017 Jan 21) so I can sort by date in Excel.  (If you’re geeky like me, you may like this article which goes into MUCH more detail.)

Place of Record: the location of the ancestor/record when created. This got tricky with draft registrations since the place of registration was different from current address. But I went with the address.

Date Acquired: the date I entered the document into my system. Since I had no idea when I found some of these records, I went with the date I entered them. In the future, I should be entering them into the index on the same day I locate them. In a perfect world.

Citation: what I use when referring to the source. I use the Citation builder in Legacy, and then copy/paste the info here, to have it tied to the document.

Here’s an example of what those look like:

Genealogy Organization: Citation Examples

Using the Index

I start by entering my files into my index, so the RIN field and Citation field are blank. I will update these fields when I actually link the source in my database. If I never use the source, then it must not have been as awesome as I thought and I can unload it from my files. Hey, it’s a good thought.

Physical Files

So I thought about writing this all out for physical files as well, but figure you can probably extrapolate it. I don’t have enough paper to use binders, but if you do, use a binder for each category, with an index page in the front of that binder and a Master Index (preferably laminated or something for safe keeping) for all the binders. I haven’t started on my physical paper yet, but expect to just use a section of my filing cabinet for now.

Alternate Genealogy Organization Systems

So if accession numbers just aren’t your thing, many people using color coding by surname. Mary Hill has the best tutorial on that system. And of course, Cyndi’s List has tons of links to organizational information.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Leave a comment and I promise I’ll reply!



  1. Thank you very much for your words about categorisation and indexation. Really interesting! IF I had time and ability .
    I am stymied trying to find out more about my greatgraeatgrandfather who came to Australia in 1837?. I know about his marriage and to whom and his children.
    God bless
    Colin F. Cussen

    • You are welcome Colin! This system isn’t for everyone, but I’ve found it works the best for me! As for research in Australia, I recommend checking out some Facebook groups. I’ve seen a lot of Australians in my generic FB groups, so I’ll bet they’re in the specific ones as well. Good luck!


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