How I Organize My Genealogy Files

I haven’t been posting to the site in recent months because I’ve been so busy with clients and with the genealogy stash I inherited; mostly I have been busy filing away the boxes that arrived on my doorstep not long ago, then sifting through the data and getting it into Scrivener with citations, so that I can then move it into Word, as I’ve written about in a previous post.

So I thought that today I would write about how I organize my files, both electronically and hard copy–

Two filing systems

In a February 2011 UGA webinar, genealogist Janet Hovorka warned that reliance on one medium for preserving our history is dangerous because paper burns and electronic files can become corrupted or accidentally deleted, so we are safest when we keep backups of *both* types. I try to do the same.

While I don’t actively print off everything I create (I try to run a paperless office and help the environment), whenever I *do* print a family chart for a relative or child’s school project that ends up having a typo and needs to be re-printed, instead of tossing the first bad draft, I instead keep it as a backup in my family binder, and simply write over the offending word(s), correcting it with a pen, thus eventually (and innocently!) compiling a binder of backup forms and data over time while helping the environment (by reducing waste, because I didn’t throw out all the typo pages). I do the same when printing records or photos for others that come out to faint or crooked–those go into my own backup genealogy files as well, so that I end up with a lovely hard copy reserve to my wonderful digital storage! 🙂

(incidentally, for those who want to see Hovorka’s webinar about preservation, if you join the Utah Genealogical Association’s virtual chapter, you can watch all their past webinars as a perk of membership! Their association is low cost, sends out a great magazine, and is dedicated to general genealogy topics, which is why they have a virtual chapter, because so many researchers nationwide want to join them! I really enjoy this group–they come highly recommended by me. Here’s a link:

My Digital Files

I like to think that I have read pretty much every genealogy book ever written (and the periodicals and articles about genealogy organization, too), but because I’ve worked as a professional genealogist for seventeen years now, I’ve been forced to toss most authors’ advice on organization and come up with my *own* system that works for me. So most of you reading this post might have to do the same for yourselves. I’ve read articles that suggest you organize your files by date, by couple, by geography, you name it. But here is what worked for me, in the end–

–I keep all my files in two main sections or halves; maternal and paternal. This is out of necessity because I interact so often with my maternal and paternal cousins in two different reunions, two different Facebook groups regarding our ancestry, and because I am building two different web sites for them to help them stay involved in our very separate “causes.” So out of necessity, my family files must stay divided in two, because of the way I see them and meet with them as two distinct families in my own life.

–Then within those two sections, I have all the files numbered according to the Ahnentafel numbering system. I leave myself out of it, so in the maternal half, my mother is number one, and in the paternal file set, my dad is number one, and each ascending ancestor is then subsequently numbered accordingly. My mom is currently married to someone else and I have a stepdad, but I am not working on his genealogy; should I ever inherit it, I will give him a third file and number him number one, as well! 🙂

If you don’t know how to do Ahnentafel numbering, here is a quick tutorial video:

(BTW–Technically, in my pedigree, I should be number one. But I started genealogy at such a young age–most other genealogists out there are my mom’s age and *they* are number one, so by making my parents number one and making myself an italicized “i,” I am doing nothing amiss, trust me. This is what happens when young’uns get into genealogy before their prime, lol!).

Here is a photo, to show you what this looks like:

Screenshot of tdgen file organization

–Then, as you can see in the photo, each ancestor has their own sub-folders, inside which I keep their records, which I label by date, so that they form a sort of timeline within the folders. I LOVE the timelines they create in my file screen, which tell me at a glance if there are any spans of time missing from my research!

Here is another screenshot, which shows you a female ancestor, so that you can see the sub-folder system I keep for the children of these direct-line ancestors, too. I keep them with their mothers because we had some divorce and remarriage in my ancestry that resulted in second wives and children while first wives were still living, so to keep the new wives and their children separate from MY ancestresses and their children, this was more organized than putting child folders with fathers. Plus, I feel that those women deserve special credit/kudos for birthing those entire generations of our family! 😉

Screen Shot of TDGEn file organization 2

Hard Copy Records

For my tangible records, I keep something similar to the folder structure you saw in the screenshots above: “photos, records, reports.” Those are the three main categories I work with most often, and I like to keep them separate and organized (because I do *not* like binders with reports and historical documents all mish-mashed together and falling apart at the seams; I much prefer to see things neat and sorted by category!) , so here is how I do that:

TDGEen desk stuff

I do like to staple a spare pedigree, individual report, or family group record onto the inside of each person’s folder as a sort of reference, however, so that I’m not constantly flipping between binders and folders all day. But I must keep all reports and historical documents separate in my system, just as a picky child I once knew liked to eat all of their foods on separate plates for fear they might touch each other (haha!).

Also, I am trying to re-label all my hard copy files with Ahnentafel numbers, as I did not do this when I first started throwing documents into folders years ago. That is slow going. If you haven’t started numbering your files yet, pick up a copy of Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s book Organizing Your Family History Search. I think I like her ideas for numbering tangible files better than my own paper folder system–I wish I had heard about her system years ago! When I get the time, I might try to implement it; who knows, maybe one day when the kiddos are grown . . .

Now, you won’t see me lugging any of this stuff (file box, binder, or photo box) to any repositories with me–I just take my laptop, a few crucial copies/reports, legal pads, cell camera, and some empty file folders and thumb drives  with me, and that’s it (see this post about my travel bag). Again, I try to run a paperless office whenever possible.

BUT I keep these binders of printouts and folders full of files and boxes full of photos as backups for a safety precaution. If, while I’m out traveling for a client, my laptop were stolen or damaged somehow, I would be able to pull my data out of the cloud, yes. But if the cloud were somehow compromised (it has happened before!), I could call my husband and have him fax me my paper copies from the home office. Keeping backups of all types help prevent catastrophes from devastating your family history preservation efforts, and keeping an organized system makes it easy for the folks at home to retrieve stuff for me even when I’m not there!

Now, for those of you who think I am crazy for keeping my photos and my historical documents and my pedigrees apart (“they belong TOGETHER!” you might be thinking), please do not fret! I want you to know that I DO believe in combining them for family scrapbooks. This is my *professional* system for staying organized and focused as a researcher. When it comes time to make a family scrapbook, I am all for compiling a work of art–like a quilt–where you lovingly piece all three components together. But when I am researching, I want my data sorted, organized, and TIDY.

My mom does the “quilting” in our family right now. She carefully pastes photos and stories onto paper, slides them into plastic sheets and puts them into binders with some glossy color copies and sends them around as Christmas gifts to extended family so they can get to know our ancestors better. Me, I have five children ranging from elementary to high school plus a thriving client business, so I have zero time for such things, but I hope to make time for efforts like hers one day! If I did have the time, I dream of sitting down and putting all of my work on the ancestors into a project like these heirloom-quality books from MyCanvas, then ordering nice, hardbound, glossy-paged copies for all of my siblings and children and maybe even my cousins:

But for now, I’m too busy organizing, filing, typing up citations, and proving identities and kinships, so that dream will have to wait! 🙂

For the rest of you, there is a fab class on how to build your own family history scrapbooks in MyCanvas coming up–you might want to check it out, it sounds amazing! Here is a link:






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© Jenny Tonks, 2009-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

***COMMENT RULES: I only “allow” comments that are positive and friendly in tone. Genealogy is a labor of love, and we genealogists are a friendly bunch who love meeting kindred spirits! 🙂


Organizing Genealogy Data for Word via Scrivener

Several weeks ago, many countless genealogy customers were stunned to learn that their genealogy software would be discontinued. I posted some professional advice to my blog readers: the only truly universal and long-lasting program for recording family history data is Word. You can read that blog post here:

Now a reader has written to ask me about moving their family history data to Word. What does this look like, they want to know? How do they get started?

In this post, I will share with you how I am doing this very same thing for a relative whose genealogy database I recently inherited, as I shared with you in some past posts here and here.

~ Word to the Wise

Please keep in mind, taking thousands and thousands of names and records that have been entered into a databases over a period of DECADES is not something that you can just cut and paste into Word all at once. At least, I can’t. I can’t just open a blank Word doc and start entering or cutting and pasting from a genealogy program. That would take me hundreds of hours to untangle the mess!

Instead, to get started moving your family history database from family history software to Word, there are a few shortcuts that I use, instead.

**Please note: I came up with this little process after asking around for years and never being quite satisfied with other methods out there for organizing genealogy in narrative format or word processing programs, so please, if you use it, mention you got it from me, will you? Thanks! 🙂

~ What I Do

Here’s how I am transferring my relative’s LARGE database from genealogy software to Word:

1) First, I make an RTF file of the individual’s paternal  and maternal ancestry (an “Ahnentafel”) that includes all notes and footnotes but excludes images, leaving out the first living relative who compiled the database, and starting with the researcher-relative’s parents, thereby cutting the two sides of their family tree in half so that I can make two separate files. (Otherwise, the computer has a meltdown when I try to make one gigantic Ahnentafel with everybody in it!) Obviously, I can skip this division if the family file is very small.

2) I import this file to Scrivener

3) I use Scrivener’s “split” feature, which divides the huge Ahnentafel file into separate generations with their own folders–thanks to Scrivener’s “Command-K” shortcut, this takes mere seconds. I simply put my cursor next to each generation and hit “command K” to start a new file, as this video shows:

4) Next, I cut and paste the former genealogy software’s endnotes into Scrivener’s footnote fields, since Scrivener makes footnoting easier than Word does. I can then export the document into Word when I am done, where the footnotes will be perfectly formatted per Word footnoting conventions.

5) I then look at what my relative has done for each ancestor and make a list of things I need to do to clean up and perfect their work before I export the data from Scrivener into Word.

I spend a LOT of time editing erroneous citations, or moving a lot of data from “notes” into an actual family history narrative–things that the relative had culled and filed away in the notes section but not realized were actually helpful evidence. I also highlight and/or re-do questionable research, and go in search of records for unanswered questions. It is slow going!

My task list usually includes research, looking up records, and fixing footnotes. As I go, I refer often to my handy dandy copy of Evidence Explained so I can cite my findings properly, because as I look up and verify evidence, records, and relationships in this narrative and then straighten out the data and its footnotes, the information in this pedigree goes from heresay to verified!

I also refer often to Numbering Your Genealogy as I go, just in case the genealogy software didn’t do its job properly when it numbered tricky relationships.

But Scrivener is my greatest bridge to porting everything from the genealogy software to Word–I would be lost without it! Here is what my screen looks like as I work in it:

Screen Shot 2018-01-08 at 11.07.28 PM

Note how I organize my ancestors into Scrivener’s files and sections, numbering them according to Ahnentafel structure to keep them organized.

6) Then in the media folders below the ancestor folders (not visible here), I store the ancestors’ records so I can pull them up and look at them while I am crafting their citations, etc.

So as you can see, I basically keep the project in Scrivener for the duration I am cleaning it up and organizing it as it transitions, then I export it into Word only after I feel like it has been sufficiently scrubbed from the effects of the database it used to inhabit (for example, all the “” are gone).

This is because Scrivener makes it easier for me to see each generation at a glance, as well as each footnote at a glance, and I can also pull up each record while I am entering its data much more easily in Scrivener than I can with Word, so this is my go-to program for transferring genealogy files from genealogy software to Word. It is my go-to for many other types of projects, too, but this is one of its many uses! 🙂

Then, once everything is all cleaned up and organized, I can export this family’s file into Word–Scrivener will send it to Word as all one file, divided into chapters. A book, basically.  But for now, it is a collection of separate files in Scrivener to make my editing process much easier–I love it!

I hope this helps anyone else out there who is contemplating protecting your family history data by preserving it in Word! If you have any questions about this type of project, please feel free to contact me! 🙂

(Please note: I am not a Scrivener affiliate–I received no compensation for mentioning this product here or anywhere else. I just really like it and find it useful!)


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© Jenny Tonks, 2009-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

How to Protect Your Genealogy When Its Software Is Discontinued

protect your databaseYesterday, announced that they will be retiring their Family Tree Maker genealogy software. I ached for the many upset Ancestry customers who commented on the announcement, because they spent countless hours entering all of their family history data into that program, yet they will no longer have support for the program after next year. How heartbreaking!

I saw that same agony among similarly upset customers just last year when The Master Genealogist genealogy software was discontinued. I saw it a few years before that, when Personal Ancestral File was discontinued, too. Is anybody noticing a pattern?

From these discontinued programs, we are learning that: Genealogy software is not the most reliable product in which to entrust your precious family data!

Michael Hait wrote an excellent article for us career researchers in the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly, entitled “Why I Do Not Use Genealogy Database Software” (September 2012 issue, pp. 153-155). I highly recommend it for those who are APG members and have access to the APGQ.

For the more family-based genealogists, here are my recommendations–

~ My Favorite Software for Your Genealogy Data

The most trustworthy, lasting product I know of is Microsoft Word. I prefer to use Word to organize my family history data, then I use genealogy software to make charts only AFTER I have first put everything in Word. But everything gets entered Word before it goes anywhere else. Word is home base. Word is command central. Then it can be pasted elsewhere. Here is why:

  • Word is the program that is the most trustworthy, has the most engineers working on it, has the most support, and has been around the longest.
  • Unlike other genealogy software, it gets along better with other operating systems and opens more often in other programs (doesn’t lose my citations or images during GEDCOM transfers, for example!).
  • Microsoft is the most stable, powerful ownership/company I know of, among all other companies offering software to genealogists.
  • And I can format my citations and family tree the way I want to in Word, then cut and paste that data into any other spreadsheets, charts, or funkier database any time I want, without the data becoming harmed in any way. It is safe as houses in Word at all times!

Then as genealogy software companies shut down, I still have my main family history collection in Word (and hard copy), so I am not adversely affected by these changes. So I strongly recommend using Word to organize and protect one’s family history data.

~ To Get Started Using This Software

To begin putting your family history data into Word, you first have to learn how to organize your ancestors onto paper without the use of a database. You can learn how to do this with a small guide published by the National Genealogical Society, entitled Numbering Your GenealogyIt takes mere minutes to read, and you would keep it handy and refer to it often as you begin moving your family history from the software database into Word:

Your resulting family history would then be a narrative lineage instead of a database–it will look like those pages that your genealogy software printed out for you whenever you chose the “book” or “report” options for your scrapbook.

And you can still make pedigree charts in Word afterwards, too–Word’s Smart Art comes with ready-made pedigree templates, PowerPoint’s flowchart diagrams can be used as pedigrees, too, and Mac users have many stunning pedigree replacements in Keynote and iWork tools that are far superior to anything I’ve ever seen in family history software anyway (design-wise).

~ Side Note About Software

My mom is a die-hard Legacy Family Tree user who is having the last laugh–she swore her favorite company’s product would last longer than Ancestry’s, even though it is smaller, and she turned out to be right. But I am still begging her to move her data over to Word. It makes me nervous to see how many thousands of names, dates, places, and sources she has entrusted to a program that is younger than even my baby brother. Will it last? We shall see!

I will confess, I own Family Tree Maker as one of my post-Word chart-makers for myself and for clients. I also own Reunion. I prefer Reunion because it lets me make my own citations, but I used Family Tree Maker for projects where the client had a lot of ancestral photos, because it played nicer with photos than Reunion. For clients with fewer photos, I stick with Reunion.

Looks like I get to just stick with Reunion from here on out. And when the day comes that they have all fallen and Word is all I have, I will be fine with that, too, because Word is the overall superior product. And we will always have the Chart Chick to help us with all of our future charting needs whenever we need her! 🙂

UPDATE TO ORIGINAL POST: blog readers came to me after I published this post and asked me more about how to export their databases to Word, so I posted a more detailed tutorial at this link:



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© Jenny Tonks, 2009-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

How I Organize My Genealogy Desk

Today, I’m posting pictures of what I call my “genealogy nook.”

(**Again, my usual disclaimer: our home is a hundred years old and not yet restored, so please excuse its rough shape!)

  • Why a genealogy nook?

Because we have five children, there is no room in our home for an actual office, so I took this little hallway and turned it into my workspace:

Screen Shot 2018-01-08 at 10.58.55 PM

I made sure to hunt down vintage furniture, to match my 100 year-old house! 🙂

Today, I will be discussing THE DESK.

I especially LOVE this desk because it has built-in shelves on top:

Screen Shot 2018-01-08 at 10.58.46 PM

Here’s a breakdown of what I keep on those shelves:


(in case you are wondering, I keep a power strip behind the GTD inbox, and all my cords are tucked back in there, too. There’s a hole drilled into the bottom shelf that lets the power strip’s one cord out to an outlet behind the desk. Keeps everything clean and tidy! When I need a cord for my laptop or phone, I just reach behind the inbox and grab it!)

**Note: the “GTD” I refer to in the above image is the “Getting Things Done” system for desk organization, which you can read about in this book:


Click to view actual book

I use this desk not only as my genealogy desk, but as “command central” of our home, where I keep track of papers for the entire family (bills, school papers, invitations, etc).

You can learn how to maintain a GTD-worthy work desk that is also a family command center in these videos by Power of Moms:

Here is how the GTD Tickler File works. As you can see in the above photos, my tickler file is just a binder. Inside it, I have tabs for each month of the year–that was the format that worked best for me. I LOVE it!
  • Other fun items in my genealogy nook:

The mysterious “unknown baby” picture. We don’t know the identity of this sweet baby, whose picture we inherited. I hang it here to remind me of the many unsolved family mysteries I need to keep working on each day!


The tiny writing desk. I got this at a yard sale for a quarter, but it really helps save my wrists and neck from injury, since typing on this 11-inch MacBook air would otherwise leave me hunched over and typing at unhealthy angles all day:


This little stand elevates my laptop to the perfect height, and the little gully on the side holds my cell phone (I have NO idea what it was originally for???)



Speaking of bargains, I got my desk for a mere sixty dollars on Craigslist!

The reason: it was homemade and not store-bought!

I don’t think the college student who was selling it had any idea that “homemade many generations ago” is actually worth so much more than that, but his hurry to sell sure was a blessing to me! 🙂

**Update: I’ve gotten a lot of response regarding the little computer stand. A few very sharp readers have informed me that it is actually a telephone stand, which you can buy at Staples, at this link:

The reason I even bought the stand in the first place is because my husband uses something similar at work for his larger laptop, though his is much nicer:

Screen Shot 2015-06-06 at 10.46.37 AM

You can find this larger computer stand at the following link:

Now that I’ve shown everyone inside my office, future posts will invite everyone inside my head, including my personal strategies for overcoming distraction and actually getting my genealogy projects DONE! 🙂

Have a great week, everyone, and happy hunting!

(UPDATE: you can see the updates to my office nook in another blog post that I wrote after making this post, at the following link: New Addition to My Genealogy Office/Nook)



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© Jenny Tonks 2009-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

My Review: The Best Organizers for The New Year

I have five children, I work two part-time jobs while taking freelance gigs on the side, I have no “help,” and my husband is a doctoral candidate with a FULL-TIME job in addition to his university studies and writing. Still, we find the time for weekly Family Home Evenings, monthly home teaching and visiting teaching, and our children are active in weekly Young Women’s, the “Faith in God” program, and Cub Scouts.

How do we fit so many activities into our already busy lives?

I credit our planners. They are what keep us organized!

I should also credit our time-management strategies, but I’ll have to share those in another post.

Why Buy a Planner When Planning Apps are Free?

I don’t use an app or anything digital–I use a physical planner that goes with me everywhere.

  • When I am at my desk, it lies open, showing me my daily tasks lists.
  • When I am at church, it is open in my lap, so I can jot down upcoming activities or events.
  • When I am in the kitchen cooking, it is on the counter with me, reminding me what is on the menu tonight.
  • While I am cleaning, it goes from room to room with me, reminding me what needs cleaned first and foremost, with shopping lists inside that I can add to as I run out of furniture polish or paper towels.
  • When I am on business calls, it is open to the “notes” section so that none of my work tasks or assignments are ever forgotten.

I cannot survive without my planner!

I tried the apps, but because I could never see them in front of me, they were quickly forgotten. Reminder alarms only got snoozed until I forgot them altogether.

Here is the planner I use:


(This is just my planner–click on image to view actual product)

Note how the photo above shows that I also buy calendar pages, shopping list pages, etc, to keep me organized.
This year, I am using an even better system of pages, called “Seven Habits,” because it is based on the time-management strategies from the famous book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

These are my FAVORITE planner pages! Click on image to view actual product

Back when I was a young mother (translation: too busy nursing babies and chasing toddlers to make many appointments), I used this family planner instead, and I LOVED it:


Amy Knapp’s planners were my *favorite* for keeping track of meals and groceries; if ever my business slows down and lets me return to a more serene life, I plan to go right back to these! 🙂 **click on the image to see other sizes/styles

Amy Knapp’s planners are larger than the purse-friendly compact planner I buy from Franklin Covey, so I used this purse/planner combo back then, which I really loved and could easily slip inside my diaper bag before outings to church or to the store:

BEST feature of this planner case: both Amy Knapp’s planner pages AND my “Seven Habits” pages (above) fit into it, so I don’t have to change binders even as I change page styles. PERFECT! 🙂

Here is another homemaker’s planner that is similar to Amy Knapp’s, but much prettier (though less practical, because it has no pockets or spaces for me to store stuff). It is just so pretty that I want to buy one and keep it on my counter, even though I don’t need it! 🙂


My kids also use planners, as part of our family’s chores-for-privileges rule (something I’ll explain in a future post). Here are the planners they use:


These come in a variety of styles, sizes, and formats, click the image to view them all.


I recommend these planners to my university students, to help them stay organized and not miss any assignments, because I do not accept late work:


Back when I was teaching my children at home, this was also my favorite homeschool planner:


For those who instead prefer to support cottage industries and local artisans with their purchases, here is a homemade planner for LDS moms, that is made and sold out of the homes of some very creative LDS moms:


As you can see, I am a massive planner enthusiast, so please let me know of any other planning products I should try! 🙂

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My Favorite Genealogy Organizer!

In the 20+ years I have been doing genealogy research, I’ve lugged with me all kinds of backpacks, totes, portable file boxes, and even those huge totes-on-wheels to the libraries, archives, and courthouses where I do my research. I’ve also road-tested them overseas.

But of all the different document-holding, file-toting, equipment-carrying products I’ve tried, this portable file box and computer case combo is my absolute favoriteI HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT for anyone who has to carry files or equipment to-and-fro as part of their job or hobby:


UPDATE: this particular tote is now out of stock at Amazon, so this picture is now linking to a different model at the Amazon site. My apologies–it must have been super popular! 🙂

Here is what mine looks like close up:


The straps are VERY sturdy!

Here’s a look at the inside:


Pictured is a 15-inch MacBook Pro. Today, I carry an 11-inch MacBook Air, plus a Flip Pal scanner, and I still have room left over for another tablet if I wanted to include it.


The side pouches have more than enough space for all of your chargers and cords.


I also use the roomy side pouches to carry a camera for use in photographing documents, tombstones, etc.


The file box is removable, and is itself a tote-within-a-tote!


The front pouch holds office supplies, but is spacious enough for a few more large objects.


See how it holds TWO fat laptops? Wow. Also, take a look at the super-sturdy hardware on the straps–I love it.

I LOVE taking this bag on research trips!


This tote retails for about $80, but I bought mine for $45 during  FranklinCovey’s back to school sale last fall. You can also buy it in Brown on Amazon (click the image to see it on Amazon)


UPDATE: the brown tote pictured here at the time I made this post has sold out, so this image now links to a different model being sold on the Amazon site.

The bag hooks easily on to my luggage:


And it is easy to carry–it has both a long shoulder strap and shorter handles. I love it! 🙂


Oh, and for anyone who was wondering what my portable file box categories are, here is a close-up of the hanging dividers and their categories:


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