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Your own Personal Archive

The Paper v Digital Debate

As a Genealogist the issue of storage is an ongoing one!

This is the time of year when we have more time to go through our storage, and, of course, make resolutions to start a new organised habit of storing our data and records for the New Year!

Traditionally a genealogist dealt with historic or family documents in paper format but with more and more information databases becoming available online there needs to be a structure to downloading and saving documents as well as paper.


I attended a talk recently in Dublin on personal digital archiving, and it got me thinking about my own practices.

It goes without saying that if you are researching your family history you will have amassed a sizeable collection of both hard copy and digital copies of documents and photographs. So what do you do? How do you future-proof your important records?

Get into the habit of good archiving practice

Now, a lot of what I’m covering in this topic is relevant to any personal archives, not just genealogy research. In our personal lives we accumulate a large volume of records. We start with our own vital records (birth, marriage, medical records) and then there are bank and utilities statements (though more and more companies encourage you to create an online account to view e-statements), vehicle purchase and insurance documentation, photo albums, video tapes or photos on memory cards, and in my case, the last letter from my mother before she died, which at the time was short, with just the usual enquiry as to how I was getting on, and when was I visiting again. Little did I know that it would become more significant when she died shortly after, and my next visit home was to her death bed. I’ve now scanned the letter.

Some digital organizing hacks

First of all, you need to catagorize and organize the material – this is very much a personal system that you will need to put in place from the start. At the same time, if you are naming files or folders you need to use a system or code that is easily identifiable by others and makes sense.

Some tips I was given at the talk were to use the recognized standard for dates i.e. yyyy/mm/dd and if saving a file or electronic document drafts use v.1, v.2 if you need to keep different versions. Don’t use spaces, be consistent and use underscore or dashes so it will be easier to search. Photos on camera cards or phones often have a tag or date created automatically but later if you are looking for a particular event it can  be difficult if you don’t remember the date or year. I usually create a folder on an external hard-drive or flash drive with the event or holiday location i.e. ‘Sarahs Wedding’ or ‘San Francisco’.mr-cup-fabien-barral-o6GEPQXnqMY-unsplash

When I am commissioned by a client the first thing I do is create a digital file in the family name, then I set up sub-folders i.e. ‘Census’, ‘BMD’ (births, marriages, deaths), ‘research’ (this folder may be further subdivided into ‘my research’ or ‘info provided by client’), there may be specific research on the occupations of ancestors such as army, police, etc that I might separate as well. If I am looking at two family lines such as both parents of my client I would keep both separate with the same headings.

I also create a hard-copy file for any documents that I obtained that weren’t sourced online i.e. Birth certificates or any document provided by my client which I then scan to save with the other digital records. Sometimes my clients request a hard copy of my research as a gift therefore I need to save it in both formats.

Digital Declutter

For good practice, you should develop a system that you follow for every item you want to save and store. Create a list or inventory of what you currently have and the categories or types of documentation or formats. Are you saving on different devices? Do you actually need to keep it or should there be a time limit? Streamline your storage to a few back-up devices. do you need frequent access or can it be saved on an external hard-drive? There are a number of cloud storage sites some of which offer a free but limited volume capacity , so why pay if its not something you’re going to access or use often.


There’s a psychology behind the build-up of paper and how it can cause stress and a visual reminder of being behind, not on top of things.  ‘A tidy desk is a tidy mind’! Equally, a collection of digital files that are not stored in any organised way, can be time-consuming wading through them, opening and closing files, and panicking that you might have lost a vital document all because it was miss-filed or without a category. So, we need an easy filing system that allows for easy retrieval.

Securing your records – what if there’s a fire!

There are many types of security to consider when looking at personal archiving. The obvious one is whether it contains confidential personal information. These files should be password protected or saved in more than one secure location.

The other more pressing type of security is whether the storage device is likely to become obsolete. Who remembers floppy disks? Flash drives and CD roms will come to the end of their life at some stage soon. Cloud storage companies may go out of business, using an old format or old PC or laptop with an old operating system that might not recognise the external device or file format. Scary!


I had a conversation one time with a retired policeman turned genealogist who raised issues I hadn’t thought of such as what if there was a fire or burglary in your house! He suggested that you keep a copy or storage device in your workplace or car. I knocked an external hard-drive off a table once and couldn’t recover the content which left me feeling sick as it contained photos of my son over a 3 year period when he started secondary school, his confirmation photos and holidays. However, I asked friends if they had any photos of him, checked attachments in emails, and managed to gather a few special photos.

It was a hard lesson to learn and now I’m more careful, never leaving my laptop unattended with an external storage device plugged in, removing hard-drives, and backing up copies on other devices as I go.

Don’t forget the password!

Hand-in-hand with storage and security is the issue of using a password. Human nature being what it is, we can forget a password and fall into the habit of using the same one for all accounts. Don’t!

We sign up for e-newsletters, have online accounts, all of which means creating a password. There are apps that can help you create and store passwords, or you can use your own method, but don’t use the obvious ones such as your date of birth, children’s names or home address. Believe it or not, people still do!

Some sites create a password for you with a combination of letters, numbers and special characters such as !~%, but with so many to retain, these should only be used for creating the account and then changed to a more memorable one but still inserting some characters such as ‘zero’ for ‘oh’.

A little note on notes

As a genealogist I am constantly coming across websites that might be useful in the future, new database sites, or need to keep track of the sites I like or use a lot. I used to just save the link in an email and then create a folder within my email but there are better and more user-friendly options. There are a number of apps, some free, such as Evernote, Keep or OneNote, that allow you to create notes, notebooks, web clippings, folder and categories, like a digital library, which are easily searchable and can be accessed across devices on the go – ideal for genealogy site visits or showing the family at a get-together.



(photos credit: Unsplash free images and personal photos)


I’m not saying I’m perfect, and my son will laugh when h sees the theme of this post, but there’s a sense of satisfaction and relief when you know where to find your personal or business data, and the pay-off is you’ll start off the year motivated to continue which releases more time to be productive! Baby steps!

If you have any tips or  a system that works for you, let us know in a comment.

Bye for now,


Website: Hibernia Roots

Facebook:  Hiberniaroots

Instagram:  nhiberniaroots

Twitter: hiberniaroots


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