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.