Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tuesday's Tip: Organizing Your Digital Files

Speaker Barbara Nuehring at the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society’s annual October Seminar inspired me, as she did so many others. She amazed her audience with fresh ideas for using timelines and basic principles of design for dressing up our family histories, then moved on to discuss various ways to use technology to enhance our research and organize and preserve our digital files.

I have since adopted her digital filing system, with some slight personal adaptations, and thought I would share it with my readers (hopefully not violating any of her terms of use—gosh! if you ever get a chance to hear her speak, jump at it!). Randy Seaver brought up the discussion of organizing digital information a couple of months ago, but I was unable to add my two cents’ worth until now. However, I consider this Tuesday Tip to be an overdue response to Randy’s query.

First of all, I have Windows XP as my operating system. In My Documents section of My Computer, I have created a Genealogy folder, in which resides many files containing research notes, copies of emails, digital photos, downloaded images of digitized records, uploaded images from microfilmed records, and the like. Originally, for each family surname I was researching, I had a folder for every year that I had research information, with labels such as “Ton Genealogy 2004” or “Hainline Genealogy 2000”. This was an inefficient way to file, as it made it more difficult to find what was needed. Even before I attended the October Seminar, I decided to re-organize my folders by adding a Documents and a Photo folder for each surname and planned to combine e-mails and research notes for each family into a Research folder. Today’s Tuesday Tip will focus on the Documents folders for each surname and how to label the files so that information is easy to find—and even analyze!

Ms. Nuehring suggested that each document be labeled thus (minus the semicolons):
Surname; First Name; Middle Name; Married Surname at that time, if a woman; Date of Document in year, month day order; Type of document; Location Document was Created listed in largest to smallest location

This automatically will place all your documents first in alpha order by individual and secondly in date order as they were created. Let’s look at an example of some documents of major life events of my maternal grandmother:

HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian – 1919 01 16 – Birth Record – Michigan, Kent, East Grand Rapids
HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian – 1920 – Census – Washington, Pierce, Tacoma – daughter
HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian – 1930 – Census – Michigan, Kent, Grand Rapids - daughter
HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian VALK – 1943 09 11 – Marriage Certificate – Kansas, Geary, Junction City
HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian VALK – 1946 04 26 – Divorce Record – Michigan, Kent, Grand Rapids
HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian VALK DeVRIES – 1947 10 03 – Marriage License and Certificate – Michigan, Kent, Wyoming Twp
HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian VALK DeVRIES – 2001 08 25 – Death Certificate – Michigan, Kent, Grand Rapids

By glancing through this list, I can see that everything is in date order. Both times when my grandmother was married, I added her new married surname to her current name, allowing the documents to remain in order. I can immediately see what surname she was going under for the different events in her life. At a glance, I can tell whether or not I am missing any of the records of major life events, and where she was living—or visiting--during those times. For the census records that occurred during her lifetime and are publicly available, I can tell at once that she was not the head of the household, but was a daughter in the households then. If there were some changes of residences or many major events happening during census years, I may wish to use the official Census Day date to label the census documents.

My system differs from Ms. Nuehring’s in the following ways: I use uppercase letters for surnames, I used dashes between sections of information, and I wrote out state names and used commas between location places (Ms. Nuehring uses no punctuation in her file names). I also used more descriptive terms for the documents, rather than Birth or Marriage, because in some cases, I have both birth records (from county libers) and birth certificates, or marriage licenses, certificates, and parental permissions for those getting married underage. If a document has more than one page, you may wish to end the file name with “pg 1 of 8”, etc.

For some family surnames, I have very few documents. For others, I may have hundreds for dozens of individuals. In the latter case, I’ve opted to further divide my surname Documents folder into folders by individual name. This is true for the Hoekstra family, so I have created a folder labeled “HOEKSTRA Ruth Lillian” as well as others with my grandmother’s sisters’ and father’s names. Ruth’s mother, Lillian Fern Strong, has her documents and photos filed in the appropriate STRONG Documents and Photos folders. All information is filed by maiden name for the ladies. Cousins with different surnames that connect with me through our common Hoekstra ancestry also have their files stored in the HOEKSTRA folders. Also, records where a document is “shared,” such as the marriage certificates and divorce record for my grandmother are copied and re-labeled in her corresponding husbands’ folders (I’m researching both my Valk biological line and my DeVries step-family line). They would appear in their respective folders as:

VALK William - 1943 09 11 – Marriage Certificate – Kansas, Geary, Junction City
VALK William - 1946 04 26 – Divorce Record – Michigan, Kent, Grand Rapids


DeVRIES Adrian - 1947 10 03 – Marriage License and Certificate – Michigan, Kent, Wyoming Twp

These are the only kind of document files that are copied and refiled. For instance, I don’t have to file copies of every record that occurred when my grandmother was going by her Valk married name. They stay in the HOEKSTRA folder and are only copied to the VALK folder if my grandfather’s name appears on them as well. This will save hard drive room.

One other note: by right-clicking on each file I can access the Properties feature of each file image and list where and when I found the document (Ancestry or other online database; e-mailed from a cousin—listing their mailing address; copied from microfilm at the Family History Center—listing the microfilm and item number; or ordered from a repository, etc.). This then lends itself to being able to know what citation to use (and for more on this, I recommend footnoteMaven’s handy "Working with Citations" post, which I also plan on implementing).

The point of all this is that using this type of system, adapting it to fit your needs, is a very efficient way of labeling your digital files, making them easy to find when doing a Search in Windows Explorer, helping you to see what records you have or which are missing. Another thing I’ve noticed: say a distant cousin contacts you, new to genealogy, and would like copies of any records that you may have of her direct ancestors. It would be very easy to find these and either attach them singularly or place them in a zip folder and e-mail them, or copy them to CD and mail them via the postal service.

Next time, we’ll talk about labeling ancestral photos, using a similar labeling technique, followed by organizing your research notes and e-mails.

UPDATE: I've added some clarifications at an updated post here.

In this series:
Update on Tuesday's Tip: Organizing Your Digital Files
Tuesday's Tip: Organizing Your Digital Photographs
Tuesday's Tip: Organizing Digital Research Notes, Emails, and Reports


Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

My digital files certainly need some organization and I think this system would serve me well for most records. From my main genealogy folder I have two folders, one for paternal lines and one for maternal. This helps me sort out the surnames that appear in both lines but which are unrelated such as Smith and Hall. This system trips me up with the McKinnon line however as they are connected to both lines! I also have put records with a surname that they are related to but that I only have one or two records for figuring I'd know where they were - need to fix that!

Right now I have all census records in one folder and sort them by year and then head of household ie. 1850 Carlisle, Daniel, Buchanan, Berrien, MI. Because all of his children were living with him I hesitate to copy the file enough times to have a copy for each individual. Probably inefficient and breaks down when married children are included. Several of my families were very large but I should go back and add each name through the properties feature.

Your suggestion to also add where we found the information this way is fantastic! So simple but what a time saver in the end.

Great post! I look forward to your future posts. If you can help me sort out email you'll be my genea-hero!

Janet Iles said...

Thanks for those great suggestions Miriam for organizing our digital files. As we get more digital needs the need for better organization is necessary.

Having a system will make life easier in the long run.

Susan said...

Dear Miriam,
Thanks for this great article... it came at the perfect time since I'm about to tackle the organizing of my digital files (again). I've used other systems and sometimes no system at all, so there's work to be done. I appreciate the logical method you shared. Thanks!
Sue Edminster

TK said...

Wow, Apple, thanks for sharing this. I bought Legacy a few months ago, and in the course of adding document images, I tried to implement a new file-naming system similar to this. I'll have to take a look and see how close I came--and maybe rename if necessary, because this is a thing of beauty!

PalmsRV said...

Baby steps....I made a new genealogy folder per your instructions. Thanks for the suggestions and the visual instructions.

TK said...

Hah, I am totally laughing at my little faux pas... Sorry, Miriam! I know this post (on YOUR blog!) was shared by you, not Apple! But as I wrote my comment, it was Apple's smiling face staring at me from right next to the comment box, and she hijacked my train! Sheesh...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the well organized article, It gave me quite a bit to consider.

I'm a little old fashioned, but I avoid punctuation in file names, with the exception of underscore ( _ ), dash (-), and the period before the file extension. This saves me the problem of how to rename my files or photos if I wish to put them in a website or on a server.

Xfaith said...

Great Article, I had a similar one posted a few days ago about organization, (guess we are all trying to do that these days). I do like how you renamed the files, with exception of special characters in the names its a great idea.
My original "Genealogy" folder was a mess, I have started with Surnames, and will break down from there.

As for the case of hard drive space, I would not worry to much as you can get 1TB for about 150$ these days, I am only hitting 1GB right now, but space is the least of my worries :). Finding stuff is better, will have to use your nameing conventions of sorts.


Miriam Robbins said...

Thank you for all your kind comments. I've addressed some issues and made some clarifications at a follow-up post here.

Miriam Robbins said...

P.S. No problem, T.K.! I knew what, or rather, WHO you meant1

Jasia said...

Howdy Miriam! I'm working on catching up on all the posts I've missed in the last few weeks. This one is a gem! Thanks so much for sharing it. I desperately need to reorganize my filing system but until now I hadn't found a new one that suited me. I think this just may be the one!

JL said...

My big question here would be If you're using Windows File Properties how do you keep a backup of that information? and how do you read it on other computer systems?

I've only just recently acquired a copy of Microsoft Word so I can't say, but OpenOffice docs and pdf's have a place for document properties that are embedded directly.

Something like Copernic can search the text inside documents so finding info even on a totally disorganized computer is really simple.

If you're using Legacy Family Tree, or something else that has marriage-record ID numbers, there's the MRIN Filing System - all documents, both digital and paper can be numbered the same according to their numbers in Legacy (or wherever). Instead of having a different filing system for digital and another one for the paper. Or long, long, long complex file-names. Or files separated into a complex folder tree.

Miriam Robbins said...

Hi, Lisa,

I don't know much about Windows File Properties, and I do know it causes an issue when you tag photos and then update or transfer the photo files. However, naming the document, as long and as unwieldy as it might be, really helps me keep my documents automatically organized. I can link my documents to my RootsMagic program, but I've had problems with documents and photos being unlinked. Since these files are already on my computer, it makes sense that they would be named in a way that keeps them organized.

Most of my documents are image files (censuses downloaded from the Internet, scanned vital records, etc.), so I don't know if a program like Copernic would be useful, especially if they are handwritten documents, rather than typed.

As with any organizational system, if it is too complicated, then it won't work for you. Everyone has their own way of organizing things and you have to use what works for you, not for someone else. Barbara's system works for me very well, with a few personal tweaks.

Thanks so much for dropping by!

JL said...

Sorry, I thought I read something above about Windows File Properties in use in this system. I must have imagined it.

I wonder if your 'unlinking' problem has to do with file-paths becoming too long.

I add IPTC keywords to all census and other document images. For instance, everyone (I care about) included in every census record, birth certificate, death certificate, etc. That can be searched with any IPTC software including XnView which is free and user-friendly for less technical persons.

Miriam Robbins said...

Hi, JL,

The only thing I ever attempted to link to RootsMagic were photographs, and they were before I used this system, so the names were pretty short.

It was just too much work to link the program to photos when I have enough problems finding time to cite my sources!

I am going to have to check into this IPTC software. You are so much more technically knowledgeable than I! :-)

JL said...

I don't know RootsMagic so I can't comment on what could be RM issues with linking.

Photo Mechanic is excellent. This is for IPTC and GPS annotation of photos, not a filing system, so it doesn't matter 'where' your photos are or what you call them. That's good news, eh? I find XnView good for viewing and searching but not quite up to speed for the annotating part when there's hundreds or thousands to deal with. The upside is that it's free. Photo Mechanic has a free trial.

If you want a multi-media organizer, there's Canto Single User. That's pricey at around $400 and I'm not convinced that it's worth it. I'm really happy with Photo Mechanic.

I could have sworn that I tested Copernic on finding IPTC-embedded data and it worked fine but the other day I tested it and it didn't work. It's a new index so maybe it's not altogether yet.Thousands of my image and non-image documents are lined up by number in my Sources Library and linked to Legacy so I don't find finding things an issue.

The Olympics have turned me into a curling fan. Gotta go!

Miriam Robbins said...

JL, thanks for the info. I will have to check into these!

JL said...

Now that the indexing is complete, I ran some more tests with Copernic v.2, and it does, indeed, pick up IPTC info embedded in photos as well as documents related to your search term if there are any.

I only typed in a date range, 1862-1943, and it brought up 6 photographs from various locations on my hard-drive. The only place that information exists is in the IPTC captions.

If I type in only the person's name I get the photos and the documents.

So it's a free multi-media organizer in that sense. Meaning you can find anything you want in an instant.

JL said...

Uh-oh. It only picks up IPTC from jpg's. Drat! Back to the drawing board.