How to Take Charge of Your Family History Research

Deep down, all of us long to know where we came from. We want to understand our roots, see our ancestors’ faces in photos, learn their names and stories.

Along the way, we even uncover funny details that make our families unique. Erma Bombeck once wrote, “I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.”

You can’t lose a detail like that! We want to make sure we relish and archive as much of our history as possible.

Perhaps you’re a budding genealogist, just beginning your research – or maybe you’ve been looking into your family history for some time, and you find yourself with a growing, unorganized, genealogy collection.

Either way, we’ve got some tips in this post that will help you sort through the confusion growing inside the tangled branches of your family tree.

Start the Family Roll Call by Listing Everyone’s Names

Keeping track of family names can be as confusing as a game of “Who’s On First?” But the initial step to organizing your family history is to list every name you have.

Start with yourself, then add every family member’s name to a family tree or chart that branches out, down, and up!

Try creating a DIY family tree on paper, or create an electronic one using a program like Microsoft Word with these helpful step-by-step instructions.

If you prefer using an online program, we recommend downloading Family Tree Maker. The software costs $80, with no ongoing subscription fees. It’s easy to use, and comes with hints to find family members.

Most genealogists advise citing each source of a name you’ve found. This keeps you from having to look for names again, and ensures that a family member wasn’t created out of thin air.

We suggest creating a “source” column in the document where you list names. If you know the information personally, enter yourself as the source. Otherwise, always make a note of how you know what you know.

For example, if your mother told you about the event (like her marriage, or your birth), cite her as the source. Or, if you found a relative on a birth record, cite that image file as the source.

Follow these best practices when listing names:

  • Enter women using their maiden names. If you don’t know their maiden names, enter only their first names.
  • Avoid using nicknames (e.g. “Grandpa” and “Grandma”) because they confuse other generations about that person’s place in the family tree.
  • Leave off prefixes like Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., Dr., Rev., etc., but put that information in a note field instead.
  • Enter suffixes like Jr., Sr., III, etc., with the name.

Finally, remember that finding family members is a discovery process. You’ll most likely be adding more names to your document along the way.

Use Photos and Memorabilia to Connect Family Members

Many family history buffs get hooked on genealogy because they’ve inherited a collection of old family photographs.

As you work with your photo collection:

  • Be sure to look at what’s already written on the photos, and use those clues to match up with your list/family tree.
  • Write the names and dates you know on the back of each photo, using an archival, photo-safe pen or pencil.
  • Scan old photos to create a digital copy, and be sure to scan the back as well, so you have a record of what’s written there.

Family Heritage Photo Example- Front

Family Heritage Photo Example - Back

Here’s a helpful post on how to identify photos without labels (and identify the approximate time a photo was taken) if you come across photos with unrecognizable faces.

Research Resources to Fill In the Blanks

As you identify your photos and flesh out your family tree, think about other people who might be able to provide (or find) information for you.

You might start with contacting other family members or distant relatives who may be able to identify faces in photos, or may know details about a certain branch of your family tree.

Online search finds can be invaluable, but we suggest you double check your facts. Some historical documents contain errors. For example, older census documents aren’t always reliable. Census takers used to go door-to-door, interviewing whoever was at home. Sometimes the information was second-hand, or names, addresses, and birthdates were recorded inaccurately or illegibly.

We often look to shared family trees on sites like, but it’s a good idea to double check those, too. Many of these trees contain people’s best guesses at family information.

With so many online search options, we tend to forget about the local library! A resource librarian can lead you to even more resources, books, and microfilm documents (e.g. old city phone directories) to help you find accurate family history information.

Systematically Organize Your Findings

Creating order with family history, photos, and memorabilia relieves stress. But it also motivates you to keep searching, and to share your family story later.

When we help our clients organize their family history photos and memorabilia, we set up folders (by family surname, and then by decades). Within the folders, we rename image files using the exact date, if we know it. Sometimes we have to do a little detective work to find out names and dates. We get most of our information from what is written on the backs of the photos.

Family History File Structure Example
This example illustrates how we name folders and individual image files within a folder.

We found some additional great organization ideas in this downloadable eBook from Family Tree Magazine. Some of their ideas include:

  • Setting up a filing system by Surname or Couple.
  • Using color-coded archival folders and labels to store physical memorabilia and photos.
  • Creating an electronic organization system setting up folders (by Surname or Couple) and sub-folders in your Documents. Each sub-folder contains electronic files such as images of birth, death and marriage records, census documents, or even newspaper clippings.
  • Using a numbering system (e.g. oldest family member is #1, spouse is #1A; children listed in birth order #1a, #2a, etc.; next eldest sibling is #2, spouse is #2A, etc.).

When naming files, whether paper file folders or electronic files, be consistent and make your information searchable and easy to work with by creating an Index or Table of Contents of your items.

There’s no right or wrong way to organize this information. Use a system that is most comfortable to you, but remember to back up all of your information to protect it from a tragedy like your computer crashing, or damage or loss of boxes of files.

Don’t Let Dust Collect on Your Organized Family History

It’s a big job to research and organize your family history. When you think you might be finished, it’s going to be tempting to pack it away and rest for a while.

But we hope you’ll find ways to share the story of your family!

You can publish your family trees and privately share them with relatives. create a family history album with our tips here, or consider publishing a book recounting  your family story.

Our ties to the past provide a rich and flavorful connection to the present – one we don’t want to lose or forget.

Here at Picture This Organized, we love family stories. Let us know if we can help you scan and organize your family photos and memorabilia. We’re also available to help you create a shareable family history project.     

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.