A Complete Tutorial on Genealogy Organization

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A Complete Tutorial on Genealogy Organization

I 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

    FREE Genealogy Index Template!
    Grab my Excel template for indexing my genealogy records...

    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.

      FREE Genealogy Index Template!
      Grab my Excel template for indexing my genealogy records...

      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 for presenting this organization scheme. Looks very promising. I have a question. You list the Legacy RIN ahead of a file listing. I assume the RIN indicates one individual only, however the file may refer to several persons. For example, a census file would have husband, wife and the children, so it would refer to several people, yet the RIN is for one person. Please discuss this. Thank you.

        • Bill, You are correct. The RIN is for one individual only. So in my index, I list each person found on the record individually. In your example of a census record, I list the husband on one row, the wife on a second row, and each child on their own row. I just duplicate most of the other columns for that individual. The name and the RIN are the two cells that would contain differing information. The date, place, citation, etc. would be the same for each person listed on the record. This allows me to locate all records where a certain person is mentioned, and including the RIN allows me to differentiate between people with the same name. I also add the RIN to the index record once I’ve added that information to my database, so it’s doubling as a checklist. Hope that helps!

      2. This was interesting, I am ready to start a go-over and stymied how to organize files. I may try this. Interested in how you enter the citation for a particular piece of data. That confuses me.
        Another note, I noticed you had several Elwell’s listed in your names. My great grandmother was an Elwell, we have no info on her grandparents – supposedly her father, Edwin Elwell left home and took his mother’s maiden name. I believe he was born about 1855, married Sarah E Yeomans about 1880, and died 09 Mar 1898 in Troupsburg, Steuben Co, NY, he is buried in Brookfield Cemetery, Brookfield, Tioga Co, PA. Does this connect anywhere with your Elwells?

        • Lisa, you are welcome! The citation is based on the formats presented in Evidence Explained, and is a single citation for each record. Let me know what questions you have and I’m happy to answer! I’m also working on a presentation about citations that I’ll present over on my Facebook Page (or maybe start a group??), so you can check that out as well.

          My Elwells are from the Birmingham England area and immigrated to Pittsburgh, PA in the early 1900s. There’s a branch of Elwells who were in New England are earlier than that, but I’ve not found the connection as yet. So while our Elwells are probably connected somewhere along the line, I’ve not found it! 🙂

      3. Rebeka, I just saw this plan for organizing documents posted on the Genealogy Do-Over group page. I am fascinated. I would like to know if you use a similar system for your photos and how does it work? Thanks for posting such a great idea!

        • Kathryn, this can 100% be used for photos too. I haven’t organized mine that way yet, I’ve been dithering on how to do it exactly and procrastinating… 🙂 I’m actually trying SmugMug right now to see if it will be helpful for photos and really liking what I’m seeing so far….

      4. This is the most creative system I’ve seen so far. Who knew old Dewey still had something to offer?

        I have something partly similar. Folders are by category: Census, birth, death – certs, death – funeral, death – cemetery, immigration, military & DAR, city dir, marriage & divorce, legal, newspaper, pics, historical, misc. I also have files for gedcom, DNA, maps, forms, helps; and files for my software programs for their backups. And two VERY messy files: searches done and ‘need to sort’.

        The only files with sub-files are census (years) and searches (surnames). That said, the rest all fit nice in their subject folders.

        Inside each subject folder the doc name is what categorizes it, samples:
        death – Smith,NancyJOHNSON_d1963_HarrisCo_TX
        birth – Johnson,Nancy_b1917_BexarCo_TX
        marr – Jones,Ralph + Linda Knowing 1833_AustinCo_TX
        1930 TX,LamarCo_Jones,Ralph (I don’t list everyone, just the head or unusual ppl)
        WW2 reg card – Smith,George_b1920

        I have a Mac, so I am putting the citation inside the folder “get info” area. Unknown if PC has something similar for files.

        Throwbacks – the searches I do that finds mass data (I throw those in a surname folder); and the “this might be them or they might be related” things I find or clues that might or might not be valuable later. I can’t see all the docs one person might have in one spot, or see everything by location like your spreadsheet is capable of.

        • The best system is the one you will use. 🙂 Since tracking all individuals that appear on a document is important to me, the index works better than file names. But again, that’s what works for me! 🙂

      5. Thanks for offering your solution to a real problem that we all face. Seems like the bulk of the workload is in keeping the index file up to date. I’ve been toying with storing my digital documents in a relational database, such as LibreOffice Base. Have you any experience with or thoughts about that approach?

        • Bill, I’ve not tried that program, but have played around with Zotero, Clooz, Evidentia, and Centurial. While each has its pros and cons, I’ve found my index to be easier to keep up-to-date and less overlap with my Legacy software program. But I love trying new things and learning about other ways of handling it, so if you try it let us know!

      6. Interesting idea for organizing genealogy files. I’ve never considered filing by type of document rather than by surnames first. Your explanation makes it seem very workable. I’m in the midst of renaming all my digital images and will have to ponder this format a bit before moving forward.

        • It can be quite an undertaking if you’ve already organized in a different way. I did it as part of a Go-Over, and am still working through documents!

      7. Do you have a suggestion for passenger lists and immigration files? I have several files from boat lists that I am trying to keep track off.

        • Hey Rebecca! My passenger lists are currently in MC–Miscellaneous, but as I discover more of them I’m considering adding a category for Immigration. This would contain passenger lists, passport information, naturalization paperwork, etc. I just have a handful of documents right now, so the MC category is working for me. But you can always break out a new category at any time. It’s super easy to update both the filename and the index when you do. Best of luck!

      8. Glad I saw this. I inherited a cousin genealogy record’s seven boxes full. Which I have been doing genealogy for 40 year’s. Been trying to get it all organized. This sounds like a great idea. Thanks for sharing.

      9. You have mentioned how families have multiple 1st names over generations and how it can cause confusion. It might be of some help if you added another column after each person’s name. In this new column you enterenter the birth and death dates, or reasonable guess, for that individual.

      10. Thanks to this terrific post, I think I’ve finally settled on a file hierarchy and naming system that won’t drive me insane! I have a little trouble accepting that the numbers aren’t going to be as meaningful as I’d like. Still, it’s much better than having some sort of convoluted system emerge while trying to ensure that each file has a completely unique but predictable name. That was just giving me a headache, producing names of unwieldy length, and creating trouble as I tried to balance using elements that would be useful for finding files, but without making conclusions ahead of time about the people.

        Looking into different organizational systems suggested in genealogy, and finding this approach in particular, has prompted a number of thoughts for me. Probably going to end up blogging about it myself!

        • I hear you! I was thrilled when I stumbled on this system and it works so well with my analytical brain 😉 Let me know how it goes for you! ~R

      11. I am interested in trying your system. Thank you for sharing. I currently use Mary Hill’s with Legacy, but am inundated with digital and paper files and duplicate copies. Do you reference your files in Legacy? For example if you have a Census record for John Doe, his wife Cora, and 12 children, in Legacy in the individual’s information section, do you just list “1850 census, CN10010” in 3 Legacy individual information sections– John, Cora, and child, who is my ancestor?

        • Hi Carolyn! I use the Census record as a source document for each person in my tree that is listed on the document. So I would link to John, Cora, and all 12 of their children. I use my File ID in the citation so I can easily locate it “backwards”…. finding the person in Legacy, then checking out their source documents. Hope that helps! ~R

      12. This will definitely help me with my #1 New Years resolution – to get my digital files organized. I absolutely love this. It makes so much more sense than keeping duplicate copies of documents. I have also stopped and started my genenealogy multiple times (work kept getting in the way) and since starting working on my genealogy on a computer, I’ve had at least 4-5 computers, so need so through multiple files to make sure I’ve captured everything. Thank you for a great tutorial. This is the best I’ve ever seen!

        • You are so welcome Kathy! I’m glad it was helpful. Be sure to let me know how it goes, and reach out if you have any questions! ~R

      13. This came at the perfect time. I just unloaded 12 file boxes of family photos, documents, memorabilia, etc. I need to go through the treasure trove to organize and purge.

        Thank you for this suggestion. We use the same file system (organization and nomenclature style) at my previous job – I just never thought to apply it to this! It’s a heavy lift in the beginning, but it should really synthesize and organize it nicely.

        • I’m glad this was helpful! Yikes, 12 boxes is a lot to go through, but what a great “problem” to have! Definitely reach out if you need any help. 🙂

      14. This I can do! I’m sure I’ll find it quickly, but it’s not obvious to me how to assign the RIN. I’m only using Ancestry. Is it embedded in the program or do you assign numbers manually? Thank you. This guide is well done!

        • Sharin: The RIN is the record number assigned to the person in my genealogy program. I use Legacy, but other programs have numbers too. If you are just using Ancestry, I don’t *think* they have this, so you can delete that column. 🙂 Hope that helps! ~R

      15. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have been trying to find a system that didn’t leave me with hundreds of file folder on my laptop and this is the system. It is so simple and I know it will make things easier to find.

        • You are so welcome Ravyn! I was dreading going the surname route so sang hallelujahs when I stumbled over a version of this system. It just makes so much more sense to me! 🙂 Please let me know how it goes for you!

        • Hi Hanna, it can be overwhelming with all the variety of data that can flow in! I recommend starting basic: you, your parents, your grandparents. Put any other records you find in a folder where you can take them one at a time when you are ready. Are you using genealogy software? I started just with Ancestry.com, but now use both Legacy and RootsMagic to organize all the data. Let me know if I can help further! ~R

          • I use Ancestry and trying to convert to RM. My hang up doing this is attaching photos/documents and then locating later. Somehow the “path” gets lost. Very spoiled by Ancestry. What do you suggest?

            • Marcia, I haven’t used RM that much, other than as an Ancestry backup. I know in Legacy, however, you store your photos in a way that makes sense to you and then link them to the program. If you move the file, you can use the Relinking tool to locate again. If you change the name of the image, you’ll have to link it again manually. I’d assume RM has a similar tool; I recommend checking with the fantastic folks in the Facebook Users Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/RootsMagicUsers/

      16. I am very interested in your Tutorial on Genealogy Organization as my computer files are in complete disarray, all over the place. I have set up my files using the same categories but added one for City Directories, but separated out the four sets of grandparents, green, blue, red and yellow each with their categories, thinking this might keep them a little more organized. I am thinking of 4 binders, green, blue,red, yellow and having a folder for each category same as computer, using the same index and same naming as on computer. Does that make sense…

        • Hi Barb! Honestly, the best organizational system is the one you use! 🙂 So whatever will work for you, help you find a document when you need it, and you can use consistently into the future is the right thing to do! I haven’t split file by surname lines, mostly because it hasn’t been necessary and my brain works better with the pure accession system. I do include surnames in my index, and it’s 100% digital, so I can sort the index by a surname or person and see what documents I have for that person and where they are. I also link the file with the accession number to the individual using Legacy, so can locate a file that way too. It’s what works for me! 🙂 Good luck! ~R

          • Hmmm. I like this idea. I tend to think in terms of lineages/lines, but with the level of endogamy in my personal tree … that diesnt work all that well (my parents are 3C1R and it goes “downhill” from there. (Ancestry showed me that Mom’s parents were also related [who knew! I hadn’t run across it in 40-some-odd years of traditional research!] … about half her matches are kin to both sides … way too many to be the odd random events).

            So I thought about alpha (26 folders) …

            I haz mad organizational skillz …. I just can’t decide on which one to use! Lol. Right now, what I’m doing is working/sorting/storing by 5-gen pedigree chart starting with the 16 grandparents.

            I’ll figure something out. I just don’t want to have to go the route of re-doing the re-do of the first do-over of the original schema! 🙂

            • Hi Susan! Wow, criss-crossing lines can make sorting all this out super fun! You totally need to do whatever will work best; maybe a hybrid system will be good. Sometimes it helps just to step back look at the big picture! ~R

              • nods. Yeah. Till now, it was file folders by surname. They’re all in a filing cabinet in storage, and I’ve added a daughter-in-law to the mix. Her 4 lines are separate (complete with “recent” immigrants [potato-famine Irish and German]), but one of her lines ties into Hubby pre-1750 and goes back to the Magna Carta.

                Endogamy is such fun! <—- see my eyes crossing?

                Just ran kinship reports. Mom and dad are kin through 7 different pathwats from 3C1R to 6C1R. Dad's parents are 2C1R, and Mom's parentss are 4C and 5C (twice …..)


          • Surnames are completely useless for me. My mother’s mother’s mother was Ruth Kate Willis. My father’s father’s mother was Mary Elizabeth Willis. As far as I can tell, my Willis great-grandmothers are no relation to each other. I started calling them my North Georgia Willises and South Georgia Willises, but that only works after 1810; before that the South Georgia Willises were in North Carolina, and the North Georgia Willises were in South Carolina. And there are incidental Willises related to neither line. Insanity.

            Your system gives me hope that I can untangle the mess. Do you include your document names (CN10001) in your software citations?

            • Yikes Kathy! That reminds me of a ball of yarn after the kitten got done with it. 🙂 Yes, I do add the document ID to my software. In Legacy, it’s called “File ID” and is part of the Source Detail. It’s not part of the citation, since it won’t help anyone else locate it in a repository. But including the File ID along with a transcript and image will help me locate it later. Also, there’s a “File ID” report in Legacy that prints out a list of the IDs used, what they are for and who they are attached to. That will help me ensure I have the documents added to the appropriate people as I work through them!

      17. 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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