Genealogy File and Folder Organization System for Mac, Part 7

Your genealogy research often includes records of places. One of the difficulties of conducting genealogical research of a place is that place names change. Part of this is due to boundary changes. This issue affects you even if you’re only researching in the United States.

For example, Louisiana wasn’t always the state it is now. When it was the French colony of Louisiana it encompassed modern-day Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. If you had a relative in what is now called Michigan during the time of that colony, they were actually in Louisiana!

Changes to place names are no trouble for my recommended genealogy file and folder organization system for Mac.

Mac OS X has a powerful feature called Finder aliases which make it possible for files and folders to appear to have different names while only really having one. This has two major benefits.

  1. Minimize space required to store the files by having only one copy
  2. Keeping files about a place of one name in one folder while having them appear in other folders for the same place going by another name

You will use aliases often when you organize your genealogy files and folders using this system so I’m going to show you how. There are a couple ways you’ll use them and we’re going to take them one at a time to keep it simple. In this video I show you how to label folders when place-names change, saving time and drive space. The basic procedure is:

  1. Create the folders for the modern-day locations first (eg. country, region, county, and city)
  2. Create the folders for historical location next, except for the city
  3. Create an alias of the modern-day city folder
  4. If the name of the city was different in the historical location, rename the aliased city folder
  5. Move the aliased city folder to the appropriate place in the historical location folder structure

Let me show you how simple it is. Collect the location information for an ancestor in a similar situation and follow along, replacing your location for the example I use.

Next article in the series: Genealogy File and Folder Organization System for Mac, Part 8, Finding Aliases and Originals.


  1. says

    Good suggestion for using aliases to deal with alternate place names! I think that will solve the problem. Glad that you enjoyed my website. As you can probably tell, it’s a labor of love. I tried developing a website before but it wasn’t until I started using iWeb that it came to be. As a bonus, because of my website I was able to connect with a second cousin once removed in Hungary. He was looking for info about his family and was surprised when his great-grandfather’s name, which is included on my website, came up in a Google search. Perhaps you should do a series on using iWeb to create family websites.

  2. says

    Vivian, like your second cousin, I’ve discovered family and information through a site like yours. That sort of find is priceless. As you know, Apple makes it simple to create and maintain a personal website. I can help our fellow MacGenealogists to experience the joy of being on either end of family discovery by teaching this. Reciprocity is a wonderful part of the practice of genealogy. Thank you for the excellent idea!
    I’ve added it to my list. Please leave comments or email me if you have other ideas. I’d really appreciate it.

  3. Susan says

    This is very useful stuff, Ben. Thank you. Is there a way to see a list of all the alias files/folders from the original? I am researching families that have migrated in groups and frequently have census or land records that refer to more than 10 individuals of interest. It would be helpful to see the alias files listed rather than opening and reading the file. Rather like like viewing all the source citations for a master source…

  4. says

    Susan, thank you very much for your question. I have created a screencast with your answer and posted it in a new article—part 5 of this series—in order not to have the answer buried here.


  5. Margaret Murdock says

    In your example, you create an alias of the folder for Bratislava (the city), rename it Pressburg and place it in the folder for Poszony (?) in the Kingdom of Hungary. I understand that any files that are in the Bratislava folder will show up in the Pressburg folder. But later you say that any files placed in the Pressburg folder can also be seen in the Bratislava folder. Did I understand you correctly? I didn’t realize aliases were a two-way street!

    • says

      They are indeed. That’s one of the features that make them so much more powerful than the “shortcuts” used in Windows.

  6. says

    What about places that rather than just change name, split into two (or more) places? Like Korea splitting into North Korea and South Korea or (worse in that one part keeps the old name) Virginia splitting into Virginia and West Virginia? You can’t alias the old to the new, because there’s only one old and two new; you could alias the new to the old, but it seems misleading to have North Korea be an alias for Korea, or West Virginia an alias for Virginia. Of course this kind of thing crops up all the time with towns and counties which have evolved over time mostly by splitting.

  7. says

    Thinking about it some more, I guess I can think of two ways to do it. For example, for the Virginias:

    1. Put VA and WV folders in the United States folder. Put an alias to WV into the VA folder. Advantage: No subsequent maintenance needed. Disadvantage: Counties (etc.) within WV do not appear directly in the VA folder even though they were once VA counties. Unless there were WV counties formed after the split?

    2. Put VA and WV folders in the United States folder. Put aliases to each item in the WV folder into the VA folder. Advantage: Now all counties (etc.) in WV also appear as counties in VA (which they were). (And if there were WV counties formed after the split you could omit putting aliases to them in the VA folder.) Disadvantage: Every time you add a new item in the WV folder (though not in a subfolder) you have to remember to put an alias in the VA folder.

    Either one is not so bad for WV/VA, but consider for example the town of Fenner, Madison County, NY, which before that was part of Smithfield, Madison, NY, which before that was part of Cazenovia, Madison, NY; before that Madison County was part of Chenango County; and so on and on. Seriously reflecting these changes in a directory structure would get to be a huge problem with either method, it seems to me.

    Probably best to just reflect the two or three most recent relevant names and boundaries, and leave it at that.

  8. Margaret Murdock says

    Dear Ben et al:
    I started using aliases a lot after viewing your tutorials a while back, and find it very helpful, not just for genealogy but for organizing files in my computer. Now I have encountered a problem with this, and I wonder if you have encountered this also and possibly have a solution.

    Some background, and then I will get back to the issue with aliases: I have connected with a few distant cousins who want to share files and collaborate on research, which is very exciting – we each have a lot of things we want to share. My problem is this: I have thousands of files on my computer that are not in FTMM2 or ancestry because it is time-consuming to add them, add source citations etc, and I only started working on it a few months ago when the sync issues stopped being an issue for me. I chip away at it but most of the files I want to share with these people are not in FTMM2 yet.

    I want to give these relatives read-only access to the files online, so they can peruse all the folders and sub-folders and copy/download what they find relevant, without being able to change what I have put in there. I want the folders I share to sync with my computer so I can add/change whatever I want to and have it accessible to them without extra steps of copying/uploading/emailing. I also want to be able to share large files that are too big to send in email.

    Two programs I have used to share files online are Dropbox and Sugarsync. I use Dropbox a lot, and it is simple to use, but you can’t limit permissions to read-only – once you share a file with someone, they can move it, delete, change it, whatever – a recipe for disaster in my book. I can create a separate folder in Dropbox and only put copies in it, but to put copies of everything I have takes a big chunk of my hard drive. I have done this for a selected few files, but it is time-consuming and prone to error, and the person I am sharing with can only see/use what I have chosen and have had the time and hard drive space to put there.

    I can limit permissions with Sugarsync, and it syncs directly from any folder on your computer as opposed to having to put things in a special file, but the initial upload process has been a bear – lots of things can hang it up, and I have to now convince the person I wanted to share with this way to try it again after several failed attempts. The user interface is a little annoying. Nonetheless, it seems to be working well from my end now, does do most of what I want, so I want to try it for a while.

    But here is the problem regarding aliases with both of these programs, and I wonder if this is true for all cloud-based sync/storage programs: aliases don’t work. Either they don’t show up at all, or they show up but don’t take you anywhere. Maybe they would work with Sugarsync IF the person was using a Mac AND I gave them add/edit permission so they could sync it to their computer AND the aliases referred to files within the shared folder. But with Sugarsync the only way to give read-only permission is with online access only, for copy/download but no sync. It’s a moot point, because none of these people are using Macs anyway.

    Any ideas? Thanks!

  9. Margaret Murdock says

    Aliases with sync in Sugarsync also moot because I don’t want to give them add/edit permission!

    • Margaret Murdock says

      Per sugarsync support, even if I wanted to give someone add/edit permission, the aliases still wouldn’t work on their computer. If anyone knows of a way to share files so aliases would work, I’d love to know about it.

  10. Ric says

    How can I share the folder I set up following your excellent organization process with others in my family who have Macs? If I give them the “My Family History” folder none of the alias’s work anymore.


  11. joym126 says

    This video is not playing for me. It starts, but then stops after a few seconds. I have not had any trouble viewing any of the others.

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