Don’t Lose Track of Your Digital Records – Give Them Distinctive Names


Our world is becoming increasingly filled with digital files.  Documents, photos, videos, receipts, and so on – all digital.  For genealogists, it’s even worse.  We INTENTIONALLY look for as many documents as we can find about our family members.  Our file collections are massive.

Back in the good old days we had vast paper filing systems.  Some of us used binders, some file boxes or cabinets, and most of us used both.  Even diligent genealogists who have collections of paper files struggle to convert all of those files to digital formats.  It all takes time.  And time is precious.

Amy Johnson Crow recently published a post that includes an interview with Drew Smith.  They tackle the very important topic of organizing digital files.  The interview is a brief 7:43, but worth your time.

As I watched, I felt pretty good about my own system for naming files.  It is right inline with the things Drew talked about.  So I thought I would share my simple digital file naming system.  It looks a little something like this:

SURNAME, Forename Middle-name, YEAR Event Name


Pretty straightforward.  And so far, no two filenames have been identical in my digital files.  Let’s look at three examples.

SMELLIE, Agnes, 1909 Death Record

This is a Scottish death record.  There are three entries on the page.  The entry for my family member is the first entry on line 16 for Agnes Montgomery.  Agnes’ maiden name is Smellie, I always use the maiden surname, so my file name looks like this:

SMELLIE, Agnes, 1909 Death Record


HYDE, Muriel Grace and Walter E Groome, 1924 Marriage Certificate

This marriage record is for Muriel Grace Hyde and Walter E Groome.  Muriel is my blood relative so she takes the first place in my file name.  I only capitalize the surname of the person who is a blood relative.  So my filename looks like this:

HYDE, Muriel Grace and Walter E Groome, 1924 Marriage Certificate


Every now and again I am related to both parties in a marriage like in this example:

PROULX, Joseph and DEMERS, Anne Marie, 1919 Marriage Record, page 1PROULX, Joseph and DEMERS, Anne Marie, 1919 Marriage Record, page 2

This record is in French and split over two pages.  On the first page, the marriage entry begins on the bottom right and continues onto the next page.  Joseph Proulx is my 1st cousin 3 times removed and his wife Anne Marie Demers is my 2nd cousin 3 times removed and my 1st cousin 3 times removed.  I am related to both Anne Marie’s mother and father.  {And if you are wondering, Joseph and Anne Marie are second cousins to each other.}  Because I am related to both Joseph and Anne Marie, my two filenames look like this:

PROULX, Joseph and DEMERS, Anne Marie, 1919 Marriage Record, page 1

PROULX, Joseph and DEMERS, Anne Marie, 1919 Marriage Record, page 2


Using this file naming system works well for me.  I can easily find a file I am looking for just by typing in the surname.  If it’s a surname that is common to my tree, I type the surname, then a comma, then begin typing the forename until I see the file I need.

I may have a great file naming system that works for me, but organizing those files is another matter.  I haven’t had the need for folders so I haven’t created any.  They all go into one large “Genealogy Record Images” folder on my computer and external hard drive.  My back up is that I upload every file to my private ancestry tree and attach it to the correct individuals.  In the description section I add citation details so that I can retrace my steps if I need to.  I also upload images to FamilySearch as a secondary back up.  Well, I guess it’s more like a fourth back up.  😉


Do you have a file naming system that works for you?


Happy Wednesday, I hope you make a fantastic, genealogy discovery today!  Then, give it a great file name that works for you.  😉



16 thoughts on “Don’t Lose Track of Your Digital Records – Give Them Distinctive Names”

  1. My system is pretty similar, though I am probably not as consistent with word order on the labels. But I also break down all my files by family name and then have subfolders for families within that larger family. So, for example, my most recent research has focused on the Katzenstein family. I have one large folder labeled Katzenstein, then several subfolders for each of the heads of a family. Then if that sub-family has numerous children with their own family, each gets a sub-sub-folder.

    1. That is how I organize my paper files. It’s a great system. I’ve been able to find my digital files so easily that I haven’t bothered to file them this way. I suppose at some point I may regret that…

      1. It sounds like your system is working just fine. I just have so many people with the same exact name—e.g., multiples of Abraham Brotman, Jacob Schoenthal, and Scholem Katzenstein—that your system wouldn’t work for me.

  2. Digital Record keeping for me is almost zero. My main focus has been on paper records either original or copies. For these I have a (for my use) very good system in place. I wrote about it a while back. Here is a link if you care to read about it.

    I do realize that digital is a good way to store records but I can’t help but wonder how long it will last. Look how fast changes are being made in this type of storage system. However a document dated over a hundred years ago can still be read and used easily. Perhaps the best plan is to use both. it never hurts to have a few backup plans in place.

    1. I still keep my paper files too. When a record was hard to find, cost money (not counting subscription fees), or is vital, I keep a printed copy. But so much of what I find is digitized already, I am just saving a digital image. Again, I print some of them, but for the most part, I don’t. I will say that whenever I see some “Armageddon” type show where the internet and power are gone I worry about my digital tree and digitized records… I think you are right Charles, some sort of balance between paper and digital is a great plan.

  3. My system is also pretty similar, though after watching a webinar at working about handling digital files, I’ve shortened things – I gather there can be problems (in Windows anyway) with filenames that are too long. The instructor recommended no more than 20 characters. I have, however, ended up having to break that rule but try to keep the filenames under 30 characters. I’ve also had problems with some .jpgs that don’t open properly if there are spaces in the filename. Also, I include attribution as well. For instance, a birth record would now be JCSpongBirth1935_ANC or, in the case of photos I received yesterday from my uncle JCSpongJJBasinski1963_EDS.

    @chmjr2 – I also keep paper records, but most can’t afford to buy the many, many records that I find on Ancestry, FMP, and FamilySearch, nor the paper/ink to print them all out.

    1. I have heard several people talk about future issues with file names, spaces, and other characters. I’m an apple girl so most of those concerns don’t directly apply. My backups on Ancestry and FT are my failsafe for this. Hopefully, my file names will continue to work for me.

  4. Never ever tell me again that you have organization problems! Hahaha. You are so organized! I fool myself into thinking I have a little organization by sweeping everything into folders ;)!

    1. Well… just because I have my digital files organized doesn’t mean I have my papers and photos organized. There is just way too many of them. Eventually I’ll get them all in order. But I literally have 12 LARGE boxes, plus a few bags and cartons of photos, documents, and memorabilia. Not counting the items for my own children and myself. I really do need that small private library.

  5. I’m impressed! My file naming system (I use the word loosely) definitely leaves a bit to be desired — although I do use folders for different family surnames (with all the problems that can cause 🙂 ) I tend to be a bit inconsistent in naming, partly because when I started researching I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. As I’ve learned more, my systems have got better but that leads to inconsistency.

  6. Noticing that the examples of files names have commas in them. It was my understanding that we should not use special characters in files names in the digital world. So confusing! I’ve read that we can use _ underscores and – dashes but not () parenthesis marks. Yet all the genealogy sites say to use parenthesis to mark the maiden name. As I said, very confusing! For now I use something like this: SMITH Rebecca JONES-ROBERTS_1880-xxxx. The x’s represent a date I don’t know. The dates help me know who’s who if there are several Rebecca Smith’s, if that is an issue. I don’t know if that helps anyone else but I am trying to follow this path as I get some organization to files.

    As far as the documents that go with a person, I decided to keep all the digital documents with each person that goes with them. I like to see the whole history of the person in one place. That to me makes the story or the history.

    While that means duplicate files in some cases, I will deal with that. Yes files for wife, duplicate file for husband. I have considered also keeping a 3rd, yes, a 3rd copy of some files. Not sure yet. For example, perhaps I want a marriage license for her and one for him… THEN perhaps a 3rd copy in a general folder (by name-date) so that all the marriage license’s are together? Not sure. Perhaps I will find a genealogy program that would eliminate duplication or triplication? LOL Open to anyone’s thoughts. At this point I am flying by the seat of my pants and making changes if I see an issue.

    1. Hi Anita! Thanks for stopping by. Yes, there can be problems with commas particularly in Dropbox or if you use a PC. I use a Mac and I don’t use Dropbox so commas work for me.

      Finding what works for you is exactly the most important point of developing your own system! Thank you for sharing what you prefer. ❤️

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