Organizing your genealogy documents & family tree

I constantly come across scraps of paper on which I scribbled notes — Irv’s Social Security number, the cemetery where Fern is buried, Goldie’s husband married her sister after she died — either something I discovered online or something a cousin told me during a lengthy phone call. I often find myself (like many of you) talking on the phone while sitting in front of my computer. Ideally,  I’d like to annotate my digital family tree with all these tidbits while I’m on the phone gathering the info, but invariably, it’s coming at me faster than I can arrange it on screen, so I grab a pad of paper and jot it down.  Would that I were efficient enough to immediately enter it on my tree once the conversation ended, but more often that not, the paper joins a pile of others. Still, I love to be able to see everything at a glance. For that reason, I developed (with the help of my son who went on to graduate from MIT) my own family tree system.

My tree is digitized, and like an excel spreadsheet it is expandable and endless. Each person’s name is in a rectangle, arranged directly below their parents and beside their siblings. Each box contains their dates, locations, spouse info and anecdotes (e.g. he was in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake, was a sheep rancher in Marin County). Their box is enlarged as more info is added, and everyone else’s boxes move over to accommodate the enlarged box. I have far too many people on my tree to remember all the nuances, so it’s right there all in one place, on my screen. Scroll to the right, scroll down…no need to leave my computer to go fetch a hard copy binder on a bookshelf on another floor of my house.


Many of the documents I find online are downloaded and kept in electronic folders, family by family. Sometimes on the tree I will note where my info came from , “see 1900 census in digital file,” in case I need to square it with info from a new source.  How many times does someone’s birth year differ on their marriage license and their death certificate? I want to know which one gave me which date. (Usually the info provided by the person himself, closer to the event in question, is more reliable.  In other words, Bill can’t say when/where Bill was born if he is the decedent. Ninety years later, when Bill dies, his 70 year old son may not know if he was born in Berlin, NJ or Voorhees.  But when Bill was 20, and he listed his date of birth on his marriage license, he was very likely to give his own info correctly.)

Within the family folder I have such documents as:

  • birth certificate
  • ship manifest
  • marriage license
  • wedding photo, family portrait, baby picture, picture of their home
  • naturalization papers
  • census reports
  • newspaper clipping
  • obituary

I label each file with the surname, given name, year, document type, where found. Windows tends to automatically alphabetize those files for me, within the folder.

Would you like me to create such a family tree for you?

About Billie Tekel Elias

World traveler, Art Deco lover, knitter, avid genealogist, author, and tourist in my own town.
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