One of my projects is to digitize the genealogical documents and photos that I have accumulated over the years. That also means finding a method for organizing and storing that digital information. After some trial and error, along with reading about the methods others are using, I have a method I'm fairly happy with. Of course, with constant changes in technology, this process will have to evolve over time. It is also going to take quite a while to convert my old information into the new system, and to scan the remaining paper documents and photos. It's likely to be a project that is never entirely finished.
Why is digitizing important?
It's not a requirement and if you are happy with a paper system that is working for you, there isn't a need to change. That said, there are many advantages of going digital, and for someone like me who enjoys technology anyway, it's an obvious path. Some paper files are still necessary for storing original documents, as well as a safe, archival way to store old photographs and other heirlooms, but the goal is to have digital copies of everything and to eliminate paper as much as possible. With so much available online, including images of source documents, many research finds are obtained in a digital format from the start. I used to print out copies of census images obtained online for my paper files. Not anymore. I'll save the printer ink, file cabinet space, and have a more usable system to boot. Likewise, items originating as paper (vital records, copies of deeds) can be scanned or photographed to generate a digital copy. You can even photograph family heirlooms and include the photos as part of your family history files.
- digital files can be tagged with keywords and metadata and easily searched
- digital files can be backed up to multiple storage locations
- digital files can be shared easily and used in reports and programs
- digital files stored in the cloud can be accessed from any location and on various devices - laptop, tablet, or phone. You can refer to your notes or record new information from anywhere.
Systems and Tools
I'm using a combination of Reunion (genealogy database software for Mac), DropBox and Evernote. DropBox and Evernote are cloud services available free, with apps for tablets and phones in addition to desktop (the free services have limits and you may find it worthwhile to upgrade to paid versions at some point).
Reunion: I use this program to keep track of all the individuals and their relationships, associated dates, facts, and some research notes. In the past I used the Notes feature associated with each individual as the place to store most of my research notes, links and clips from websites, but I'm moving to Evernote for that. The idea of having to copy all the existing notes from Reunion into Evernote is daunting, so right now that's on the "maybe in the future" list.
DropBox: This is for my files - source document images from the Internet or scanned from paper, scanned photographs, and reports and timelines I've written. The best article I've seen for how to organize these types of digital files is this blog post by Randy Seaver. I have a very similar system. In my Genealogy folder, I have an Ancestors folder; within that I have a folder for my mother's lines, my father's lines, and my husband's lines, and then folders for each surname within those. Each surname has its own Photos folder, and as the volume of files grows, I'll probably create family group folders. All of my files in DropBox are also backed up to another location (hard drive). It's important to establish and maintain a consistent way of naming your files. I use "surname-firstname-year-doctype-location" - for example: "Simmons-William-1880-census-Vernon-LA." Another thing to think about is adding metadata to your files.
Evernote: Right now, I'm using Evernote for text-based research notes, my research log, clipped articles and information from websites. The Evernote blog has an article by Jordan Jones on intensive use of Evernote for genealogy. The great advantage to this is the powerful tagging and searching it allows. I haven't decided whether to go to this extent, as it also requires a lot of storage in Evernote and maintaining your source files in both a file system and Evernote. You might also want to check out these articles:
- Evernote: The Total Recall Research Log (PDF)
- Some Handy Tips for Organizing Your Research with Evernote
- Dear Randy - Do You Have a Check List to Track A Person's Information? (more ideas about a research checklist/log you could keep in Evernote)
Digital Bookshelf: I've noticed that I'm accumulating more reference materials in digital format (usually PDF), and I need a way to store, organize, and access this virtual library. This is a work in progress, but currently I have a Bookshelf folder in DropBox where I save all the PDF books, journals, etc. I'm exploring programs for managing this, such as Calibre.
I'm loving this digital world, but it is important to keep in mind the risks and to safeguard your genealogy files. Be sure that you have your files backed up to multiple locations (hard drive, external hard drive, cloud) and that you pay attention to technology changes in order to keep up with standard formats. Just as floppy disks are a thing of the past, the software, formats, and storage media used today will be obsolete in a few years.