Genealogy Prompt 3: Set up a Family History Filing System

Genealogy Prompt 3 - Set up a family history filing system -

When researching your family history, you won’t just come across a handful of ancestors. You’ll find dozens, hundreds, and over time even thousands. With each ancestor comes a variety of information and records you’ll want to preserve. And to do that, you’ll want to set up a family history filing system.

Let’s further explore this week’s genealogy prompt by looking at what a family history filing system is, why you’ll want one, and what it should include.

What is a Family History Filing System?

Your family history filing system is simply how and where you collect information about your ancestors, including documents and other records.

This filing system can be set up in any way that works for you. But you’ll want to create a system that accounts for both digital and hard copy documents.

For example, you might set up physical files in a filing cabinet if you have a large family tree and years’ of research to organize. Or you might start with a scrapbook or photo book where you can slide documents and photos into protective sleeves. You could even have a box or chest set aside to hold larger record collections or items that can’t easily be filed, such as an ancestor’s journal.

You can have all of these things if you’d like — a file drawer or box for paper documents, a photo album to protect photographs, and a box of some kind for larger items.

But one thing you’ll definitely want is a digital filing system. You can set this up using basic file folders and sub-folders on your computer. This is the easiest kind of filing system to create — using subfolders for each family group going down generation by generation. For example, you might have a folder structure that looks much like your tree:

Top Folder –> You

  • Your Mother
    • Your Maternal Grandmother
      • Her Mother
      • Her Father
    • Your Maternal Grandfather
      • His Mother
      • His Father
  • Your Father
    • Your Paternal Grandmother
      • Her Mother
      • Her Father
    • Your Paternal Grandfather
      • His Mother
      • His Father

Each of those bullet points would be a subfolder within the folder above it, and the main folder would be for your own records.

Balancing Digital & Physical Records

Having multiple places to organize your records and research might not sound like a great system. But due to the types of documents you’ll come across, it can be a necessity.

There’s an easy way to simplify this though. First, decide what your primary tool will be — digital or physical filing systems.

Whichever you choose, when you come across records of another kind, you can include a reference note in your preferred tool.

For example, let’s say you mostly keep digital records, but then you order a physical certified copy of an ancestor’s birth certificate. You could scan a copy and include it directly in your digital records. But you can also add a reference note as well (a simple notepad document will work if you’re not adding the notes directly to your tree). Make a note of what important data the documents provides, where you found it, and where the physical copy is located in case you want to find it later.

You can do the opposite as well. If you have digital records but prefer a paper filing system, you could print those records and file them away. Or you might add a note (on an index card for example) again noting what information the record contained and where you can find the digital copy on your computer if needed.


Why You Should Have a Custom Genealogy Filing System

As I mentioned at the start of this post, you can end up with hundreds or thousands of ancestors that you’ll accumulate records on. This can get out-of-control quickly if you don’t set up an organizational plan early on.

That said, it’s never too late to build a custom family history filing system. But the sooner you do, the better.

Having this kind of system will ensure you can find information when you need it, such as when comparing existing records to new documents that turn up in your search. This can prevent you from saving things that might not be relevant, such as documents about someone with a similar name.

In addition to making it easier to find things, having a family history filing system can save you time by making sure you don’t repeat searches for information you already have. You can quickly check your records before deep-diving into a line of research, rather than finding out you wasted hours on something you already had. It’s easy to forget what you’ve found when you research your family tree over the course of years.

As a bonus, a genealogy filing system also makes it easier to share the information you find with loved ones. You can pinpoint exactly what they might want to see without subjecting them to mountains of documents and photos they have no interest in.

What Your Family History Filing System Should Include

If you’re ready to set up a family history filing system of your own, here are some of the things you’ll want to make sure to account for:

  • Your family tree itself
  • Sub-trees to focus on specific lines (if you use them)
  • Family history worksheets (family worksheets, individual worksheets, etc.)
  • Interview records with relatives
  • Journals, diaries, and other family story records
  • Photographs
  • Official documents (passports, birth records, etc.)
  • Religious documents (baptism records, etc.)

And these are just the basics. Family heirlooms and their stories can also be included. As can audio and video recordings you might have.

There’s nothing exciting about setting up a family history filing system. It’s not the “fun” part of the work. But it’s essential if you plan to do family history research over the long-term. Make things easier on yourself later by setting up a custom filing plan now.

Jenn is a professional writer and publisher, and the founder of Climb Your Family Tree.

She first became interested in genealogy as a teenager. Since that early start, she's spent 28 years putting her personal passion and professional research skills to use in exploring her own family history while assisting others in their genealogical journeys.

In addition to running Climb Your Family Tree, Jenn is a long-time PR, social media, and online marketing specialist and she's been a digital publisher / web developer for over 20 years. She owns a variety of web properties including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, Kiss My Biz, and NakedPR.

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