Archiving Your Digital Family History Files (#2): Organize Your New Digital Archive

This is part three of a five-part blog series about organizing and preserving your digital genealogy files. Read the Introduction here and Step 1 here.

In my previous posts, I discussed why it’s important to organize your digital genealogy files into an archive, and gave you a few pointers for locating all your genealogy files (Step #1). Before you start organizing all these files, you’ll need a place to put them (Step #2). In this step, I’ll show you how to create your new digital Family History Archive, and develop your own organizational system which will hold all your genealogy files. I’ll also show you the organizational system that I use in my Digital Archive.


Create your new Digital Archive

Before we do anything else, you’ll need to decide where you’re going to put your new Family History Archive. You’ll need a physical device to put your digital archive. A good place for your Archive is on your current computer (if there is enough space and if it’s reliable) or an external hard drive that can easily connect to your computer. (Don’t worry about having a place to back it up right now; we’ll get to that in Step #4!) Before you decide, let’s look at the various storage options out there.

First, you’ll need to determine how much space you need. Then, you can determine if one of your current devices will be able to hold your Archive, or if you’ll need to purchase a new storage media. It will need to have enough storage space to hold all your current files, plus any new files that you expect to accumulate in the next 5 years. Take a quick look at where the bulk of your files currently are, and try to estimate how much room it’s currently taking up. When you’re browsing on your computer, you can often find the size of a folder or file if you look at “Properties” or “Get Info.” If you have a lot of photos and videos (or you plan on doing a lot of scanning or digitizing in the next few years), these take up a lot of digital space. HD videos can be up to 1 GB per minute. About 300 high-quality scanned photos can also take up about 1 GB of space. (If you need help calculating between MB and GB and TB, try this link: Try to estimate how much space you’ll need, and pick a storage device that will fit your whole archive.

Use this table to help you decide between different digital storage options:

Type of media Typical size Typical lifetime* Pros Cons
Computer or laptop Varies; 500 GB – 1 TB ~ 5-10 years Immediately accessible in a location you use often; Easy to add files as you go along. Other files compete for storage space; Prone to viruses or malware; Possible hardware failure or accidental loss.
External Hard Drive (Magnetic Disk) 500 GB – 4 TB ~ 5 years Large capacity; Portable and connects to nearly any computer with a USB connection; Easy to sync and store the hardware. Possible risk of hardware failure or accidental damage.
External Hard Drive (Solid State Drive) 300 GB – 500 GB ~ 5 years Same conveniences as Magnetic Disk Hard Drive; Less prone to hardware failure than Magnetic Disks. Same risks as Magnetic Disk Hard Drives; Smaller capacity than Magnetic Disk drives; and typically more expensive.
Flash Storage (such as flash drives, SD cards, USB memory sticks) 2 GB – 64 GB ~ 10 years (depending on how much you use it and the quality of the media) Solid State memory, so they are more durable and long-lasting than magnetic drives; Convenient to use and store; Highly portable; May last longer if you don’t use it very much. Are physically small, and can easily be lost or misplaced; They have smaller capacity; Poor quality flash drives will not last long.
DVD 4.7 GB – 15.9 GB Possibly 10+ years Easy to copy and share; longer lifetime (depending on the type of DVD) DVD readers in computers may not easily be available in the future; Usually not rewritable (so you can’t add or edit files once the DVD is created); Rewritable discs don’t last as long as others.
Cloud Storage 1 GB – Unlimited For as long as you keep an account and as long as the service remains available Accessible from anywhere; Usually can easily sync with your computer; Can purchase additional storage space as you need it; Don’t need to actively migrate files to new hardware every 5 years. Archive survival is dependent on a third party; Usually ongoing cost to maintain the subscription; Some security and privacy concerns; Files may be lost if you lose access to your account or lapse on your subscription or company changes services or goes out of business.

*These estimates can vary widely, and will depend on how much the device is used and how it is stored. Media may start to malfunction and data loss may be more likely after this period of time. To read more about media durability, see this handout from the Library of Congress:

When I was creating my Family History Archive, I already had about 400GB of files, and I was planning to do some major scanning and video digitization projects in the near future. My current computer was not large enough to handle all those files, so I decided to purchase a new 4TB external hard drive. (The cost of these large-capacity hard drives is continually becoming more affordable, so it’s easy to get extra storage if you think you’ll need it! If you’re going to purchase a new device, do some research and read reviews of particular models and brands before you purchase to make sure that it’s high-quality and will serve your needs.) If you aren’t ready to purchase a new external hard drive, you may decide to create a new “Family History Archive” folder on your computer, or use an external hard drive that you already have. Or, if you don’t yet have a large Digital Archive, you may find a smaller storage media better fits your needs. Ultimately, pick a place that will be reliable, fit with your practical needs, and be able to handle your entire Digital Archive for at least the next 5 years. Don’t worry too much about the Cons for each type of storage; in Step 4 we’ll protect your Archive from these commons risks.


A New Organizational System

Now that you have the physical place where you’re going to put your Archive, now you need to develop an organizational structure of folders that will hold all your files. From this point on, ALL of your Family History files, photos, and other documents will live in these folders and sub-folders. Because this is your archive, make sure that this will be a system that will be logical for you, and that will work for you. Think about ways that you already organize your genealogy files. Does your current system already work well? Do you already organize files roughly according to family surname? Expand on that system. Do you already have a system for your paper files that works well? Translate that filing system to your digital files. Have you seen an organizational system elsewhere that you really liked? Adapt that system to work for your family.

Whatever kind of organizational system you use, be sure that it is expandable, meaning that you can easily add new folders as needed when you discover more branches of your family tree, and that it is consistent, meaning that its structure is predictable and easy to follow and is the same wherever you are in the folders. It needs to be something you can easily use yourself, but it shouldn’t be so complicated and convoluted that someone else would be baffled by its organization. Need some organizing suggestions? Let me share my organizational system that I use for my own files.


Organizing Geographic Places Folders 

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 4.07.46 PM
I separate my files into two main folders: Family Files Folder, and Geographic Places (or Locality) Files Folder.

Your Archive will probably have two main kinds of files: files relating to specific family members or family groups, and files relating to locations where your ancestors lived. Thus, your Archive could be split into two main folders: Family Files and Places Files. Each of these main folders will have a slightly different structure. I keep these two main folders separate, because I have a lot of family groups in the same geographic area, and this allows me to easily find geographic information that I’ve saved.

Your Places Files Folder would probably be the easiest to organize. In this folder you’ll have all kinds of files that relate to specific places that your family lived, which is especially useful if multiple generations or branches of your family lived in one area. These files probably relate to multiple branches in your family tree, or give you general contextual information about where your family lived, but don’t specifically mention your ancestors. This folder could include files such as downloaded maps and guides, old photos of the area, downloaded histories of the region, general information about the region, and more.

Your Places Files Folder would be broken down into sub-folders that go from broader regions to more specific places. To start, create a sub-folder under the Places Files for each region that your family has lived, and that you have locality information for. For example, my locality folder looks like this: 

Screen Shot 2019-05-04 at 3.27.13 PM
My Locality/Places folder includes maps and histories that I’ve downloaded so that I can easily refer to them without the Internet. My files are grouped by county, then state/region, then county/parish. A few of my county folders are also broken down by city or township.

In my Places folder, I have a sub-folder for each country that my family has lived. Within each country folder, I have another sub-folder for each state or region in that country where my family lived. Within each state sub-folder, I have a sub-folder for each county or parish where my family lived, and so on, creating sub-folders for more specific locations that your family lived as needed. In this system, any individual files that relate to Illinois will be under the Illinois folder, and if a file relates only to a particular county, it will be in the county-level folder and so on. 


Organizing Family Files Folders

For your Family Files Folder, you have more room for flexibility. This folder will hold all files relating to specific families or individuals, such as Birth/Marriage/Death records, census records, immigration records, newspaper clippings, scanned photographs, headstone photos, etc. The most common way to organize this folder would be by surname or family group. I created an organizational structure that is based on family units, and it has worked well for me for several years.

First, I created one folder for each direct ancestor couple in my family tree. I used my family tree as a guide as I was creating these folders. Each folder is named like this: 3. Drake, Edwin and Mildred (Kaiser). The number at the front is the generation number. I start with 1 for myself and my husband, and my parents have 2, my grandparents have 3, and so on. These numbers will automatically keep my folders in order by generation number. I then list the surname and first names of the couple, and I have the woman’s maiden name in parenthesis. If I don’t know a part of their name, I write Unknown, and I fill it in whenever I discover that information. As I find new generations in my family tree, I can easily add new folders.

I have quite a large family tree, including multiple branches extending past the 10th generation. I noticed that my main folder could be quite long and unruly if I kept all the branches of my family tree in one folder. So, I decided to separate out different branches of my family tree after several generations whenever the folders got too numerous and intermingled. You can decide whether you want to keep all the branches of your family tree folders together, or to separate them into “Branches” folders in your archive. If you don’t remember which branch a particular person belongs to, if you name your folders consistently, you can always search by surname and first name to find it.

Screen Shot 2019-03-14 at 9.05.43 PM
You can keep all your direct ancestor folders in the same main folder, or group them together in “Branches” folders. I decided to group my folders together every few generations to keep my folders tidy. You can see that I grouped my ancestor folders at the 4th generations and some in the 7th generations.

How will my files fit into this file structure? Each direct ancestor folder will contain any files relating to their family unit. Records relating to my ancestors as children will be contained in their parents’ folder, and any records relating to them as an adult or after their marriage will be in their own folder. The logic behind this is that typically records relating to a person as a child will often be closely tied with their parents or childhood household. Once that person is an adult, they will typically be in their own household, and thus most of the records will relate to themselves apart from their parents.

In addition, if I have a significant number of records for a sibling of my direct ancestor, their folder with a corresponding generation number will be contained within the parents’ folder. Any remarriages of the parents will also be contained in the folder with the corresponding generation number of the parent. I will know that the folder relates to a sibling if the number in the sub-folder is different from the parents’ folder, and if the number is the same, that indicates that it is a folder for a remarriage of one of the parents. For example: 

Screen Shot 2019-03-31 at 11.57.16 AM
In this family, Luther Drake died, and Elizabeth Fish remarried. They are in the 6th generation back from myself. Any records relating to Elizabeth’s second husband and children of that marriage are in the “6. Comstock…” folder. Any children of Luther Drake and Elizabeth Fish who are not my direct ancestor have their own folders with the number 5, indicating that they are in the 5th generation from me. William Drake is my direct ancestor, so he gets his own folder in the main family folder with the generation number of 5.

In the case of adoptions, you have some flexibility when using this filing system. You can add additional folders for birth parents and adoptive parents like this:

  1. Johnson, Harvey and Loraine (Wilson) (adoptive parents)
  2. Walters, John and Mary Roach (unmarried; birth parents)

If you have any children who were adopted, you can always add (adopted) after their name in their folder. For single or unmarried parents, I typically just use the single parent’s name. (For example, see “7. Church, Catherine” in image #3.)

One advantage to this filing system is that it reflects your family tree, so you can easily use your family tree as a kind of index for your folders. All files relating to one family household are going to be together and easily accessible at a glance. The maiden names of the women in the folder name can help you quickly locate her parents’ folder if needed. This filing system is consistent and folders can easily be added for siblings, remarriages, and more.

One disadvantage to this system is that all files relating to one individual ancestor are usually going to be split between his/her own couple folder, and his/her parents’ folder. If you want to keep all records relating to one individual together, you may decide to adapt an organizational system that is based on individuals. This system is also highly reliant on married couples and family units. If your family has a lot of blended families or couples that did not live in the same household, you may need to tweak this model to make it work for you. However, I’ve found this system works very well for me, and is very easy to navigate once it is set up!

Looking for further examples of digital organizational systems? Check out some great examples found on Cyndi’s List: From this list, I recommend checking out Diane Gould Hall from Michigan Family Trails, who wrote about an organizational system that is based on surnames and record type, and Ben Sayer’s videos about organizing your family files by surname, and then individual folders.


Create a brief Family Archive Guide

It is probably a good idea to write up a short guide that explains your Digital Family History Archive for anyone besides yourself who may be looking at your Archive (and to help yourself get started!). This guide will be an outline of all your folders, and briefly describe your organizational structure. If you don’t have your family tree handy, this guide will help you see at a glance where particular folders are located within your organizational structure. As you add new folders to your Archive, you should also update your finding aid to reflect the new changes. You should type up this guide, and save it in the top folder of your Archive. It should be one of the first things that someone will see as soon as they open up your Digital Archive. If another family member or caretaker is looking at your Digital Archive, this guide will help them find files and understand how your Archive is organized. If you forget were certain files are located, this guide will help you, too!

Here’s a sample Archive Guide:

Digital Archive Guide Example
Each line in your brief guide represents a folder in your Digital Archive. You’ll be able to see all of your folders and sub-folders at a glance. (Click on image to enlarge)

At this point, you’ve established your new Archive, and you’ve also located all your digital family history files, but you haven’t done anything with them yet. Now, you’re ready to start moving your files into their new home! The next step, Preserve Your Files, will guide you through the process of selecting which files to put into your archive, renaming them, and putting them into your Digital Archive.


Archiving Your Digital Genealogy Files


6 thoughts on “Archiving Your Digital Family History Files (#2): Organize Your New Digital Archive

  1. What an interesting system…not sure the numbers work for me (I’d get frustrated trying to keep them all straight, especially if needing to quickly create a folder)…but I like how you’ve presented it…thanks for sharing 🙂


    1. Not everyone will love the same organizational system and it’s okay if you don’t love my numbering system! It works for me because I can’t always keep the names straight if they were all mixed up. I needed the numbers to keep them in order. Take a look at a few other organizational options, and adapt one of them to work for you. Perhaps folders based on surnames would work better for you! The key to a great organizational system is that it’s easy for you to use. If you’re frustrated, you’ll be discouraged from organizing your files and that will defeat the purpose. Good luck and let us know what kind of organizational system you decided to use!


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