Genealogists are notorious for accumulating piles of “stuff.” Some researchers’ dining-room tables are so thick with pedigree charts, old family pictures and photocopied Bible records that their spouses abandoned the idea of actually eating there a long rime ago. Others stash mountains of genealogical documents on their desks or to be precise, where the desks used to be; no one’s seen them in years.
Fortunately for our families (and for our trees), we no longer gather so much paper. But we haven’t abandoned our pack-rat ways. Now we collect computer files census images, scanned pictures, digitized books, GEDCOM files and e-mail messages. Just as our paper files threaten to bury us, our computer files clutter our hard drives. A word processing document lost in the morass of bits and bytes could just as well be a letter hiding in one of those towering stacks of paper.
Maybe you’ve resolved that this will be the year you finally get those files organized. So before you tackle spring cleaning around your home, why not do some housekeeping on your computer? We’ll sweep through six steps you can take to organize your computer files, from decluttering your hard drive to arranging your e-mail messages. You’ll even learn how to join the ranks of the super-organized by cataloging your files electronically.
And with these pointers, it will be far less scary than clearing off that dining-room table (we promise!).
Housekeeping Chore #1: Organize your hard drive.
If you’ve ever wasted time searching for a lost word processing document or image file, you know how unnerving it can be. But if you develop an organizational system you can stick with, you’ll save time in the long run and spare yourself frustration. All it takes is a little effort now:
? Give your data files meaningful names. Whenever you save an electronic file, such as a word processing document, image or GEDCOM, give it a meaningful name. That’s a challenge if your computer has an older operating system that supports file names no longer than eight characters. One possible solution: If you have files named Jones 1.jpg and Hooper.ged, you might create corresponding text files with descriptions using a word processor, Windows Notepad or Word-Pad. So Jones 1.txt could say, “Photograph of Evan Jones, taken about 1870 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma,” and Hooper.txt could say, “GEDCOM file with information on the descendants of Seth Hooper (1771 -1863) of Pittsfield, Otsego County, New York.” Or include a longer description in a catalog of your files (see chore 6).
Macintosh and more-recent Windows operating systems allow at least 30 characters, but that still doesn’t leave room for much detail. So be sure to save a full description somewhere for quick reference.
A file name in Windows XP can have up to 255 characters, enough space to briefly describe the file. You might use a name such as Samuel_Jones_home_Chicago_l 883.jpg for an image file or John_Smith_born_l 856_descendants.ged for a GEDCOM file.
Long file names don’t always give you enough space to adequately identify a file, so Windows XP lets you attach descriptive information to a Microsoft Word file and many types of image files. Open the folder where you saved the file, right-click on the file name and click Properties, then the Summary tab. You can type information in several fields: Title, Subject, Author, Category, Keywords and Comments. The Category field could hold the name of the online service or Web site where you found the file. You also might enter surnames or place names in the Keywords field.
? Group your files by surname. When you save a file, your software will suggest a folder to hold it. If you accept the default folder, your files will probably be organized by data type, with all your word processing documents in one folder, your photos in another and your genealogy data in yet another.
Instead of organizing your files by type, it’s usually more useful to arrange them by subject. You might put your genealogy-related files in surname folders. All files relating to the Jones family, whether they’re word processing documents, image files or GEDCOM files, can go in a folder called Jones or Jones Family. Once a folder has a lot of files, say 10 or 20, you can move them to subfolders. There, you can organize your files by format, such as Word documents, photos and GEDCOMs; or by place, with names such as Scotland, NC, or Illinois Cook County.
Anytime the number of files in a folder becomes unmanageable, rearrange the files in separate folders. Within the My Documents folder on my computer, I have a folder called Surnames, which in turn has separate folders from Adams to White. My Hall folder has subfolders for topics such as the Civil War and GEDCOM files, and places such as Cass County, Minn. and Allegany County, NY.
Since I have so many files relating to Allegany County, I created subfolders for record types cemetery, census and county histories within my NY Allegany Co folder. The Cemetery folder has gravestone transcriptions from the USGenWeb Project, the Census folder has images of census records from Ancestry.com, and the County Histories folder has page images of county histories downloaded from Genealogy.com’s Family and Local Histories subscriprion. While I may have to click through several levels of folders to find a file, it’s better than wasting time in a frustrating attempt to locate a file that wasn’t stored in a logical place.
? Coordinate your electronic and paper filing systems. Storing records as electronic files on your computer saves paper and space, but the paperless office remains an elusive dream for most of us. You’ll still accumulate written notes, photocopied documents and even the occasional letter delivered by snail mail. And sometimes you’ll want to print documents that you have in electronic form.
You need a system for organizing paper files, too. In Organizing Your Family History Research (Betterway Books), Sharon DeBartolo Carmaek suggests filing documents by surname, by surname and locality, by surname and record type, or by couples or family groups. Those methods closely resemble my system of computer folders for surnames and subfolders for record types and localities. Whichever system you choose, try to keep your hard drive filing system consistent with your paper filing methods then you have only one system to remember.
Housekeeping Chore #2: Organize your e-mail messages.
E-mail makes communicating with other genealogists easier than ever, but keeping up with electronic correspondence is a major challenge. Take advantage of your e-mail software’s features, and the job will be a little easier.
? Put your messages in folders. Keeping all your incoming messages in your Inbox (and all the messages you’ve written in your Sent folder) can make it hard to locate an e-mail when you need it. Instead, group related e-mail messages in folders. You might create a Surnames folder with subfolders for specific names; a Places folder with subfolders for counties, states or countries; and a Genealogy folder with subfolders for general genealogy mailing lists and newsletters. Again, use an e-mail filing method that corresponds to the system you set up on your hard drive so you can remember it easily.
? Give your messages descriptive subjects. Whenever you create a message, make the subject line specific. If you’re writing about a family, you might include a surname and place, such as “Hall family of Pittsfield, Otsego County, New York.” That will make it easy for you to identify a message’s content at a glance and to file sent messages in the appropriate surname folders. (Hint: In the Outlook Macintosh version, you also can rename messages that you receive just click a message once to select it, then go to Properties under the File menu. The message title will appear in the resulting dialog box; simply type over the text to edit it, and click OK, Now you’re no longer stuck with a dozen vaguely titled “Robinson family” messages from your sixth cousin.)
? Flag messages. Most e-mail software including Web-based mail services such as Yahoo! Mail <maiI.yahoo.com> and Hotmail <www.hotmail.com> lets you highlight important messages. Click in the flag column preceding a message listing in Outlook Express, and a red flag appears. In Outlook, each message’s toolbar contains a flag button. Netscape Messenger lets you not only flag a message, but also color-code it. You could use-colors to identify messages concerning different branches of your family.
Housekeeping Chore #3: Organize your Web Favorites or Bookmarks.
Keeping Web Favorites in order takes real commitment. As you surf the Web, you constantly add promising genealogy sites to your Favorites list. They might prove useful later if you can find them when you need them.
Your Web browser has tools to organize those links. Just as you arrange genealogy-related word processing documents and images in surname folders, it’s also useful to arrange your Web Favorites by surname.
? Internet Explorer: To add a new Web site to your Favorites, visit the site and select Add to Favorites front the Favorites menu. Accept the default name for the Favorite or type in one that will be more meaningful to you. Since you can list Favorites alphabetically, leave off initial articles such as a, an and the,
Then select a folder or create a new one. Make folders for whatever topics you need, organizing them logically so you can quickly find any Favorite. You might make a folder called Surnames or Genealogy, highlight it and create subfolders within it for individual surnames. You also could create a Places folder with subfolders for countries, states or counties (England; Pennsylvania; Bradford County, Pa.). Other folders might cover historical events, maps, ethnic groups, search sites, book dealers and translation services, Finally, select the folder where you want to save the current Favorite and click on OK.
If you haven’t been keeping your Favorites well-organized, go back and put them in order. Select Organize Favorites from the Favorites menu to create or rename a folder, and to move or delete folders and Favorites (or right-click an item and pick one of those options from the pop-up menu). You can drag folders and Favorites with your mouse, too.
On a Macintosh, Internet Explorer saves Favorites in one big list. Go into Organize Favorites to sort the links into folders.
Favorites aren’t alphabetized automatically. Windows users can right-click on a Favorite or folder and select Sort by Name to sort them. Mac users can simply click the Name or Address column heading in the Organize Favorites window to son the links by those categories.
? Netscape Navigator: To “Bookmark” a Web site Netscape’s version of Favorites visit the site and select File Bookmark from the Bookmarks menu. Use the default name for the Bookmark or enter a more meaningful name. Then select a folder or click on New Folder to create one.
While it may be less popular than Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigaror has a more sophisticated way to manage Bookmarks. Select Manage Bookmarks from the Bookmarks menu, highlight a Bookmark, and click Properties to add keywords and a description. You might enter surnames or place names as keywords for genealogy sites. Then click OK.
To move a Bookmark to a different folder, select Manage Bookmarks from the Bookmarks menu. Drag the Bookmark with the mouse or highlight it, click File Bookmark, select a folder and click OK. Use the View menu to sort Bookmarks by name, location, description or keyword. Search them by selecting Search Bookmarks from the Tools menu,
? America Online (AOL): Like Internet Explorer, AOL uses Favorites. All you have to do is click the heart icon to add a Web site to your list. You can rearrange the sites, too just click the Organize link in the Favorites section to access options for creating new folders and moving links around.
You can save Web pages for viewing offline with Netscape Navigator, too. Go to the Web site and select Save Page As from the File menu. Choose a folder and accept the default file name, or enter a more meaningful one. Select “Web Page, Complete” as the file type, and click on the Save button. Now you can view the file offline in Navigator either by double-clicking on the file or by selecting Open File from Navigator’s File menu.
Housekeeping Chore #4: Organize your image files.
Managing a large collection of digitized photographs, census records or other image files requires special tools. Once you’ve scanned a hunch of old family photos and documents or snapped scads of pictures with your digital camera, photo management software will help you organize, edit and share the images.
? Adobe Photoshop Album: The makers of Photoshop, the image-editing software for professionals, and Photoshop Elements, the consumer version, introduced Photoshop Album as an electronic picture organizer. The program imports images from your hard drive, scanner and digital camera. Then you can tag photos and easily search them by date, place or topic to find a specific picture. The program also lets you do simple photo editing and share pictures by e-mail or as a slide show, album, video or calendar.
Photoshop Album requires Windows Millennium Edition or newer, 128MB RAM and 250MB hard disk space. The software costs $49.99 at <www.adobe.com>, or download the limited-feature Starter Edition for free.
? Paint Shop Photo Album: This program combines the key photo-editing functions of Jasc Paint Shop Pro with tools for organizing and sharing your digital images. You can sort photographs into albums, add keywords to albums and images, and use a powerful search function to find all the images that match your criteria. Then, you can share your pictures with friends and relatives in print, on CD-ROM, on the Web or via e-mail.
Paint Shop Photo Album costs $45 to download from <www.jasc.com> or $49 on CD. You’ll need Windows 98 or higher, 64MB RAM and 120MB hard disk space.
? Picasa: This program scans your hard drive for images and arranges them into albums. You can view images as thumbnails, a slide show or a timeline. Once you’ve assigned keywords to images, it’s easy to find specific pictures using the search feature. Picasa also has a few basic photo-editing tools, including adding borders, cropping, rotating and removing red eye.
Download the $29,99 full version from <www.lifescapeinc.com/picasa>. For the boxed version, add $4.50 for shipping. Picasa runs on Windows 98 or higher and requires 64MB RAM and 50MB hard disk space. (Note: This software is now a free download from Google at <picasa.google.com>.
Housekeeping Chore #5: Back up your files.
You never know when a hard drive failure, virus or lightning strike might wipe out your computer data. That’s why it’s important to create backup copies of your files regularly. (You don’t need to back up program files; you can reinstall software from the original program discs.) Keep at least two copies of backup disks, in case one doesn’t work. To be extra safe, store one in a different location at the office or a relative’s house, for example.
You should make backups whenever you have new data that you wouldn’t want to reenter. That could be every week or every day. If you’ve just spent hours entering data in your genealogy software and don’t want to do it all over again, it’s time to make a backup.
? Genealogy files: Most genealogy software makes it easy to back up your data to 3,5-inch floppy disks. If you keep separate family files for different branches of your family, you’ll need to back up each file separately. In Family Tree Maker, Personal Ancestral File, Roots-Magic or Legacy Family Tree, just open a family file and select Backup from the File menu.
Family Tree Maker backups include multimedia. In Legacy Family Tree, select Backup Multimedia Files to include your pictures and sound or video clips. Keep in mind that most other genealogy software’s backup routine covers only your data, not your multimedia files. You’ll have to save them separately.
You can back up a Family Tree Legends file manually, but the program’s handy Real-Time Internet Backup feature automatically backs up your data files on secure servers when you connect to the Internet.
If your computer has a CD-RW drive, use CD-Recordable discs instead of 3.5-inch floppies they’re inexpensive and hold 650MB of data (compared to 1.44MB). Family Tree Maker version 11 lets you back up a family file directly to a CD-R, so you won’t have to use multiple 1.44MB disks.
? E-mail, Favorites and other data files: Don’t forget to back up your other data files, including word processing documents, e-mail messages and image files, too. Make a list of all the files you need to back up and their locations on your hard drive.
Windows automatically stores Internet files in specific places on your hard drive. For example. Outlook Express e-mail messages go in a file with the extension .dbx, and Outlook messages are saved in a file with the extension .pst. Netscape messages are saved in C:\Program Files\Netscape\Users\your nameVMail. Netscape Bookmarks are saved in C:\Program Files\Netscape\Users\your name\bookmark.htm. Internet Explorer Favorites arc stored as individual files in the C;\Windows\Favorites or C:\Documents and Settings\User Name\Favorites directory.
To make your backed-up e-mails easy to find, you also can manually save offline copies. In Outlook and Outlook Express, all you have to do is drag and drop a message onto your desktop, then file that copy on your hard drive or disk, or burn it to a CD.
Web-based e-mail won’t save the message file, but you can save the contents: Use an option such as Yahoo!’s Save Message Text, which displays only the message content in your browser window. You then can save a copy of that Web page (see chore 3), or copy and paste the text into a word processing file.
Since you’ve already stashed your other data files in a tidy system of folders and sub-folders (rather than scattered across your hard drive), backing up everything else will be simple because you won’t have to hunt for files.
Housekeeping Chore #6: Catalog your files.
If you arrange your computer files logically in folders for surnames, places and other topics, you should have no trouble finding a file. Still, you might want to create a catalog or index that shows file information and locations at a glance. This also will help you track bits and bytes that don’t reside on your hard drive, including backups and files on CD-ROM.
If you’re comfortable using them, database and spreadsheet programs are ideal for cataloging files. Database software such as Microsoft Access has tools for recording and sorting data and creating reports. Spreadsheet software such as Microsoft Excel is best for number crunching, but you can use it to create a catalog, too. Excel lets you sort data by any row or column, so you could easily find every file relating to Nashua, NH, for example, or all your 19th-century photos.
For an even easier, yet surprisingly effective too! to catalog your electronic files, turn to your word processor. You can customize a table in a Microsoft Word document for just about any cataloging project. To create a table, select Insert Table from the Table menu, or click on the Insert Table icon on the toolbar. Then specify the number of columns and rows the table will have. Type column headings in the first row, using the sample catalog at left as a model, if you want. To add another row, place the cursor in the last column in the bottom row and press the tab key.
To sort the table, click on it, select Sort from the Table menu and decide how you want to sort. If you need to browse all your files on the Hall family, you can sort by the Name column. To find out if you have a picture of a specific person, sort by Record Type and then Name. The File Name & Location field will tell you exactly where to find the file, whether it’s on your hard drive, a CD-ROM or elsewhere.