Learn Genealogy – Good Filing Habits from the Start!

As you begin your quest for your ancestors, here are a few tips you should know from the start.

Stay Organized from the Start!

Stay organized.  If you make an effort to stay organized from the start, years from now when you or others retrace your steps, keeping your files and notes organized can be a huge time saver.

Keep documents, notes, photos, etc. by surname, either in physical notebooks or folders (if you’re not a fan of computers) or the same in electronic folders on your computer.  In these files, you’ll want to save scanned documents, photos, research notes, any and all evidence to piece together an individuals life story.

I keep an electronic top level surname folder such as “DOE” and then file individuals folders within the “DOE” folder or notebook for each person. For example, inside the “DOE” folder or notebook I might have a list of folders that say…


  • DOE Ellen
  • DOE John James
  • DOE Mary

I name all of my files with the same nomenclature. Use all caps for the surname, then the full given name. For example, “DOE John James”. If there is a line of men with the same name, such as John James Doe and his son John James Doe, Jr., I’ll add their birth or death year to differentiate between the two men. Such as “DOE John James b 1867” (the b is for birth) and another folder “DOE John James b 1889”. This will allow you to find your file immediately and is a structure your future generations can follow easily.  Then it would look like this…


  • DOE Ellen
  • DOE John James b 1867
  • DOE John James b 1889
  • DOE Mary
File Folders Start with Surname Followed by Given Name

I’ll also create a folder for family groups, by surname, to file things like family group photos or family history manuscripts I’ve collected. This type of folder would be called “DOE Family Group Files”.


  • DOE Ellen
  • DOE Family Group Files
  • DOE John James b 1867
  • DOE John James b 1889
  • DOE John and MARROW Jane
  • DOE Mary

By naming the married couple John James DOE and Jane MARROW this way, it is a clue to look in the MARROW surname file for her details too.

For couples, such as a husband and wife, often I’ll have documents together such as marriage certificates, I’ll file them in a folder titled “DOE John and MARROW Jane.”  Then when the files are sorted alphabetically, the files usually will group close together. You should note a woman’s maiden name (if known) in the file name (as I’ve done here with MARROW) referring to her maiden surname.

Keeping files (scanned documents) grouped and named this same way will save time during the research phase, as all of your documents can be accessed quickly and easily as you need them. 

Make sure you have a back up of your files.  I use a cloud service that constantly backs up my files. In the days before computers, I mailed copies to my sisters as a backup. This way, if my house burned down (heaven forbid), all of my years of research was saved. Today, my computer is constantly backing up, even while I sleep, so I’ll never lose anything.  I also use Ancestry and Family Tree Maker as my software of choice, which gives me an additional back up of my data.

Physical family artifacts are scanned or photographed, logged with it’s resource attached and filed in surname notebooks (if possible) in archival plastic sleeve. They can be found at any office supply store.  Some family heirlooms will not fit in a notebook.  For those items (such as bibles, war memorabilia, etc.) archival boxes will protect those items.  They can be found by searching for “archival materials or boxes.”

This is my method, it works well for me.  You may have another method that works for you, if so, tell us about it in the comment section.  However, whatever filing method us use, make sure a stranger looking at your records, could navigate them easily, long after you’re gone.

While this information may not be the fun part of family research, it’s the nuts and bolts that will hold your research train running smoothly down the tracks.

Comments are welcome below.  Was this helpful?  Do you have a system you like?  Tell us about it in the comment section below.  Also, I’m curious… Can you fill out the poll below?

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2 Comments on “Learn Genealogy – Good Filing Habits from the Start!

  1. I’m looking for ancestors who arrived from Spain, through Puerto Rico.. can you help me with that… or just in your state. I use Ancestry. What is the service that you provide. Thanks

    • Hi Millie,

      I received your comment on NCAncestry.com. Thanks for watching the video.

      I am not currently taking any client research work at this time. I’m just too busy to devote the appropriate attention needed. However, I’ll be glad to answer any questions or give advice/direction if I can. Also, if you’re looking for a professional genealogist, I might be able to refer you to some or you can find them at the Association of Professional Genealogist.

      Also know that I’m not limited to North Carolina Ancestry… I also have a YouTube channel called Genealogy TV where we talk about all kinds of things at various levels of research. You can also follow me on Facebook at Genealogy TV too.

      Thanks again

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