Organizing your Family History

Researching family history generates a mountain of paper as you find records. However, these records are treasures because they are critical sources of data about your family. Furthermore, organizing these records and their information is crucial to the success of your work because your future research depends on retrieving their details quickly.

The first step in organing your work is setting up a system to label your folders. Your method should be logical, easy to file a document, quick to retrieve, and easy to remember.

Most genealogists use factors such as surname, given name, record type, date, place, and other details to sort their information. Which factors they use as their primary and secondary information depends on personal choice, but surname and record type seem to be the most popular choices. For example:

Using “surname” as your primary factor and the given name as the secondary will show “Smith, Joseph” on the folder tab. So all documents are sorted by a person’s name, and the folders are stored in name order.

Using the “record type” as the primary factor will show “Census, 1930” or “Census, Smith” on a folder tab.

Some documents, such as census and passenger records, pertain to multiple people. Instead of filing a copy for each individual, many researchers use a combination of the two systems. For example, they save census and passenger records by record type and surname to eliminate the need for multiple copies. Then, they file the other documents by surname and given name.

Genealogists use two systems to store paper documents: file folders and ring binders.

They need a filing cabinet or storage crates to place the folders. Color coding the folders will help them file new documents and retrieve them when needed. However, it is difficult to add more cabinets when the cabinet is full. Storage crates are easier to add, but ehrn multiple crates are stacked to save space, moving the containers to find a file is cumbersome. Folders are also challenging to carry and use on trips away from your work area.

Ring binders are another method of storing paper documents. They are easily retrieved from shelves, especially if the spine labels are color-coded. Start with small (1”) or medium (2”) binders and expand to the larger (3”) size as needed. The binder pages are easy to flip through to find information, especially if you place the documents behind the tabs in chronological order. The small and medium binders are easy to transport to libraries and archives in backpacks, but they can become heavy as you add records. Nevertheless, most researchers find adding ring binders and shelving space easier than finding room for another file cabinet.

Go Digital

Eliminating paper and digitally saving your documents may be the system of the future. Digital files eliminate the mountain of paper and significantly reduce the physical space needed. For example, my 20 years of genealogy files use 132 GB of digital storage. I use my laptop as my primary storage unit and a 1 TB external hard drive to back up my files. These two devices are significantly small than a file cabinet or the twenty-ring binders needed to store the paper equivalent of my digital files.

I label my digital files using the same factors as a paper system, using surnames and record type as my primary factors and adding 3-4 secondary factors to the file name.

Using “surname” as my primary factor, my label will be “smith-joseph-census-1930”.

Using the “record-type” as the primary factor will show ”census-1930-smith-joseph” as the record label.

Once I type my file name, select my folder, and hit “save,” my computer will automatically place my new file in the order my naming system dictates. So, remember, once you decide on your system, be consistent so your files appear in the folders where you expect them.

Visiting libraries and archives will become easier when you use digital files. You can copy your pertinent files to a thumb drive to reference them using a computer at the facility. You can use the same thumb drive to save digital copies of what you find and transfer them to your computer after your trip. Going digital minimizes your physical space, and transporting your files becomes less challenging.

The main drawback of going digital is a computer crash where you lose the information on your hard drive. Therefore, making a backup copy is critical, and experts recommend backing up your files monthly as a minimum.

I add an essential step to my digital system. As I find my documents, I save a copy to my computer but then compile the information I see in the record into a summary for the individual mentioned in the document. I carefully enter the information into the summary chronologically, which helps reveal their story. I also include a document copy at the end of the summary. Adding the copy may seem like overkill, but I use this step to add the source citation in the label above the document. I need to add that data immediately to ensure I  do not forget it. I usually do not review the copy on my computer again unless I suspect a problem with what I entered in the summary.

Benefits of my digital summary:

  • It s a quick reference of the facts by putting all the information for the individual in one place to speed up future research
  • Is flexible when adding facts, stories, and pictures
  • It is a narrative, and all family members can understand it
  • It can be easily shared with family members or other researchers through email.
  • It saves paper, but more importantly, it saves the information in the records

The critical step in being organized is to develop a system that fits your needs and skills, then consistently use it. Also, do not be afraid to change your system as your skills increase and technology changes.


Converting FTM facts to Family History Narratives

My initial efforts in genealogy research were adding as many names, dates, and facts to my family tree using a tree on and offline using FamilyTree Maker. This format gave me a massive warehouse of information but a challenging landscape of organization when trying to use the genealogical reports to analyze my facts. It was even worse when I tried to share the trees and charts with my family members.

I began converting my FTM data to text documents to become more organized and have a better, more readable format to share with my family. My initial conversion methods used the Descendant Reports and Individual Reports to copy and paste their contents to Microsoft Word documents for each direct ancestor. Today, I use FTM’s Smart Story function to generate my initial text document.

My first step in editing the text document is to make each fact a Bullitt Point. Next, I organize each fact into chronological order. This method seems tedious, but I get excited when I see my ancestor’s life story start to appear. Seeing the facts come together then encourages me to add photos and maps. I search for pictures of my ancestors, their homes, schools, places of employment, vintage images of the area, and maps. I place them next to the text where appropriate or at the end of the narrative. These pictures bring my ancestors more alive.

My individual narratives now become my primary research document. I save all new facts, photos, and documents to this summary of my ancestor. First, the facts and stories are added to the narrative with references to my sources. When I find a new document, I add the information from the document in the narrative. Then, place the copy of the document at the end of the narrative with a citation of its source.

I still use FTM as a reference for names, dates, and relationships. In addition, I refer to it often when I am writing to get the family group information correct or to review where to place a new name in the family tree. However, I do not run another Descendant Report, Individual Report, or Smart Story. Instead, I run Pedigree Charts when I need to add them to a section of the family history to show how the individuals are related.

I have found that using narratives as my research document makes most of the challenges of using linage software disappear. Narratives are flexible in adding information, more readable, and can be easily shared. Converting your FTM data to narratives may be tedious, but you will see more of your ancestry in the narratives.

FAMILY TREE MAKER NEWS – release of Version 2017 this Weekend

In a recent new release, MacKiev, makers of FTM, warn that the discounted preorder price ($29.99) for their new version is good only through July 14 and they will release FT2017 this weekend. This is good news for those who were waiting anxiously for the new syncing software and bad news for those that were planning on continuing to use their older versions.

It is bad news for users who were not planning to upgrade because the announcement states clearly that the search and merge function in the older versions will no longer work. This function will only work in FTM2017.

MacKiev gives these six reasons to upgrade:

  1. To sync with an Ancestry tree. (No other FTM editions will).
    2. To sync two or more FTM trees with one Ancestry tree with FamilySync™.
    3. To discover the crossed lines of your ancestors with color coding.
    4. To fix faded old photos with our new Photo Darkroom™ tools.
    5. To add a new free data source with FamilySearch integration.
    6. To keep using Ancestry search and merge. (Older editions no longer will).

My plans have changed due to this announcement. I had preordered FTM2017 but I was planning on delaying its installation until I was sure there were no comments from users about any bugs. Now I will install FTM2107 and only convert old trees to the new format as needed. I will convert the remaining trees after the dust settles for the rollout of FT2017.

Is Roots Magic winning the marketing battle with Family Tree Maker?

Roots Magic just released their version 7.5 which interfaces with for the first time. Now RM users can see hints for records along with the hints they are enjoying from, MyHeritage, and Findmypast. The new interface also includes our family trees we have on Ancestry which RM is calling Treeshare.  RM’s Treeshare is not the same as FTM’s Tree-syncing but does allow users to connect to Ancestry family trees, compare differences and changes between Ancestry and RM trees, and then select what information to migrate between the two versions. FTM Treesync allows Ancestry and FTM trees to be the same. RM Teeshare allows you to have additional people in your RM tree and be different from your Ancestry tree. I like the additional control RM gives me, but it does take more time to make the comparison.

My experience with FTM14.1 which is currently available is satisfactory, but interfaces with only  Mackiev has promised their new version FTM2017 will improve the syncing function and add an interface with However, the release of FTM2017 has been delayed and is about six months overdue.

With the release of RM7.5, Roots Magic seems to have moved ahead of FTM, but what will happen when FTM2017 is finally released? How much market share will FTM lose as now that RM7.5 has been released and the release of FTM2017 continues to be delayed? How much better will FTM2017 need to be to win back the market share they lost since the announcement by Ancestry to discontinue FTM?

I have been a long-time FTM user but my loyalty is being tested, and I am on the edge of the fence with my decision. FTM14.1 does not interface with Ancestry as well as older versions, but I think this is due to Ancestry not owning FTM and not due to the software. Will the interface between Ancestry and FTM2017 remain the same, go back to the old level, or get better. Only the release of FTM2017 will give us the answer.

Problems with Tree Syncing between Ancestry and FamilyTree Maker and RootsMagic

Tree Syncing with family tree seems to put stress on Ancestry’s servers. If MacKiev and Rootsmagic both go live with syncing this problem will get worse.

The concept of constant syncing with our online trees has attracted many users lineage software as a great tool. Saving Ancestry results to our family tree provide the researcher with a convenient place to store research. The tree could be online at Ancestry or offline on lineage software such as FamilyTree Maker(FTM). I believe that this dynamic drove the popularity of FTM. The addition of TreeSyncing added to the popularity of FTM. Researchers who had family trees on Ancestry and offline lineage software had to decide which was their primary family tree to be maintained and updated with current information. Tree syncing allowed researchers to use their smart devices to search and save information to their Ancestry trees without overtaxing the memory of their devices. Ancestry would then download the new information to FTM, and both family trees would be current.

However, there were complaints of problems with the sync, and Ancestry chose to discontinue FTM rather than solve the problem. They quickly sold FTM to MacKiev who promised to continue support and updates for FTM. However, yesterday’s stress test by MacKiev of their new version of FTM indicates Tree Syncing may push the limits of the online servers at Ancestry and make the connections unstable.

If Tree Syncing endangers the functionality of the databases on, should it be part of lineage software?

Hopefully, hints, search, and merge with databases will be allowed to continue because these are also useful functions and do not overtax the