Genealogy File and Folder Organization System for Mac, Part 1

Having genealogy files organized on your Mac hard drive can speed the accomplishment of your research goals. Keeping files organized by person and place is key. And, because you’re on the Mac, you can easily and elegantly relate files and folders in a way that models the relationships of the people and places in your family history.

The first step is easy. You pick one place under which all your genealogy files will be stored. I suggest calling it “My Family History.” You could also substitute your surname for the “My.” For example, “[ismember][wlm_lastname][/ismember][nonmember]YourSurname[/nonmember] Family History,” or perhaps a maiden name.

If you are working on someone else’s family history too, I recommend creating another main folder for the their family. Often this will be a spouse. So in my case, if I wanted to keep my tree separate from my wife’s, I would create another main folder called “Puglisi Family History.”

If you can create a folder named “My Family History” within your “Documents” folder please do so and skip ahead to the next screencasts on creating the folders for people and places.

If you’re still with me, watch this video and follow along. I’ll walk you through creating the main folder for storing genealogy files on your Mac.

Next article in this series: Genealogy File and Folder Organization System for Mac, Part 2, Places.


  1. Greg says

    Good Morning Ben,
    Thanks for the videos on creating a folder system. I've done as you suggested and have created my own folders. The big question now is what put in them? I've scanned lots of documents, photos, newsclippings, handwritten notes etc. I have some pdf docs and web photos. Do I put these kinds of things into the folders? What should I leave in iPhoto? What should I simply type into the software itself?

  2. says

    Hi, Greg.

    I put all the files types you listed in my folder system. I use the folders as a place to store “original” versions of files. Then I import them into other applications, as appropriate, from the My Family History folders. For example, let's say I have an image I just scanned from a photograph. I'll put the image file in the person's folder under Surnames. Then I'll import that file (from the person's folder) into iPhoto and my genealogy database.
    You'll see how this approach is beneficial in my screencast on preventing broken photo links in Reunion.

  3. Joyce Ranieri says


    I see that you are using folders for your multimedia instead of using iPhoto. Is there a reason you're not using iPhoto? I was using a system quite similar to yours, but then it became very tedious to find individuals. What do you do with collateral relatives? For example, I have many many pictures of Pierce relatives without the Pierce surname. I put them in their own folders, but I wound up with many many folders. Eventually, I put everything into iPhoto. Now I'm finding that a bit tedious as well since I need to re-link over 6,000 photos / documents in Reunion.

    I have been very blessed in being given so much genealogical data — old letters, framed family charts, photo albums, tintype albums, etc. I'm just having a tough time managing all of it!

    Do you have any recommendations? Should I take the photos back out of iPhoto and go back to my old system? I really like the ability in iPhoto to label individuals, the photographer, dates, etc. I also like the Keywords. Help!

  4. doug says

    I've been looking for an application that will store the source info I have on my hard drive. Something that will store just about any kind of file and permit searching in the file. Yojimbo seems to almost fit the bill. It's great for searching inside PDFs, but it only handles file types it's familiar with — .ged's aren't welcome.

    Records Master handles just about any file, but can't yet search inside a file.

    Any thoughts anyone?

  5. Michael T says

    Some questions while watching your videos:
    1) Why not use “Country/County/Province/City” designations with place names?

    2) Punctuaton to make a directory come to the top of a listing should not be “!” but “_” (underline) due to system conflicts and ease of view. As a matter of fact, using the “!” (aka Bang) on the command line is something that causes inexperienced users severe headaches.

    3) What tool was used for the highlighted circle?

    4) When cross linking, do you also link people to places?

    • says

      Hi, Michael.

      Thanks for the questions. I’ve provided my answers below, numbered to match your questions.

      1. To keep the names short
      2. The underline character would look better; thanks for that suggestion. I’m not concerned about inexperienced users on the command line because in my experience they don’t use it.
      3. The callout in the video is a feature of the screen recording application, ScreenFlow.
      4. Yes. This is most commonly done with census images which I put in the place folder then add an alias of each image file to the enumerated person’s folder.

  6. Michael T says

    5) Now the big problem…
    How do you suggest we handle the problem where we have:

    A) as an example, a City name “i.e. ‘Springfield'” but no province/county, or state, or country?

    B) A name that we can’t decide if it is a city name or a county/province or some other localized designation? (And we can’t be sure of the country?)

    My preliminary layout:
    | +—–Country_Unknown
    | | +—–Blaenau Gwent
    | +—–Country_USA
    | | +—–State_California
    | | | +—–County_Los Angeles
    | | | +—–County_Orange
    | | | +—–County_Ventura
    | | +—–State_Connecticut
    | | | +—–County_Unknown
    | | +—–State_Florida
    | | | +—–County_Broward
    | | | +—–County_Dade
    | | | +—–County_Pinellas

    • says

      I would create an “_Unproven” folder in the Places folder and store the file there until the place is concluded. You could do this at each of the appropriate sub-folder levels if you desire, but I favor using just the one.

      I’m going for simplicity here otherwise the system becomes unmanageable.

      —-Ben >@<

  7. Marie says

    Ben, I believe I understand your filing system and have started building it in finder as your video shows. However, I have recently purchased a Mac (Snow Leopard) switching from the PC windows system. When I transferred my documents which included many, many birth, marriage, death records, etc. from windows, everything went to iphoto. The problem is that everything was very neatly divided into separate family folders on the PC but when it transferred everything went to iphoto and now it’s not in any order at all making it very hard to find anything. They are also listed with all my photos which were also divided by families folders.

    Now my question is how do I transfer the genealogy files (birth, marriage, death, etc.) to your filing system? I tried to drag and drop but it only copied the name and not the document photos. Is there a different way to do this? There’s no way I can possible recreate all these records that prove my lineage. Nothing is filed the way it was.

    Any hint at how to do this.


    • Ben says

      Hi Marie. Do you still have access to the PC? How were the images stored on the PC (e.g. in folders on the hard drive or in a program like Photoshop Elements)? How much space do they consume?

  8. Marie says

    No, I do not have access to the PC. It crashed. That makes twice now in only a couple years. That’s why I purchased a Mac. The hard drive was pulled, the information put on an external hard drive. The genealogy file is 1.91 GB with 4,187 items. I also transferred photos and scans but for now I’m only interested in the genealogy file. I will deal with the family photos and scans later..


    • Ben says

      If I understand, you’ve got the image files on an external drive. Why not create the folder system as recommended then copy the files into the new folders from the external drive?

      Whether or not you keep them in iPhoto is a different matter.

  9. Marie says

    Thanks Ben, I will try that. I may be back if I have more questions or run into problems. What do you suggest with the files in iphoto.

    Also, what is the purpose of All Documents and All Images? They seem to be carbon copies of each other and of no use what so ever. Why are they there?

  10. Karen Loppnow says

    Ben, Thank you so much for all of the screencasts on Folder Organization on a Mac. I am new to the Mac and the more I use it the more I love it. After watching all of the screencasts several times I then started setting up my files. I made one change from what you did. Under My Family History folder I added the following folders Places, Surnames, Genealogy Master Files. What goes in the Genealogy Master Files Folder is all of the original documents, photos etc. All documents, photos etc. under the Places and Surnames are all aliases. This keeps all my original files in one location and I feel works better for me.

    In this Genealogy Master Files I am naming each file according to your recommendations which I think are great. As I go through each file and link it to my genealogy program ( I use Legacy via Parallels) I give it a yellow tag (Linked to Legacy) so I know where I am at with linking the files. I have a lot of work to do and this tells me at a glance what I still have left to do. Again thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with all of us.

  11. Steve Blackburn says

    Having read the various comments here regarding setting up what appear to be complex nested folder structures for storing documents under place names or surnames or whatever, my question is —Why? I have paid good money for a computer that does an excellent job of finding any document. ALL my family history documents and photos are stored in one folder called “family history media”. I use Reunion (but I’m sure all family history software will do this) and if I want to find a particular document I find it via reunion, which knows exactly where it is stored and what it is called, and will tell me the path to it. If I want to look at the 1851 census for John Smith – I just click on it in reunion under John Smith and there it is. Likewise the same document can be accessed via any individual appearing on it. Isn’t this one of the reasons why we buy database programs – to avoid the hassle of manually filing everything in hundreds of nested folders.

    • Ben Sayer says

      Hi Steve.

      Why do you put your family history documents and photos in a folder called “family history media” instead of putting them and all the other files on your computer into the root folder of your hard drive? You can use your operating system to find any file in that giant virtual pile.

      —-Ben >@<

  12. Steve Blackburn says

    Hi Ben

    Well I suppose just in case I want to move my family history software and related files to another computer. But it was meant as a serious question – as you say the operating system can find them and so can your software – so why not use the tools you have? It does seem to be the Apple way of doing things – if you put your photos in iPhoto, can you find them on your hard drive (without having iPhoto show you where they are). Just a thought…

    Steve :-)

    • Ben Sayer says

      Hi Steve.

      I wasn’t joking. The answer to your question is the answer to mine. Why don’t you put all your files on one place and use your software to locate them?

      I don’t because I prefer the order that comes from having related files together. I assume you do too because you keep your family history files together and separate from other files. I think we just differ in the level of granularity we prefer.

      —-Ben >@<

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