Organizing Your Genealogical Data Digitally

In the world of genealogy, documentation is everything. Genealogists have long struggled with how to keep the mountain of photocopies, charts, original documents (and then some), organized and protected, while at the same time keeping everything within reach and easily accessible. There are a host of really excellent books on numbering schemes and filing systems, any one of which would be a good place to start if you are new to research. See bibliography. These are exciting times for researchers, as more and more records are being digitized, indexed, and made available online. But that same plethora of information, while moving our research ahead in leaps and bounds, creates even more of an organizational headache. Rather than panicking, however, the organized genealogist is embracing technology; taking advantage not only of computer programs with amazing database and indexing capabilities, but also online storage systems which can protect research long term and make sharing data simpler and less prone to error.

To be honest, I’ve never been especially good at maintaining a filing system. It seemed as if just when I’d gotten all my family group sheets, record copies, and pedigree charts printed and filed, I’d make some new discovery and need to print everything all over again. At some point in the 1990s, I discovered Rootsmagic, my genealogy software of choice, which is very similar to Family Tree Maker, Legacy, and a variety of other software packages, all with their own fan base, and all equally adept at keeping track of your ancestry database. Rootsmagic (and no doubt all the others) offers the capability of attaching images to families, individuals, and even single facts within one individual’s record. So, I began to upload family pictures and documents I’d received digitally from repositories with websites. It seemed like the best thing ever!!! And, that was the start of my transition to a digitally based genealogy system, the crux of which is this:


A cloud based storage system which crosses platforms; meaning—it’s accessible on a PC, a Mac, a tablet or iPad, a smartphone, and really anywhere and on anything that has an internet connection. Setting up Dropbox is as easy as creating a free online account at, and downloading the free software on your computer, smartphone, or tablet, and creating a Dropbox folder. A free subscription includes up to 2GB of storage space, which is expanded whenever people you’ve referred to Dropbox set up their own account. Additional space can also be purchased.

There are a lot of cloud based storage options, but the beauty of Dropbox is that whatever files you save to your Dropbox folder (or sub–folders) are automatically updated in the cloud whenever you make a change. No more remembering to back up your work!!!!

The FOLDER structure on my laptop looks something like this:

      • Rootsmagic database files and GEDCOMs
      • FAMILY (1) FOLDER
        • Saved Rootsmagic reports (narratives, family group sheets, etc)
        • DOCUMENTS–scanned documents and other digital files
        • PHOTOS—scanned family photos, etc
      • FAMILY (2) FOLDER

• And so on………

My file naming convention typically begins with the family name, given name if applicable, and a reference to the document, for example:


Digital Scans

Reducing or eliminating paper requires converting that paper to digital format. I’m able to accomplish that using either the camera on my smartphone, or my portable scanner. My Samsung Galaxy phone has a 10 megapixel camera which captures detail beautifully, but most smartphones on the market today will do an adequate job of capturing all but the tiniest print. Because I have the Dropbox Android app on my phone, I can easily upload it to the cloud.

The portable scanner is perhaps my favorite and most useful tech gadget when it comes to genealogical research. Of the several on the market today, I prefer one called Neat Receipts, which is available online and at stores such as Best Buy. I’ve seen it on sale for as low as $99.

This comes in handy when someone gives me paper documents, or when I print images off a microfilm reader onto 8 ½ x 11 paper. It can even handle irregularly sized papers, such as personal letters, and newspaper clippings.

 All I have to do is attach the scanner to my laptop with a USB cord, line the paper up in the feed, and press a button on the scanner. The paper feeds through to the other side and I’m left with an image of the document in a PDF which can easily be saved as an image file in one of my Dropbox folders, which is then instantly saved to the cloud for safe keeping.

Between my smartphone, my scanner, and the images I’ve received online from repositories, I have accumulated hundreds of digitized records which are now organized into computer folders, backed up in Internet cloud storage, and attached to the appropriate families and individuals in my genealogy database. I am able to easily bring them up on my laptop, tablet, smartphone, or from someone else’s computer with Internet access, and can almost effortlessly share them, or embed them into Word documents and other reporting software. The prospect of digitizing three decades of paperwork was overwhelming to say the least, but I began at the end, scanning each new record as I received it, and little by little working backwards through my earlier files. The only paper copies I’ve kept are originals and copies of originals which are either particularly significant, or would be nearly impossible to find again. Everything else was recycled.


This free Internet based software is central to my note–taking system, and I’m certain I’d be nowhere near as organized or efficient with my research without it. Similar to Dropbox, it works on several platforms including my laptop, tablet, and smartphone. The company’s slogan is “Remember Everything” and I use it to jot notes, make lists, paste things from websites, or really anything I think I might need to recall quickly later, from wherever I happen to be.

Think of Evernote as a collection of binders called “notebooks,” organized in whatever way makes the most sense to you. Within each notebook are folders, like the tabbed sections of a binder, where all kinds of things can be stored for safe keeping. One of the best features of this software is the web clipper. If I visit a web page with information I might need later, I just right click on my mouse and choose the option to “web clip” the entire page, thereby creating a note with a link to the page, a copy of every image, all the text content, and even any working links. Best of all, the text on the page will be searchable within Evernote, so I can easily find it later.

find the web clipper feature invaluable when doing online research. When I find something potentially useful on say or a Google search, I simply clip the page and save it to a folder with the family name I’m researching. I set up my Evernote notebooks the same way as my Dropbox folders, which keeps it all parallel and quite simple. Some of the things you’ll find in my Evernote are:

  • Website links and images of maps where my ancestors lived.
  • Records clipped from Ancestry that contain names of the people I’m         researching, but which require more research to determine if they’re the right people, so I don’t want to link them to my Rootsmagic database quite yet.
  • Other notes of a general nature, such as resources for researching English probate records by century; lists of record repositories by region; links to digital copies of Massachusetts vital records by county, etc. These types of notes are particularly useful, because not only are the notes searchable, they also contain hyperlinks which serve as shortcuts to websites and other notes.

Putting it all together

Recently, I used Dropbox, Evernote, and my portable scanner to bring order to the mountain of genealogy magazines I’m “going to get to one of these days.” For years, and maybe you can relate to this, I’ve saved magazines whose tables of content contain something that interests me or that I think I might someday have a need for. The stacks were getting unwieldy, so I decided to experiment with scanning the articles I want to read, using a feature in Evernote which imports PDFs into searchable notes. It took a while, but I eventually came up with a system that does what I want:

  1. I created a Dropbox folder on my laptop called “Magazine Articles,” and I created a notebook with the same name in Evernote.
  2. In Evernote, I went to Tools>Import, and defined the Dropbox “Magazine Articles” folder as an “import folder.” I specified that any PDF Evernote finds in this folder on my laptop is to be imported into the notebook called “Magazine Articles.”
  3. I connected the portable scanner to my laptop, opened the scanner’s software, and in Settings, checked “Combine pages into a single item.”
  4. I ripped the pages of an article out of one of my magazines and, in order of first page to last, fed the pages one at a time through the scanner set to PDF.
  5. When all five pages were scanned, it took about three minutes to process the PDF, which I was then able to Export to the Dropbox “Magazine Articles” folder. 

In less than two minutes, the imported PDF appeared in the Evernote notebook. I added some Evernote tags (keywords) to help me locate the article later, and moved on to the next article I wanted to scan and save.

I was able to scan articles from half a dozen magazines while watching the news. Because I have access to Evernote on my smartphone, I can access the articles that I’m interested in from virtually anywhere, when I have a few spare minutes, and the magazines aren’t taking up space on my bookshelves, or in messy stacks around the house. Thanks to Evernote’s tags and PDF search capabilities, I can find the exact information I’m looking for, whenever I need it, with just a few keystrokes. Also, because I saved the scanned articles in a Dropbox folder, backup copies are available in my cloud storage in case I should ever need to refer back to them.

These are just a few of the ways technology has helped me organize my genealogy data and facilitate my research process. There are probably hundreds more. If you’d like to chat about how my system works, or if you come up with some tips of your own, please email me at You can also find other tips for using technology in your research on my blog at

Bibliography and Reference

Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo. Organizing Your Family History Search: Efficient & Effective Ways to Gather and Protect Your Genealogical Research. Cincinnati . Betterway Books, 1999.

Fleming, Ann Carter. The Organized Family Historian: How to File, Manage, and Protect Your Genealogical Research and Heirlooms. Nashville, Tennessee. Rutledge Hill Press. 2004.

Levenick, Denise. “Four Tried and True Systems for Organizing Genealogy Research.” Blog article. 18 July 2010. The Family Curator. Http:// 2013.

“Organize Your Genealogy.” FamilySearch. 2013.

Software discussed in this article—

Dropbox, see

Evernote, see

Neat Receipts Portable Scanner, see

Rootsmagic, see

(This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Keystone Kuzzins, the quarterly bulletin of the Erie Society for Genealogical Research.

GRIP Day Three

This is a cross post which was originally posted on

Today was the third day of lectures, and (I’m sorry to say) I’m starting to get tired of sitting still for hours on end. I’m hearing the same from others, which makes me feel better; but (and every one I’ve talked to seems to be feeling the same about this too), the stiff knees and achy backs are worth it because the material is so interesting, and there’s so much learning going on.

I’m also starting to see camaraderie developing among students in the various classes (it’s even more pronounced in our small project groups). More and more, we are walking into the cafeteria alone and finding it easy to sit down at an almost full table, feel immediately welcomed, and effortlessly jump right into a friendly conversation. Unless its a conversation about the food :-)

The grumblings about cafeteria food are getting louder and more frequent. The cereals are pretty safe, and the salad bar is pretty impressive, and the ice cream is EXCELLENT, but the hot entrees leave a lot to be desired. I was bummed this morning to discover that the only hot oatmeal was the instant kind you make from boiling water and a packet, because yesterday’s steel cut oats with brown sugar and raisins was very good. Tonight (Wednesday) is the only evening of the week with nothing scheduled after dinner, and a lot of people took the opportunity to go into the city, to visit a library or archive, or just go out for a decent meal. So, the cafeteria was a little like a morgue. Coincidentally, or maybe  consequently?, the entree was a “pretty awesome” meatloaf.

As for today’s topics in Advanced Land Records ( and that is the point of it all, right??), we covered:

Homestead Records (there are an estimated 93 million descendants of homesteaders (Act of 1862) living today!)

Tract Books (taught by Angela McGhie, who gave an excellent lecture, and is always fun to listen to)

U.S. Military Bounty Lands (my favorite)

Finding and Using Land Ownership Maps (should have been my favorite, but I was getting really tired at that point)

Military bounty lands are particularly interesting to me because a surprisingly high percentage of my recent clients have had ancestors whose migration west had to do with military service. We couldn’t cover a whole lot in 75 minutes, but Rick Sayre recommended Christine Rose’s book Military Bounty Lands, 1776 to 1855. I had looked at the book in Mia’s Books (who’s been set up in the gathering area outside the cafeteria all week) on Monday, and found it really interesting; but when I went back to buy a copy after class today, it was sold out. Fortunately, I was able to find it on, and there’s now a copy on its way to me :-)

GRIP 2013 Midway through Advanced Land Records

My week at the Institute is going really well. Today’s topics included:

All About Deeds

Private Land Records

Using the BLM General Land Office website

Land Entry Files

Land records are like gold in genealogy research, and it’s exciting to be learning new skills to help locate those records. I’ve used the BLM website and databases before, but in sitting through Rick and Pam Sayre’s lectures on it, I’m discovering that things I’ve looked for there and couldn’t find, are actually quite easy to get to if you know what you’re doing :-)

Last night I went to Michael Hait’s talk on “What is a reasonably exhaustive search?” The lecture hall was packed and Michael did a fabulous job. If you ever have a chance to hear him, jump at the opportunity because he’s a great teacher. You should check out Michael’s blog: Planting the Seeds

GRIP Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh

I’m at the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh, held at La Roche College, where I’m about to start a week long course in Advanced Land Research: Locating, Analyzing, Mapping. It’s being taught by Rick and Pam Sayre, who are two genealogy educators I really admire. I’m so excited to be here!

Things will get off to a great start tomorrow with:

Overview of Land Division in the US
State Land States
Federal Land Division
Land Division in Ohio & Other Unique Areas

I’m especially interested in delving deeper into land records because of my interest in house histories. Much of the land in Erie County was granted to pioneers, such as the Nicholsons, McKees, Reeds, and Grubbs, in the 1790s, when most of the land was controlled by the Pennsylvania Population Company. Deeds at the Erie County Courthouse date back to the 1820s, and  even earlier, original deeds, can be found in collections of family papers held at the Erie County Historical Society’s archives. One particular deed comes to mind, that of John Nicholson’s 1808 purchase of land along West Ridge Road, on which he built one of Erie’s first taverns. It is the original, vs a “true courthouse copy,” which makes it even more exciting :-)

If you’re interested in following me along through the day, you can find updates at my twitter account: @mboxgenealogy

Erie PA Genealogy Weekly, May 28, 2013

Local events and other goings-on for genealogy and family history enthusiasts in Erie County, Pennsylvania

The Erie County Historical Society is sponsoring a free lecture May 29th, 7:00pm, at the Cashier’s House at 417 State Street. Jeff  Kidder will be speaking about the history of bicycling  in Erie.

There’s still time to enter the Erie Times News Historic House Contest! The winner will receive a weekend getaway to the North East’s Grape Arbor Bed & Breakfast. If your house was built before 1963, check out the contest specifics here. Entries are due by May 31st.

Erie PA Genealogy Weekly, for May 14th 2013

Local events and other goings-on for genealogy and family history enthusiasts in Erie County, Pennsylvania

The Erie Society for Genealogical Research will hold its monthly meeting tonight, Tuesday May 14, 2013, at 7PM at the Erie History Center, 419 State Street Erie PA 16501. This month’s speaker is Jen Salem from TREC  center, who will give a talk on native plants of Erie County and Presque Isle State Park; Doors open at 6:40 and close at 7:10. Call 454-1813 x29 for more information.

Harry T. Burleigh and the Lawrence Family to be Honored

A dedication ceremony of street markers acknowledging Harry T. Burleigh and the Lawrence family contributions to Erie and its History is scheduled for Thursday, May 16 at 10:00 a.m. at the Bagnoni Council Chamber at City Hall.

 The Harry T. Burleigh Society will present a short program on the contributions of both families. Following the ceremony there will be a ribbon cutting ceremony at East 3rd Street from French to Holland Streets commemorating Harry T. Burleigh, and then at West Front Street from Sassafras to Myrtle Streets commemorating the Lawrence family. The ceremony is opened to the public.

Reservations are being taken for two Erie County Historical Society special events:

The Final Clue: a 1920s murder mystery. $300 for a team of 6. June 15th, 6-?

Potterpalooza, a week long children’s camp that celebrates the magical wonder of Harry Potter. Children will dress as their favorite Harry Potter character and enjoy activities such as Potions class, a planetarium show and Defense Against the Dark Arts! $160 per child, $145 for additional children. July 22nd and July 29th.

For more information, or to reserve a spot or purchase tickets to these events, contact the Erie County Historical Society at (814)454-1813.


Erie PA Genealogy Weekly for April 21, 2013

Local events and other goings-on for genealogy and family history enthusiasts in Erie County, Pennsylvania

Interrupted Journey: The Sinking of the Steamer Atlantic

Tue, April 23, 6:30pm – 8:00pm at LifeWorks Erie, 406 Peach Street, Erie. Erie Yesterday offers the following details:

The remains of the luxury, upper-cabin Steamer Atlantic, which rests at the bottom of Lake Erie, tell the story of one of the most important shipwrecks in the world. Approximately 200 passengers and crew perished as the result of the sinking in 1852. The Atlantic’s many stories include the steam technology era, ethnic immigration, the evolution of shipping on Lake Erie and much more. Presented by Dr. David Frew.

Historic West Sixth Street Walking Tour

Erie County Historical Society’s popular event will be held Thursday, April 25, 2013. The self guided tour encompasses 10 of Erie’s most beautiful buildings. The properties will be open from 6-9pm. Guests can visit in any order, spend as much time as they would like at each, and stop by the Watson Curtse Mansion for light refreshments.  For more information, or to order tickets, contact the historical society at 454.1813 x24.

Erie PA Genealogy Weekly for April 15, 2013

Local events and other goings-on for genealogy and family history enthusiasts in Erie County, Pennsylvania

National Library Week

As part of the Erie County Public Library’s week long celebrations, Debbi Lyon, author of the popular blog “Old Time Erie,” will give talk on Tuesday, April 16th, at 7pm, in the library’s Heritage Room.

My View II: The Smoke has Lifted, The Tullio Era Begins

Tue, April 16, 7pm – 9pm at the Jefferson Educational Society, at 3207 State Street, Erie.

The second half of a personal, “behind-the-scenes” account of Erie politics resumes with the beginning of the Mayor Tullio era: including observations and opinions of how the Erie political realm really operates; and explaining the historic battle over the sale of Erie’s Water Department. Presented by Patrick Cappabianca, M.A. Tickets are $10/person; $15 with a guest.

Erie County Historical Society’s Sally Carlow Kohler Lecture Series

Wed, April 17, 7pm – 9pm at the Cashier’s House,  419 State Street, Erie

Tom Yots, the Executive Director of Preservation Buffalo-Niagara will speak about historic Buffalo and the challenges, triumphs, and lessons learned from Buffalo’s preservation experiences.

ECHS members and children under 13 are free. Guests and non-members pay $5.

Erie PA Genealogy Weekly for April 7, 2013

Local events and other goings-on for genealogy and family history enthusiasts in Erie County, Pennsylvania

The Erie Society for Genealogical Research will hold its monthly meeting on Tuesday April 9, 2013, at 7PM at the Erie History Center, 419 State Street Erie PA 16501. This month’s speaker is Elaine McCleary, who will give a talk about “Uncle Sam.” Doors open  at 6:40 and close at 7:10. Call 454-1813 x29 for more information.

Transportation historian Kenneth C. Springirth will speak about his latest book Erie to Cleveland by Trolley. Mr. Springirth’s talk will be held in the Admiral Room of the Erie County Public Library on Sunday, April 14th, at 2pm, as part of the library’s week long celebration of National Library Week. Debbi Lyon, author of the popular blog “Old Time Erie,” is giving a talk on Tuesday, April 16th, at 7pm, in the library’s Heritage Room.

Dr. Verel R. Salmon will speak about his recently published book, Common Men in the War for the Common Man,  at a book signing event at Werner Books, 3514 Liberty Street, Liberty Plaza, Erie PA, on Saturday April 13th, 11am-1pm.

Tickets for the Erie Historical Society’s April 25th Historic Sixth Street Walking Tour, are on sale here. Call 454-1813 x24 for more information.

Erie PA Genealogy Weekly for March 24, 2013

Local events and other goings-on for genealogy and family history enthusiasts in Erie County, Pennsylvania

Reminder: The Blasco Library’s Family History Club for Teens begins its Spring Session tomorrow, March 25, 2013. Led by Debbi Lyon, the program is open to students age 12-17. It meets in the library’s Heritage Room, and consists of 7 classes held on Monday evenings from 6-8 p.m. Space is limited. For more information, or to see if there are any open spots left, call 451-6927.

This Wednesday evening, the Erie County Historical Society’s Sally Carlow Kohler Lecture Series will feature Sabina Freeman, a local historian, who will present a “Dialogue with Three Women.” The lecture will begin at 7:00pm at the Cashiers House located at 417 State Street. Members and children 12 and under are free. Guests and non-members pay $5.

SAVE THE DATE for the Erie County Historical Society’s popular Historic West Sixth Street Walking Tour, which will be held Thursday, April 25, 2013. The tour, which is self guided, encompasses 10 of Erie’s most beautiful buildings. The properties will be open from 6-9pm. Guests can visit in any order, spend as much time as they would like at each, and stop by the Watson Curtse Mansion for light refreshments.  Tickets go on sale to the public after April 1st, but are available this month to historical society members. For more information, or to order tickets, contact the historical society at 454.1813 x24.