After a rather productive six-and-a-half years of family history research, I encountered a terrible problem. My downloads folder had over 4,000 files, most of them related to my genealogy work.
I’m German through-and-through, and I have been living up to the organizational reputation. “Ordnung,” as my Opa-in-law would say. However, at times, it is much more efficient to plow through the data entry portion of the family tree and save some of the work for later. While it can save time, it makes for a terrible headache later.
Take my advice, you will want to download every record you can and keep them organized. If you’re just starting, these tips might not seem like they take a little longer, but your long-term work will benefit and be more productive.
The image below shows just a fraction of the nightmare that awaits you if you don’t heed this warning.
Create folders for each individual you research
Any time you download an image or a webpage, create a folder for that person. Always name it starting with the surname so the folders can be sorted alphabetically. Then, create additional folders inside that person’s folder. If you’re looking for a way to shorten the length of time this takes, get familiar with the Windows keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Shift+N. This will create a new folder and allow you to rename it without having your fingers leave the keyboard. If you’re backlogged like me–which I hope you aren’t–this can shave HOURS off of the process without having to mouse over, right-click, and create a new folder.
Always use the person’s full name, including all middle names or initials, when naming each folder. When expanding the family tree, it becomes all too easy to find people with the exact same name. In some cases, including the birth year in parentheses after the person’s name might even be necessary.
I also suggest using a consistent pattern for naming your folders, such as Birth, Marriage, Death, Census 1880, Census 1900, Immigration, etc. Keep like documents together so it’s easier to navigate. You can organize them by date or by record type. I typically opt for the latter. I also keep notes in text documents to archive all clues and speculations.
You can also rename any image you download. I tend to skip this step in case I ever need to reference the original file name. It happens occasionally, and if it was recent, I can pull it up in my browser history to find the collection it came from.
Notice the file structure below. Most folders have been organized by date.
In the image below, files have by named based on the type of document.
In all honesty, the majority of your folders will look about as sparse as the image below.
Save all of the records you find
It might take a bit of work to manage, but there are several benefits to saving every record you find. If you stumble on it again, you’ll know you already have a copy with the information. Another advantage is if you let your membership lapse on Ancestry or one of its competitors, you won’t have to pay again to review the information.
If you plan to download them from Ancestry, make sure you follow the following quick trick for the best results. Ancestry tends to give high-contrast “enhanced images.” Make no mistake, there is nothing “enhanced” about them.
On the left, you’ll notice that the enhanced image is washed out, and lighter details are missing. On the right, you’ll see the original photograph or scan. To keep the image from washing out, avoid using the “save to this computer” menu. You’ll want to download through the tools menu.
Using the menu below results in inferior image quality.
Using the tools menu will allow you to save exactly what you see. This option is preferred.
Save all of your speculative research, too
Those people you aren’t sure whether or not they’re related… save them too! Make a separate folder for these and follow the same steps to keep it organized. If you’re into tracing your DNA matches, I highly recommend staying organized as well.
Don’t bank on records staying online
While it might feel convenient at the time, don’t bank on anything you find staying online. I can’t count the number of resources I bookmarked that are no longer on the web. If you at least have the URL, you can try to see if the Internet Archive Wayback Machine has a copy. Note that any databases that relied on search queries will not function. Save everything you find. It might seem obsessive now, but trust me–you don’t want to lose that valuable information later. Every clue builds a fuller picture of your family.
If you can’t save it, screenshot it
Off the top of my head, Archion and Google Books come to mind. When you can’t click a download button, you can at least preserve it as an image file. If you don’t know how to do it natively on your PC, I recommend installing Lightshot. You’ll also find this useful for saving maps with estimated distances from Google Maps.
The younger generation tends to screenshot everything. However, if an original record exists–opt for that one instead. Originals are always of a higher quality than screenshots.
Back up your work routinely
Don’t let all your hard work and time go to waste! Buy a back-up hard drive, flash drive, burn it to a CD, save it to the cloud, or do a combination of these. In addition to genealogy, I’m a computer pro. Do you know how many different things could go wrong with your system?
- Your hard drive could die. Cost to recover data: somewhere in the ballpark of $2,000.
- An update could kill your operating system and make all data inaccessible.
- Ransomware could lock you out of your computer and encrypt your files so you can’t access them, even with a different device.
- Laptop? On-the-go? Your device could be dropped, stolen, left in a hot car to melt…
- Computer at home? Insurance might cover fires or flooding but it won’t bring your data back. It also won’t help you if your cat decides to use your precariously placed device as a spring-launch device.
- Power surge with a faulty outlet or power supply. Dead.
Creating routine back-ups can help mitigate disaster unless an EMP is dropped. In the event of an EMP blast, you can always store your devices in something that will act as a Faraday cage.
Learn from my failures on these. Some have happened to me. Others are sure possibilities I dread. While I’ve been able to finagle my way out of a number of them with my technical skills. Your mileage will vary.
Keep your files organized and backed up. You won’t regret it later.