Genealogy: Digital image and folder naming strategy

10-17-2014 3-26-25 PMBy Barry J. Ewell

There is nothing more frustrating than spending several hours looking for one image that you really need.  Two key strategies will help keep your photos organized—naming your images consistently and sorting them into folders.

Create a logical folder structure
Folders are the best way to organize family history images.  I organize my folders very similar to the way I organize paper files, which make it easy to find and place images. My folder hierarchy is as follows:

  1.  Surname Folder
    1. Direct Descendent Folder
      1. Category Folder
        1. Image Files

For example:

  1.  JONES
    1.  Ora Jones
      1. Correspondence
        1. JONES-COR-Mary_Jones_Writes_Barry_Ewell-2¬¬_Feb_1976
      2. Documents
        1. JONES-DOC-Mary_Jones_Marriage_Certificate-1955
      3. Histories and reference (H&R)
        1. JONES-H&R-History_of _Mary_Jones-1997-pp 2-3
      4. News
        1.  JONES-NEWS-Mary_Jones_25_Yr_Service Award-1990
      5. Obituary
        1.  JONES-OBIT-Mary_Jones_Dies_of_Cancer_1998
      6. Photograph
        1.    JONES-PHOTO-Mary_Jones_Family_1965

I will add category folders as needed.  The key is that I keep the same name of category folders across all folders. For example, you could have a folder named Vacations and then have categories set up by years, 1990, 1991, 1992.   When my subcategories begin to expand, I will sub-divide those categories.  For example:

  1.   Documents
    1.    Letters
    2.    Land Records
    3.    Vital Records
  2.    Census

Barry’s file naming scheme
I’ve reviewed and thought about the naming schemes I use for family history and the following works extremely well for me, both in identifying where the image will be filed (and who is in the image), and for searching on the images. I am usually able to find what I need within a couple of minutes at most. For example:

Surname-Category-Individual Name, Description/Title, Date, Year, pp
(If needed, # to indicate extension of article, more than one copy, page number, etc.)

Example: JONES-OBIT-Mary_Jones_Dies_of_Cancer-1998

  • Ex. 1-Correspondence: JONES-COR-Mary_Jones_Writes_Barry_Ewell_on_Mission-2_Feb_1976
  • Ex. 2-Document: JONES-DOC-Mary_Jones,_Marriage_Certificate-1955
  • Ex. 3-Histories & Reference: JONES-H&R-History_of_Mary_Jones-1997-pp_2-3
  • Ex. 4-News: JONES-NEWS-Mary_Jones_Receives_25_Years_Service_Award-1990
  • Ex. 5-Obituary:  JONES-OBIT-Mary_Jones_Dies_of_Cancer-1998
  • Ex. 6-Photographs:  JONES-PHOTO-Mary_Jones_Family-1965

Documentation and cataloging images
Documentation and cataloging are important aspects of preservation and can often be combined in the same spreadsheet.  They help confirm where the record/image came from, who created it, how it relates to records/images and its overall reliability.

Documentation takes time, but is critical in leaving a path for others to follow.   When you think about putting images to the Web, you focus on posting images and the overall sight design.  Documentation will usually be an afterthought.  If you, however, have made documentation a part of your preservation process, the addition of annotations/documentations should be a simple addition that will be greatly appreciated by other family historians as you share your research.

When you are cataloging images, you can use word processing (e.g., Word, Word Perfect), or a database program (e.g., Excel).  Choose software that will allow you to easily share information with others.  When you share the catalog, be sure to save it as other file formats such as ASCII, Text in addition to the file formats of the software you are using.  This will provide others the option of importing your database into the software they are using.  Seven tips to remember:

  • Do it right the first time. Whether the source is a newspaper, journal, court record, personal interview, letter, or church record, write everything down while you still have the source in your hands.
  • Sources you can rely on. No one has a perfect memory, and some sources will have worse memories than others.  The only source you can rely on is an “official” one: birth, marriage, death documents, and other confirmable databases and indices.  Even if information came from a relative, it is important to list their name.  You want to stay as accurate as is possible, and leave a clear trail for others to follow.  Not only will you know you have proof of your information, but others you share the information with will also know it is factual, not just speculation.
  • Sources establish credibility. Many genealogists responding to a survey pointed out that unless we are able to tell others where we obtain the information, all we are sharing is our opinion.  Citing sources is essential to establishing credibility.  If we have done a good job with our research, we can give others the ability to broaden and build upon the research already done and not have the same work rechecked over and over again.
  • Write legibly. If you write any information, write legibly.  It doesn’t pay to hurry and then not be able to read your own hand writing later.  When possible, try to always get a photocopy or a photo of the key information being captured and then enter it into the genealogical program or record database.


  • Check sources to establish verification. Checking sources allows for verification of spelling, dating, reporting variations, and leads to more information.  Relying on the expertise of others helps save time and energy. Create and maintain a record of what resource was checked, so that you don’t waste time later.  Likewise, some sources (books, newspapers, etc.) might be found at only a few locations. Include where these were in case you need to glean them again.


  • Poor source citations waste time. Genealogists told experiences where they tried to pick up the trail of research from undocumented records and spent weeks, months, even years searching for the next clue only to find out the data entered was incorrect.
  • Six elements of a good source citation include
  1. Author.
  2. Title.
  3. Publisher’s name and location.
  4. Publication date.
  5.  Location of the source and identifying information (library or archive where you found the information and its call number).
  6. Specific information for the piece of data you found (page number, line number).

The following is an example of the documentation/cataloging format that I keep in Excel.

Database index organization

  1. Column 1: Surname
  2. Column 2: Disc location of file
  3. Column 3: Main folder/sub folder of file
  4. Column 4: Category
    1. Correspondence (COR)
    2. Documents (DOC)
    3. Histories and reference (H&R)
    4. News (NEWS)
    5. Obituary (OBIT)
    6. Photograph (PHOTO)
  5. Column 5: Individual (key person in photo)
  6. Column 6: File name
    1. Ex. 1-Correspondence: JONES-COR-Mary_Jones _Writes_Barry_Ewell_on_Mission-2_Feb_1976
    2. Ex. 2-Document: JONES-DOC-Mary_Jones_Marriage_Certificate-1955
    3. Ex. 3-Histories & Reference: JONES-H&R-History_of_Mary_Jones-1997-pp¬2-3
    4. Ex. 4-News: JONES-NEWS-Mary_Jones_Receives_25_Years_Service_Award- 1990
    5. Ex. 5-Obituary: JONES-OBIT-Mary_Jones_Dies_of_Cancer-1998
    6. Ex. 6-Photographs: JONES-PHOTO-Mary_Jones_Family-1965
  7. Column 7: File description/notes (types of information to include in column)
    1. Correspondence (COR): Who wrote to whom, date of letter, location of each person, content of letter, relationships of persons writing, number of pages, or lineage of person writing letter
    2. Documents (DOC): Type of document, key persons in document, key dates, source of document, or lineage of person
    3. Histories and Reference (H&R):
      1. History: Describe whom or what the history is about, include title of history, author, year of writing/publishing, details unique to history, collateral lines included in history, lineage of person, # of pages, and library call numbers
      2. Reference:  Describe the reference document/book, why reference has been kept and how to be used, # of pages/page numbers, and library call numbers
    4. News (NEWS): Title of article, persons included in article, date of article, newspaper, page number, and lineage of person
    5. Obituary (OBIT): Title of article, persons included in article, date of article, newspaper, page number, and lineage of person
    6. Photograph (PHOTO): Names of persons in photo and position in photo, place of photo, date of photo, source of photo if appropriate, page # and book title if from book, lineage of main person (e.g., father if photo is of family, or family member if person is with friends)
  8. Column 8:  Format type (TIFF, JEPG)

Designing DVD/CD covers
When I am storing and sharing images, I have chosen to use high quality media with inkjet printable surfaces.  The following is an example of my structure.

  1. Keep it simple. Focus on being descriptive for easy identification when sharing with others. For example:
    1. Organize by year, surname, and category.
    2. Include photos of key ancestors, family members.
    3. Main contents of DVD/CD.
    4. Completion date.
    5. Developed by.
  2. Tools of use.
    1. I used Epson Styles Photo Printer Software.
    2. Printer was Epson Stylus Photo (prints on Inkjet printable DVDs/CDs).
    3. DVD Brand: Verbatim DVD-R.

A few additional notes about file names

  1. A filename may contain any alphanumeric character, including the letters A to Z and numbers from 0 to 9.
  2. The full filename (including drive letter, colon, backslashes, and folder names) may be as long as 255 characters.
  3. The filename itself may be as short as one character.
  4. Thefollowingspecialcharactersare allowed in a filename:
    1. $ % – _ @ ~ ` ‘ ! ( ) ^ # & + , ; = . [ ] { }
    2. Spaces are allowed in filenames
  5. 5.Thefollowingspecialcharactersare prohibited from being part of a filename because they have special meanings to the operating system (DOS underlying Windows):
    1. / \ | : * ? ” < >
  6. 6. You’ll get an error message if you try to use one of them.
  7. 7. Windows files (and Office files in particular) typically include a three-letter extension,whichis added automatically by the program that created the file (such as .doc for files created by Word):
    1. An extension is not required.
    2. Extensions are not limited to three characters. Windows treats any characters following the last period in the filename as an extension.
  8. 8. When naming your files, use an underscore (_) or hyphen (-) instead of a space between words to prevent problems later if you post your pictures online.  The reason to underscore, or use hyphens and no spaces in a file name, is to keep the file name from becoming a security threat where viruses, etc., can attach themselves.  This is especially important if you don’t have good firewall software on your computer.

Although the above are requirements, the following suggestions should also prove helpful:

  • If possible, limit the name of the file itself to about 40 characters so that you don’t have trouble moving files with deeply nested folders.
  • If you use a nonstandard extension you may have difficulty opening the file from Windows. In Microsoft Office programs, files with nonstandard extensions will not appear in file dialog boxes unless you change the file type to All Files.
  • Windows filenames are not case sensitive. MyFile.doc is treated the same as MYFILE.DOC and myfile.doc. However, if you are publishing to a Web page, the Web server may be using a different operating system that does pay attention to case, making lower case letters advisable.
  • Word marks temporary files with a beginning tilde (~) character. I would recommend not using this as the beginning character for any file that will be used by any of the MS Office programs.

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