A sample genealogy folder hierarchy

Genealogy Folder Organization: The B&F System

[This organization system works great on my Mac, in my opinion, but may not work well when using the Windows operating system, which apparently has restrictions on the total length of the file path (path from disk through all the folders and subfolders, plus the file name) that would limit the number of sub-folders you could use. It’s possible to fix this in Windows 10, but I don’t want to recommend something beyond the capabilities of most users.]

When doing genealogy research one tends to collect a lot of documents and photos. There are birth certificate, census records, naturalization papers, passenger manifests, marriage records, death certificates, etc. Keeping track of everything can be a daunting task.

To make matters worse, most genealogy programs will not manage your files themselves. Even if they could, you wouldn’t necessarily want your genealogy program to manage everything, because you might one day want to switch programs, and you don’t want to lock your files into one program. As such, most genealogy programs will link to documents elsewhere on your hard drive. If you organize them well, it’s easy to find them and link them. What happens when you move files around though? That can cause big problems for genealogy programs that are expecting to find a file in a particular location. Different programs deal with this issue in different ways – some will show you which files are missing, some will help you find the files, etc. but in general you want to minimize such issues by putting your files in a place that will not change very often.

I’ve come up with a system for organizing my files that seems to work pretty well for me. It helps me find things quickly, lets me add new folders for new branches of the family without moving other folders and it is flexible enough for me to mix it up a bit if I need to for different situations.

I start with a main folder for my genealogy documents. Let’s call that Genealogy. You want to put that someplace where you know it will not move. I keep it in my Documents folder (on Windows that would be your My Documents directory).

Inside the Genealogy folders called Surnames, Photos, and Documents. In Surnames I create folders with the surnames of each of my great-grandparents, so eight folders in all.

Photos and Documents are not just to dump all my photos and documents, but are special folders where I keep large collections of photos and documents that are not associated with one person. Thus if I scan a hundred photos from a cousin that covered a large portion of my family, I would put those in a folder under Photos. If I retrieve a large batch of vital records from an archive in Poland, I create a folder for those in the Documents folder. In some situations it’s very helpful to keep these kind of collections together in individual folders not attached to one family.

Back to the Surnames folder. So there are eight surnames each with their own folder. You can of course choose to add more surnames. You might want to add a spouse’s surname, either your own or one of your siblings. In the picture below you can see the folder structure I’m describing, and each surname folder is labeled FFF (for Father’s Father’s Father’s) Surname, FFM (Father’s Father’s Mother’s) Surname, etc. Within each of these folders, I again put Documents and Pictures folders and I add one more called Mysteries. Mysteries is for records you find of people that you think are related, but you haven’t found a connection to yet. I just create sub-folders in there with different leads I’m following on different people, so I have a place to keep research that is not linked to my family tree yet.

This is where I do something that might seem confusing, but I then add a folder which is for the oldest known ancestor with that surname (in the diagram I call him/her OAFFF – Oldest Ancestor of Father’s Father’s Father). Within that folder I add folders for each child, and within each of those folders their children, etc. Within each person’s folder I also add a Documents and Photos folder, although with each person I can change my mind on how to organize the folder. With some people I might have a lot of newspaper clippings so that might deserve it’s own folder called Newspapers, and in some folders I might only have a single photo so I might forgo the sub-folders altogether (except for the children’s folders obviously).

A sample genealogy folder hierarchy
A sample genealogy folder hierarchy

Keep in mind that the advantage of this system is that whenever you discover a new child or a new sibling of someone in your tree, you can add them to the folder hierarchy without having to move any other folder. The only time you will need to move a folder is if you discover a relative that is from an earlier generation than your current oldest ancestor. Hopefully you do find new oldest ancestors all the time, but in the scheme of things, it doesn’t happen so often that this should be a major problem.

I usually label a folder that represents the child with that child’s full name and all the name of their spouse. If the child was born Jane Doe and married John Deer, then the folder would be named:

Jane Doe & John Deer

I always put the name of the child first and the spouse second. Of course when there are multiple marriages this can be complicated. In some cases (even without mutliple marriages) I will only name a folder with the person’s name, and then create a sub-folder for the spouse (or more than one folder if there is more than one spouse).

You might be asking, why do you start with the oldest ancestor and work your way down? Why not start with the current generation and work your way up? That would eliminate the need to move folders once you find a new oldest ancestor. The problem is that what happens when you want to add siblings? If I add a folder for myself, and then underneath it I put folders for each of my parents, where do the siblings go? Also, for each generation that I go up I’m splitting surnames. When I move down everyone is a descendant of a single surname. It only works when you’re moving down, which is why you need to start at the top.

There’s probably more to say on this topic, but I’ll stop here for now. I welcome comments on this system, explanations of your own folder organization systems, etc. in the comments.

9 thoughts on “Genealogy Folder Organization: The B&F System

  1. Folder Organization

    Thank you for the timely description of your folder organization, timely because I am sketching a plan of my own.

    How do you handle the situations where an ancestor is a descendant of two or more of the “Oldest Ancestors”?

    QUOTE: The only time you will need to move a folder is if you discover a relative that is from an earlier generation than your current oldest ancestor.
    It seems that when you find a new “oldest ancestor” and you move a folder, you would also have to relabel embedded folders of descendants. For example, would the original “Child 1 of OAFFF (C1OAFFF)” now become “Child 1 of C1OAFFF”?

    When the oldest ancestor is 12 or 14 generations back, what does the folder name of one’s great-great-grandparents look like?

  2. A very good question. No system is perfect, for the reasons mentioned in the article, but this is definitely a problem with any folder organization system. There is always going to be places where there is duplication or overlap.

    This is one of the reasons I choose to only use 8 primary surname folders. Some people create many more than that with folders for every surname, but I find that hard to handle and very difficult to navigate.

    I find it easier to get my head around 8 surnames, and thus when researching family members I have an idea which folder each name is associated with. Sometimes if necessary I will create another surname folder within one of the 8 surname folders, so I can work on information specific to that surname, while not messing up my general layout.

    When there is a family that could be listed under two surnames (and obviously you yourself could be listed under all 8 surnames, so this does become an issue) I usually just choose the father’s surname to put the family under. Sexist I know, but it seems to work.

    I didn’t fully explain this in the article, but there should be several goals of a folder organization system:

    – to keep files from the same person together
    – to stay static so links to the files are not broken
    – to make it easy to see what files are associated with a particular person

    The first two are well covered in the article. The third has to do with your question, and I think the answer is that if your file hierarchy is sufficiently large, you may need to use some searching on your hard drive to find some folders. That said, however, I generally haven’t needed to do that since I usually remember which folder I placed a family that could be in more than one. Staying consistent with always choosing the father’s line (or always choosing the mother’s line) helps in this regard.

  3. I have an extra level to my hierarchy because I am documenting 3 different trees in an effort to try to tie them together.

    I found it frustrating to try to tie any document to a single person.

    What do you do with manifests, census forms, or any documentation that mentions someone in an auxiliary way? Instead of creating duplicate copies for each referenced person, I create a master copy. Each person references the master copy, differing by the line number, if possible.

    Also, I have different directories for collected and referenced documents so that I know if a given document has yet been incorporated into my tree.

  4. As with any system of this type, you need to adapt it to your own needs. I agree that it is sometimes difficult to attribute a document to one person, but depending on the situation I either choose one person or couple, or I move it up the hierarchy. If it’s really general, I put it in the Documents folder for the surname. I’m planning on writing a follow-up to this article that will go over some of the issues raised in the comments.

    With things like census records and the like, I generally file it under the head of household.

    The genealogy program program I use does not have the best support for documents (in my opinion) and I thus don’t make as big of distinction as you do as to what I’ve referenced in my tree. As I collect documents, whether vital records, census records, newspaper articles, etc. I add them to my folder hierarchy. The beauty of this system is that as I find documents for new people, it’s easy to figure out where they should go. In a very basic sense, my folder hierarchy is a duplicate of my tree, but only with documents and photos.

  5. Hi, I do something like what you have but you have gotten it too specific in some areas. I have found that you need to keep more generalized. Here is what I do

    Each of these are the surnames of MY ancestors. Inside of these I list each document, picture like
    PICTURE–LEVERICH, Carolyn(she married into the Atkinson line, so she is here.
    1880 US Fed Census–ATKINSON, place
    1900 US Fed Census–LEVERICH, place
    DOCUMENT–ATKINSON, description
    DOCUMENT–LEVERICH, description

    This is done with every type of description of all the research. When I find a female child, sibling etc has married, I make a file in this same ATKINSON folder for that new surname, SMITH, and then the new research names with SMITH go into that, but this stays in the ATKINSON folder.

    The way you have yours, you only havce 8 folders, but others who have many more surnames, the way I do it is Much easier. I used to do it the way you have it, but it became cumbersome and so I had to redo everything.

    Another way I used to do it years ago is go alphabetically, with AAAA as a file, BBBB as a file, CCCC as a file, but that became too much also.

    Hope this helps.

  6. Carolyn,

    I’m not clear from your post exactly what you are doing. When you say:


    is that a folder with pictures of John Atkinson?

    Where does information on John’s parent’s go? his children?

    The reason I use the system I do is that I can follow it to find a specific person in the tree. If it’s an area of the tree I don’t know as well, I will even use my family tree application to help me move through the folders until I get to the point where the files on the specific person I’m looking for is located.

    As for only having eight surnames, that’s not really true. I have many more than eight, but there are only the eight surnames of my great-grandparents to start out. This keeps things simple. If I listed 50 surnames in the their own folders, I would have no idea how people connected to each other. It also would confuse people who are not related who happen to have the same surname, which certainly happens.

    Other surnames are grouped within those eight. So if I have surnames that are related through one of those eight branches, they will show up in the folder where they connect. The reason this works is that you can create more than one ‘oldest ancestor’ folder in each surname folder. Thus, when you go into a surname folder, there can be several ‘oldest ancestor’ folders with different surnames, based on the oldest ancestors of your great-grandparents.

    I’ve been meaning to update this posting for awhile, but have been too busy. Hopefully I’ll get around to writing a new version of my organization system that explains everything brought up in these comments.

    All the best,


  7. I’m an IT guy who has just started to document my family tree, and i was trying to come up with a folder structure. (What we really need is a database, but that’s another issue.) Your structure is different from most others in one important way – you classify the generations. I think that’s very important. For example, my family has a string of fathers and sons named Joseph, David, Joseph, David, etc. without a generation notation, I could easily get lost locating the right Joseph or David. The only difficulty I see is limiting ourselves to 8 surnames. I think that I am going to start with 16. At least that will get me back to the European ancestors in all cases.

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