What To Do With All Those Genealogy Files!

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You are surrounded by paper. Stacks of photocopies of birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates. Shoe boxes full of photographs, wedding invitations, funeral cards, baby announcements. The stacks are piled on top of stacks and one good sneeze will topple them all to the floor. Nightmare? Nope, just a day in the life of a genealogist!

Start to organize your genealogy files with these 3 filing systems!

Let’s stop the insanity! We can organize all those paper genealogy files that you have so they can sit in an orderly fashion on a shelf and mind their manners while you are able to move forward, knowing you can put your hands on the exact document you want within seconds! How? Grab your coffee and let’s dig in!

Organize Genealogy Files by Surname

This is by far the most common way to organize your files. Many genealogists create binders for each surname or surname section and file the documents inside by family group. There are many ways to do this, let’s talk about a few.

Hanging Files: The system created by Mary Hill is the most common organizational plan for using hanging files and I see people recommending it all the time. She splits the filing by surname section, or group, using a filing box for each of the four birth surnames of your grandparents. All the records for your grandparents’ ancestors will be filed in these boxes, keeping the family groups together. She goes into lots more detail on her site, so check it out if that is of interest to you.

Binders: Although last updated in 2009, this guide from Ol’ Myrt (otherwise known as Pat Richerson) is super helpful for those of you who want to organize by surname using binders. Grab her 14 page PDF (basically a mini e-Book) and work through the simple steps and examples she provides. Doused liberally with her sense of humor, you’ll immediately connect with Ol’ Myrt and have fun finally getting organized! If you like her style and want to learn more, she has checklists for each month of 2009. She restarted the series last year, but due to family issues had to discontinue it, so the 2009 series is the most complete.

Organize Genealogy Files by Accession

This is much less common, but the way that I have chosen to organize my files — at least digitally. I’ll be honest, I have MUCH more digital files than paper copies since the majority of my research has been done in the digital age. But I do have some random paper bits, and have everything just stuffed in a couple file folders at the moment. It’s that small.

However, if you have printed out census records and obituaries, it can be daunting to file by surname as you’ll need multiple copies in order to link the record to the person. With an accession system, the document is the primary and the people it mentions are the secondary.

Here’s what I mean: If I have a census from 1940 that lists my great-grandparents and three of their children, I give the census record a number (C1000125 for example) and then list all five of my ancestors in an index, linking them to that record ID. If you are a computer nerd like me, it’s treating information like a database, instead of a filing cabinet. Or, like in my former career in libraries, like the Dewey Decimal System instead of alphabetical. 🙂

Organize Genealogy Files by Geographical Location

Now this system is a bit different: It involves storing documents by the location they reference. So all birth/death/marriage certificates issued in Canyon County, Idaho would be filed together. The documents would be placed in chronological order within the location file. This is an interesting way to view documents and can help uncover missing lines of research that can be done. I cheat a little and am able to do this with my digital index of files, so I can get the best of both worlds!


This is probably the system that you will use. A hybrid is a blend of two (or more) other items. Taking the best ideas from other systems and merging them together. For example, you could use the Location system as your top-level organization, and then choose to use Surnames or Accession numbers for the next level. Or both! The key here is don’t be locked in to one person’s system. Find the parts of a system that work well for YOU and that you will actually use. And then implement!


Photos are an enigma all to themselves, so warrant a separate section! I’ll be honest here, I haven’t tackled organizing mine yet. I have thousands on my computer in various folders from organization attempts in the past (and probably a ton of duplicates too!), and a nice sized box full of those envelopes from the film developer with 3×5 or 4×6 double prints from 20 years ago. There are multiple ways to organize photos and each leaves something to be desired for me, hence why I haven’t really started on it. Ugh.

Albums: If you choose to put your photos in albums, you’ll want to be sure they are acid-free and able to preserve the integrity of the photo for years to come. I have two albums from my great-great-uncle that have photos from World War One and immediately after. They are pasted onto black paper pages and I cringe at the thought of removing them for preservation. I’ll likely scan them and donate the album to a museum, but going forward I’ll avoid that issue by following modern preservation techniques!

Scrapbooks: This is what my mother did for me and my siblings. She sorted through HUNDREDS of photos of us from birth until marriage, culling out the memories and built a meaningful scrapbook with names, dates, occasions to preserve the memories. Instead of focusing on preserving Every. Single. Photograph., she focused on the memories sparked by the photos and preserved them instead. Depending on your reasons for preserving photos, this is a great option. I love my scrapbook and cry every time I look through it as I remember the times with my grandparents who are now deceased, and with my family who are now scattered across the country.

What about the digital files? Here’s my post on how I organize them! And digital photos? Coming soon!

I’d love to hear how you organize your files! Have you tried one of the above systems? Or maybe come up with one of your own? Please share in the comments below!



  1. Love how you have put together several different styles. You’ve given me ideas for my organization class I’m preparing for the adult school course I’m teaching. Thanks!

  2. Lots of good ideas here. I have a project to research my own family tree but I also have a one name (surname) study which generates even more records but for which the standard organisation system in file binders doesn’t work (I’d have to have scores of binders to cope). So I use largely digital organisation with folders for each family group.
    For my own family tree I do use file binders – I was taught to always put the documents with the husband of the couple, rather than the wife. Not sure if that is standard practice though

    • Karen, I can see that for one name studies! I’ve thought about doing one and using the traditional binder system would be difficult. As far as filing, it seems to be pretty standard to file by family, so once someone starts their own household, they get a new folder. Unmarried children stay with the parents. But my brain definitely works better with an accession system, so using that eliminates a lot of the headache!

  3. Many of my records are handwritten on a tablet from Cemetary & Church records, These I’ve created a spreadsheet with each piece of information in their own cell, I’ve got one tab for all of the cemeteries and one tab for the Churches etc.. this way I can sort and filter for just the people or street or what ever I’m looking for. and the paper backup is filed by individual cemeteries and such. I use Window Live Photo Gallery for my photos because it came with my computer and after I tag all the photo’s I can search for an individual or a group of individuals and even by event. Biggest problem there is multiple people with the same name but then you can select the photos you want for a slide show and such. And back up is key (which I’m very poor at) thanks for the post as it has given me even more ideas.

  4. We’re close to retirement and plan to travel full time. All my files are being digitized and double and triple backups are being used.

    My digital filing system works like this:
    * Two main file folders, “family tree – shareable” and family tree – correspondence”.
    * Within the main files, subfolders for each grandparent’s branch, labeled with their parents’ last names. For example – Smith-Greene.
    * Inside those folders, individual file labeled by person and document type. For example, “Greene_Mary_BirthCert.jpg.” Married women are filed under their birth name.

    * Everything for each ancestor is in one place.
    * I can tell at a glance whether I already have g-grandma’s marriage record.
    * One of my backups is kept in the cloud (Dropbox), and the folders can be easily shared with interested relatives from there, without giving them access to private things or stuff for lines they don’t connect with.
    * It’s easy to find all the documents for one ancestor, so I can be sure that all of them are connected to my genealogy software.

    * The folder can end up with a large number of documents in each.

  5. I’ve been working on my family tree 2000 – 2018.
    Here’s how I store, record and save my info. I have 1 tb Hard Drive, full of folders. Example: First folder, Cemetery’s, this folder contains every cemetery anyone in my tree has been buried in, Second folder, Military, all armed forces flags, if you were in the military, a flag goes into your file. Third folder, Benjamin Franklin Swan 1826-1955, every item I find on or about this person is put into Ben’s folder, photos, newspaper, census records, birth, death and so on.
    At present I have over 912 folders.
    Now if I get in hand photos, or paperwork, I store them in acid free binders. For my family I have 4 3 inch binders.
    Good Hunting….

  6. Help, Please! I’ve been doing research for years. Problem is, I have changed computers 4 times and each time have started over on my genealogy program. Want to clean off those old computers and combine all my files, at least by surname to have one file per line that contains all information without leaving out something from an old file that didn’t get recorded in a new file. If this makes sense, please tell me the best way to do this. I am at a loss. I know it will take a lot of time, but want to do it as efficiently as possible. PLEASE HELP!!

    • Hi Joyce! Sending you an email ’cause I have a couple questions. A lot depends on which genealogy program you are using and what files you are referring to.

      Posting a generic answer, though, in case others are curious!

      The way that I organize my digital files, images of census records, etc. is spelled out here: https://tsbp.wpengine.com/genealogy-organization-tutorial/

      If you still have access to your other computers, you can transfer all your files to an external hard drive and then organize them all there. When you change computers again, your files will all be on the external drive and you won’t have to change anything. Easier to make backups of your data that way too!


  7. Computer system is fine, but if your computer goes down or you upgrade, sometimes the information you worked so hard on is lost. Sometimes I want to sit in front of the TV and check my folders and information. My eyes get tired working on the computer for hours. Tell me how to use the hanging folder system correctly. Thanks

    • Hi Virginia! If you use a digital system, you want to be sure to have several different backups ’cause you are right! That can happen. I’ve also heard of genealogists who were affected by the hurricanes this summer and lost all their paper files. So either way, a backup system is a must! For the hanging files, I recommend this link: http://www.genrootsorganizer.com/ — it’s the one linked above in the article sharing Mary Hill’s system. It’s the go-to resource for hanging file organization. Hope that helps!

  8. I belong to a genealogy club. Will be sharing your methods of organization with them. I look forward to trying them myself.

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