Organizing Your Genealogy Documents

Organizing Your Genealogy Documents

A recent move to the Sunshine State and to a larger home than my NYC apartment has reminded me of the benefit of having a space committed to genealogy. For 17 years, I have worked from a small desk or kitchen table trying to organize documents into neat binders and files but have never found an ideal system. We all begin this journey with a handful of documents, then as more trickle in we devise some plan for organizing them. A typical first attempt at taming the clutter is to place everything into files, labeled by surname, family group or record type. After a few years, suddenly it’s difficult to find documents. One folder fills up and we create an overflow folder. Pretty soon the simple alphabetical approach no longer works because there are multiple spellings for the same surname. Then it’s just a slow decline into complete and utter chaos.

Now that limited space is no longer an excuse, I’ve been working on creating the ultimate genealogy room. Photographs have been painstakingly protected against the threat of humidity (more instructions in an upcoming post). Documents were scanned, numbered and filed in a system similar to those used by county clerks. Remarkably, everything is now contained in one room, no longer scattered over every flat surface in my home.

The organizing system that I have created is easy to use and will last a lifetime:

Step 1: Divide all documents into the following categories:

  • Vital:  Birth, Marriage and Death
  • Church
  • Newspaper: Articles and Obituaries
  • Military
  • Cemetery
  • Legal: Probate, Land, Divorce and Criminal
  • Letters and Manuscripts
  • Miscellaneous

Step 2: After the records are sorted, give each document a unique number. For vital records the numbers start with V followed by B for birth, M for marriage, or D for death. Then add a four digit number beginning with 0001 (e.g. VB0001 for the first birth certificate, VM0001 for the first marriage record and VD0001 for the first death record).

Step 3: Scan each document and then name the digital image file after the number of the document – e.g. VB0001.jpg. It’s important to note that the documents do not need to be sorted by date, name or place, only by category.

Step 4: Organize the digital images in desktop folders named after the categories listed under step 1.

Step 5: Store the original documents in heavy-duty acid-free sheet protectors (available at any office supply store). Place them by number order in binders labeled by the same categories above. Use index dividers to separate documents by subcategories. To fit two documents in one page protector, place a piece of acid-free paper between the documents. Use tiny labels on the outside of the page protectors to number each document, don’t mark the document itself. If you have a large collection I recommend using 3” binders. Legal sized sheet protectors and binders are also available.

Step 6: After all the scanning, labeling and filing is complete, create an index sorted by surname, maiden name, given name, date, place and number (or any other relevant information). The beauty of this system is that it doesn’t matter how many documents you collect, they will always be easy to find. Each time a new document arrives scan it, number it and add it to the index. Keep the index on your computer and place a printed copy inside each binder.

The importance of organized family history documents can not be overstated. Being able to quickly find what documents you do or don’t own will avoid unnecessary energy and expense and will help you determine your next research steps.


18 Responses to “Organizing Your Genealogy Documents”

  1. I have mine organized very similarly (though I have more categories) HOWEVER, I don’t file by number but rather alphabetically. I name my files using the person’s name. I like your system better, especially since Legacy Family Tree has a place where you can record a filing number which means if I attach a scanned image of a document to a person in Legacy, I can easily find that document in my binders and on my hard drive!

    • Sarah Ashley says:

      Hi Michele. I also used the alphabetical approach until it started getting too confusing with maiden names and married names and multiple spellings of the same surname. I’m not sure why it took me so long to figure out the numbering system but I’m so happy I did! This system also works extremely well with photographs. I will be adding a post about that in the next few weeks. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Joe Bissett says:

    Clooz was specifically designed by its original creator, Liz Kerstens, for organizing and cataloging documents and photos. We have improved on it greatly, particularly the new unique composite view that provides the capability to track all obscure folks mentioned in documents to assist researching their role in one’s family tree. You can try Clooz 3.2 for free at:
    There is a free PDF User Guide at:
    We developed nine video training clips to acquaint new users to all of the great capabilities of Clooz. They can be viewed at:
    New user assistance is only an email away at

    We hope you will check us out.
    Ancestral Systems LLC

  3. Kathryn says:

    I’ve gone the alphabetical route and I’m finding the need to reorganize. I like the simplicity of your system. I have far more digital records than paper ones, so my bigger task would actually be rearranging my digital folders. Census records would really work well with your system since I run into the problem of multiple surnames or maiden vs. married names. Great post and welcome to Geneabloggers!

    • Sarah Ashley says:

      Census records have always been difficult for me as well since they contain multiple names but I never wanted to store duplicate copies. In the index you can make multiple name listings that way when you search by name it will always show up. I’m going to post about organizing photographs as well. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. THank you, Sarah, for your post on reorganizing your genealogy documents. Your article is the first I’ve seen on the benefits of moving away from surname and family group organization, and it prompted me to finally post my own ideas on Source Based Document Organization:

    Keep up the great posts on your beautiful blog!

    • Sarah Ashley says:

      Thanks for your message, Louis. I’m glad you are enjoying the site. I will look forward to reading your blog too.

    • Joe Bissett says:

      Louis, Liz Kerstens developed the original Clooz program to respond to this exact problem. In her original concept, it is the DOCUMENT that is the major item, with individuals linked there-to. We have continued to develop that model as we also build a more robust research and analysis support capability. You might want to take a look at our brand new web site that I just put up live today. On the Home page in the third paragraph you will see a link to our unique Composite View. We developed a short scenario with screen shots that will give you some idea of what can now be accomplished with Clooz 3. Of course, we also have the nine free training videos that discuss the program in greater detail.

  5. Sarah, like you I have been through a few failed attempts at organising documents, and found myself re-ordering things.

    I have slowly come round to the way archivists do things. In step 1 you decided on the top level of classification, grouping together documents with similar provenance. You created fonds. Within the fonds you kept the arrangement simple, following a numeric system. Your physical and digital storage follows the same system.

    Am I right in thinking your archive consists mainly of documents you have personally collected? What will you do with the box of assorted stuff from Aunt Flo’s attic? Rather than splitting it up, you might want to keep it together as the contents likely relate to one another. I suggest you create and ‘Aunt Flo’ fond. I blogged about such a scenario recently at:

    I am still working on my archive. I need to create fonds for:
    Birth, marriage & death certificates (the UK equivalent to vital records)
    Research notes e.g. handwritten transcripts, microfilm search results
    Documents from cousin S
    and some others!

    I am not going to re-arrange the research notes category as it reflects how I used to work (some of it – eek!).

    Think like an archivist.

    • Sarah Ashley says:

      Thank you for your message. When I first began researching 17 years ago my grandmother gave me her research, a collection of documents and photographs that weren’t organized in any manner at all. My first family history lesson was to assign order to all that chaos. If I were to receive a collection like that now I would handle it in one of two ways. The first is your approach, which works so long as you mark in your index for each collection of documents that there are additional documents in the “Aunt Flo” binder. The second is to photocopy all of the documents as they are presented so the contents and order of the collection are preserved and then take the originals and file them as any other document. Then, include in the index a note about where the document came from.In this method, the collection can easily be recreated by using the contents of the scanned file as well as the notes in the index. Because I now have thousands of documents in my collection I would choose the second option but someone with a smaller collection may find your method more useful.An important point that you touched on is that when you are given family history collections, it’s important to track how you received them. Sometimes there are clues in the order of photographs or documents. It is also important to give credit to Aunt Flo for her contribution to the research.

      Thanks again, I look forward to reading your blog!

    • Dianne A says:

      The original post and your comment are enormously helpful to me right now; I have been trying to set up a structure that is not tied to the surname for all the reasons already mentioned. Would you please tell me about the word “fond” in your comment. I get a meaning from context, but I’ve never heard of the word used in that way. I went to your link and read that post but it didn’t sink into my brain. What is the origin and what exactly do you mean here? Thanks!

      • Fond is an archival term. Archivists group records together and place them in a hierarchy: fond, series, file, item. The fond is the entire collection of the records originating from the same creator, which may be sub-divided into the smaller categories. Keeping the original order to preserve the context in which records were created and used is a fundamental archiva principle, sometimes refered to as ‘respecte des fonds’.

      • Sarah Ashley says:

        Hi Dianne! Thank you for your message. I’m glad you are finding the advice on organizing documents helpful. I struggled for many years to stay organized but it wasn’t until I discovered this system that I realized how easy it could be! Good luck with your project and let us know how it turns out.

  6. Sharon says:

    Where do you classify census reports?

  7. Jackie Baker says:

    ” This system also works extremely well with photographs. I will be adding a post about that in the next few weeks. Thanks for stopping by!” Did you every write a post about photos?

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