Storing Your Genealogy Files on the Computer

Learn how to organize and store genealogical research on your computer.

Storing Your Genealogy Files on the Computer

At first you'll keep every scrap of paper. You photocopy a marriage record from a book and photocopy the title page; now you have two pieces of paper in the file. Multiply this many times over, and you'll be overflowing with paper unless you find a way to reduce the stream. The problem is not limited to providing the space needed to store all the paper. Consider that some day others will use the records. Unless your files are condensed sufficiently, others will not want to store them. Even repositories will be reluctant to accept them if they are in complete disorder or too voluminous.

The Computer Becomes the Filing Cabinet

File on the computer in the same way you file in file drawers. Set up some computer files by family name, state, county, subject, and correspondence, just as suggested for your paper notes. As you have time, take some of your paper notes, copy them to the computer, proofread them carefully, and then discard the paper copies. There may be certain copies you want to keep, but make your selections carefully. Always keep the following:

  • Copies of Bible records
  • Family notes (written in the hand of an ancestor)
  • Photocopies of original documents
  • Birth, Marriage, and Death certificates
  • Obituaries and other newspaper notices

Keep the items that will not be easily replaced, or that you might need to prove your documentation in the future. Items you can discard (after entering the data onto your computer) are items from published books and notes that can be replaced if necessary. If you transfer a marriage record from a book onto your computer and include the full bibliographic citation, you can find the book easily again, should you need to. Always be sure to proofread what you have entered before discarding the paperwork.

Tree Tips

A good rule of thumb is to transfer to disk all items from books that can be easily accessed again. If the book is rare, or the copy is from an original (or it is lengthy), keep it. If the item is more than a paragraph or so, consider scanning it to your computer. Scanning can be a tremendous time-saver.

Naming the Computer Files

As you establish computer files and name them, be sure to keep some sort of master index to all your genealogy file names. You should be able to consult this master list to see what files you have established. When naming your computer files, use some designation for each family, and start each file name with that designation. For example, in the following, each of the Martin files starts with the name “Martin:”

File Name
Martin: Alabama
Martin: Alabama, Limestone Co.
Martin: Bible Records
Martin: Correspondence A-M
Martin: Correspondence N-Z
Martin: Vital Records

You may wish to name your files in some other descriptive fashion. Anything will do, as long as you keep an index to them. You won't always remember what they are named. It is best to create a different subdirectory on the computer for each family. You might name a directory (folder) MARTIN FAMILY and then create all the Martin subdirectories under it.

Correspondence Computerized

At first you save every letter and a copy of every response. That works until you suddenly realize that you have 10 thick files of correspondence. To go back and try to reduce the paper is time consuming. Start now, in the beginning, to establish some firm rules for saving those exchanges by mail and e-mail.

There are many ways to store your computer files. The one that works for me is to create correspondence files in the same manner as you would if using file folders. If you start one for correspondence A-M, it will hold the letters and responses to all correspondence with anyone of the surname A through M. If storing the summary on the computer, however, take a few minutes after you answer the letter to transfer the main points to the computer file. For example, you received a letter from Sandra Williams, in which she sent some information on the Martin family, and asked for assistance. Examining the letter, you might summarize it on the computer as shown in the following figure.

WILLIAMS, Sandra, 1111 NoWhere Street, Anywhere, U.S.A. 12345. Wrote April 17 1997; says that great-great-grandmother was Agatha Roberts who married Jonathan Martin on 3 April 1863 in Montgomery Co., Va. She thinks Jonathan was son of Roger Martin listed in tax records of the county in 1855 but is uncertain. This couple had: Jeffry b. ca 1866, Martha b. ca 1868, Mary b. ca 1870 (m. John Webster), and Joseph b. ca 1875. They are in 1870 Montgomery Co. census (she doesn't give citation. Wants to know if I have further info.) Wrote to her April 20, 1997: told her I am tracing a Joseph Martin who was born 4 April 1874 in Virginia by his tombstone in Hamilton Co., Ohio. I don't know if he is the same person, but I note that my Joseph named a son Roger Martin. Asked her for the listing she has in 1870, and sent her the 1860-70-80 census of my Joseph Martin. Suggested that we check deed records.

See MARTIN File.

Updated: July 20, 2005

Now you can discard the three-page letter she sent and your two-page response. You have recorded the essential details. I like to make a printout of the synopsis and place it in my correspondence file. You may decide to keep only the summary on the computer, and avoid the paper filing. If the correspondent writes again, add comments to the synopsis. The last notation at the bottom of the figure tells you when you last updated the contents of this summary.

Tree Tips

If you started your genealogical pursuits by keeping all correspondence, set aside at least a half hour a day to transfer some of your material to the computer. It will go slowly, but doing it daily, in a small-enough dose not to get too boring, will enable you to complete it. You will be encouraged to continue as you see the empty space in your filing cabinet grow, and usability of the data increase.

You now have the notes in handy form on the computer and you can search them with your program's “search” or “find” feature. When someone writes three years from now inquiring about a Roger Martin, you can open your file of correspondence summaries, enter his name for a search, and presto! In a few seconds you have identified all correspondents with whom you exchanged data on him. Condensing your correspondents' letters onto the computer will only take a few minutes if you do it at the time the mail comes in or goes out. And another important thing is, it will make your collection easily usable by others who come after you. Otherwise they may throw up their hands and toss everything out.

Tree Tips

If you have the capability of “burning” a CD-ROM or a DVD, once or twice a year make a “Save This” disk of all the files you wish your family to save. This is in addition to the daily or weekly backup you routinely make of your computer files for your own use. This extra “Save” file is those specific files that you want your family to retain. This special “Family Save” version will only contain those folders you consider important for your family to retain. Put some thought into what is important for your family to keep for the future generations. You will avert the disaster of having your years of research destroyed because no one knew what to save.

Mail Files

If you want to keep a full copy of every letter you write to others on the computer, you can set up a “genealogy mail” file. Title it “Mail Genealogy 2005.” Each year start a new file, but retain the old. In this mail file you will put a copy of your letter, simply adding it at the end so that it is actually in chronological order. “But how will I find anything?” you ask. Easy. Want to find the letter to Jonathan Latimer that you wrote in 2005 inquiring about his great-grandfather? Go to your “Genealogy Mail 2005” computer folder, use the “find” or “search” feature, and enter “Latimer.” It will quickly surface. You want to find the letter you wrote inquiring about the Oak Lawn Cemetery, but you don't remember to whom you wrote? Enter “Oak Lawn,” hit “find,” and there it is. Imagine what you would have gone through sorting paper letters by hand, trying to uncover it.

I do not store letterheads with my copy of the letters. I have several letterheads set up as templates on the computer—business, personal, spouse and I, mine alone, etc. I start by writing the letter on the appropriate letterhead, and print the letter. Then I cut and paste the letter (not the letterhead) into the end of my mail folder, leaving the letterhead intact and ready for my next letter. If for any reason I need another copy of that letter in the future (which isn't often), I can simply “find” it in my mail folder, copy it and paste it onto my letterhead, and print it out again. You may however prefer to save the entire letter, including the letterhead, in spite of the additional computer storage space.