Posted in Digitizing your files, Familysearch, Research tips

How I digitized my research and gave it all to you

Last week I reached a milestone.  For the past year I have been scanning 27 years worth of research, which amounted to 4 gigantic/stuffed drawers in a file cabinet.  Last week I scanned my last file folder. *happy dance*  In this post I’d like to share my reasons, method and tools. I also have a class handout posted you are welcome to print out.

Where do you keep your genealogy files?
Where do you keep your genealogy files?


  1. Basically, I’m pretty sure nobody will ever look in my file cabinet after I am dead and gone, and 27 years of work will benefit nobody.  Even if I organized my files in binders, I’m thinking it will all get the heave-ho by whoever is unlucky enough to clean out my office.  Some genealogists believe their beloved collection will be gratefully accepted by a library, but having worked at a genealogy library for fourteen years I know most libraries do not have the shelf space for such a collection, and my work is much more likely to be accepted in a digital form.
  2. There now exists various ways to share my research with a worldwide audience if it is in digital form.  If its stays in my file cabinet it will only benefit me while I am alive, and nobody in the future.  If others have access to it right now, they can build on it and perhaps break through my brick wall lines.
  3. Digitizing my collection insures a back-up in case my paper files are destroyed, and makes them available to future generations.
  4. I can access my “file cabinet” from anywhere in the world.

Methods and Tools

Three kinds of records exist in my collection –

  • Photos
  • Original records
  • Derivative records

Each is digitized and archived in a different way.


Photos are scanned on a flatbed photo scanner.  I own an Epson Perfection V30.  It is an older model but is still adequate for my needs.  If I had slides to scan I would need a model that accommodates slides and negatives.  Using the Full Auto Mode setting I can place several photos on the glass and it will identify the borders of each photo, scanning each as an individual file.  I scan them as TIFF files.  I scan them all as color photos, even if they are black and white, so all the shades of gray are picked up.

Old family photos are scanned at 600 dpi so I have the option to enlarge them at a later point if I have the need. These photos are then placed in an archival sleeve and stored in an archival binder box, protected from the light.  If I had slides I would scan them at 1200 to 2400 dpi, because they would absolutely need to be enlarged.  Snapshots are scanned at 200 or 300 dpi to save hard drive space, because it’s likely I will have no future need to enlarge them.  These snapshots are placed in archival boxes that look like little shoeboxes.  The boxes are divided into sections by tabbed cards with names on them.

scan snapshot photos
Snapshots can be saved in archival boxes

When I finish with a file folder I can convert all the TIFF files in it en masse to JPG files.  There are many choices for software that can do this, with many free options. (I have started using Irfanview and so far I like it.)  It saves the TIFF files and makes copies into JPG files.  Why do this?  TIFF files are large but will not degrade each time they are copied, as JPG files will do.  These are my archival quality files. JPG files are smaller and more suitable for sharing. These are my files for emailing and posting online.

Original Records

An original record is something that is not a copy or abstract.  I want to keep these paper records. They are handled much the same way as photos.  They are scanned as TIFFs but at a resolution of 200 dpi, unless they are small and could benefit from being enlarged later. I place original records in an archival sleeve and file them in an archival binder.  My filing system is easy.  In pencil on the front of the record I write the surname, given name, and a number, and I place it behind a tab with that name.  I write the source citation on the back of the record.  On the front of the archival sleeve I affix a label that has the source citation.  That way, if I ever copy the record I keep it in the sleeve and the citation will accompany it, but I do not permanently damage the front of the original source.  I know there are some folks who advocate writing on the front of the record, but this is a good compromise for me.

In some cases an original record is too large to fit on my letter-sized or legal-sized scanner glass.  For these records I use an Epson WF 7520 because it can scan up to 11″ x 17″ but doesn’t cost as much as a large format scanner.  It has come in so handy for some large military records, photos, and scrapbook pages I have.

Derivative Records

Basically, a derivative record is something that is not in its original form.  It is a copy or an abstract, or a compiled record.  These are records I can easily obtain again because they exist in a book or an online database, or are an online digital image.  I scan these as PDF files at a resolution of 200 dpi.  I also include my research logs and notes in this category.

scan to pdf

I use a Brother MFC 8750 because it has a document feeder and software that allows me to scan multi-page PDF files. In my paper file folders I have various derivative records such as copies of deeds or court records found on microfilm, pages copied from county history books, research logs, notes from research sessions, and correspondence.  I always write the source citation on the front a derivative record so it stays with the record when it is copied.

I grab one of these multi-page records and open the “file save options” in my scanner software and choose multi-page PDF, 150 dpi, along with the folder location to save it.  I then name the file, such as “Gooch-John_1790_deed_p236” (name, date, record, page), or “NC-Buncombe County_History of the Land and Its People_p38” (locality, name of source, page) for records that do not mention a specific individual, and then place the pages in my document feeder.  I push “start” and the document gobbles up the pages one at a time and saves them into a single file that is a reasonable size.  These pages then go into my recycling bin.  YES.  Throw them away! I give you permission and hereby liberate you.

Why can I calmly throw away my derivative records?  They exist in their original form somewhere else and, if needed, I could acquire them again.  But, even more conveniently, I can print them again from my digital version which I have backed up to my external hard drive or my online backup drive.  I use a Drobo 5N external hard drive with redundancy and expandability and 2TB of space, and Carbonite online.

I have my files stored within surname folders.  If I have a lot of individuals with the same surname I create sub-folders by given name.  Within a given name I have two folders:  1.  documents and 2.  photos.  Anything fancier than that kind of overwhelms me!

Making my files available to the whole world and all my posterity

My files are safely backed up to an external hard drive and an online drive, but my ultimate goal is to make my research available to anyone in the world who shares my ancestry. If I can do this other researchers can use what I have found as a starting point and perhaps make some breakthroughs on our shared lines.  My posterity is much more likely to access the records I have found if they are connected to an online family tree than if they are stuffed into my file cabinet.

scan family tree

I have chosen to upload my files to Family Tree for three reasons.  First, I have a lot of confidence in the stated commitment of Familysearch and the LDS Church to preserve these records for posterity.  Second, Family Trees are collaborative—which means they are shared—and any record I add to “my” tree will show up on the tree of every person who shares ancestors on that tree.  Others will be able to add stories to the photos I post, and I will be able to see any photos or records others add to “my” tree. Third, these Family Trees are available for free, so everyone in the world has access.  Yes, I understand the pitfalls of shared trees, but the ability I have to preserve my research and make it easily accessible to other researchers and family far outweigh the pitfalls.

I blogged previously about attaching photos to your Family Tree, and the method for attaching documents is the same—just click on the Documents tab instead.

I hereby give you permission to convert your paper files to digital files
I hereby give you permission to convert your paper files to digital files

Now is the perfect time—resolve to free yourself from the shackles of your file cabinet and shelves full of binders. If it is a little overwhelming to think about, just make a small, do-able goal of digitizing one file and attaching it to your Family Tree.  And then do your own happy dance!

Come on, you deserve to do a Happy Dance!
Come on, you deserve to do a Happy Dance!


I am an Accredited Genealogist® professional living in California. I have been researching and teaching since 1988.

12 thoughts on “How I digitized my research and gave it all to you

  1. I will never do a shared tree because it took me 2 years to straighten out trees posted on familysearch by people who didn’t have the right relationships and sometimes not even the right people. I have my tree posted public at ancestry and some other places but I will never allow anyone to “fix” it. They can contact me with their information and I will check it out. IF it’s truly my person and the information is correct, I will add it and give credit.

  2. Thanks to Pauleen for sharing the link to your post on Google+.

    Thank you for this comprehensive post which has set me thinking. I am trying to digitise all my records but seem to be going backwards, I am collecting more each day. My recent purchase of a sheetfeed scanner has made the process more efficient. I have a similar filing system to you ie by surname and then individual, I hadn’t thought of separating photos out – something else to consider.

    I commend you for sharing your research online, presently I have a self-hosted site but once I am gone that will disappeaar unless someone looks after it. You give a strong argument for sharing on Familysearch. I will give this some consideration.

    1. Thanks for your comments. You are right – it’s hard to stay ahead of the curve with digitizing. I can easily get behind. I am finding with my file naming system it is working out pretty well to use a name, date, and type of document such as photo, deed, death, etc. because it gives me a handy chronological list of records, but then it also groups all the photos together. So far I am liking it!

  3. great post with lots of useful tips and ideas to reflect on. I too have been at this for 27 years, and that’s a LOT of paper, not to mention my photo obsession as well. Don’t think I can bring myself to put my tree online though.

  4. Thanks for these suggestions. In some ways I am lucky that I have only just started doing this research (although there are many more disadvantages, such as waiting too long to ask older relatives questions). I have been scanning as I go, but I haven’t thought about what to do with all those scans. Many are on my blog, and the rest (like census reports) will be available elsewhere. I will have to think about using Family Search. I’ve been using


    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Amy. In some ways, as a beginner, you have the advantage over those of us with piles of papers to deal with. Good for you for scanning as you go! I use, too. Both Ancestry and Familysearch have their strengths, so it doesn’t hurt to take advantage of them all. Good luck!

      1. I guess I should try and figure out what is on Familysearch that’s not on ancestry. So far I have found nothing different on FamilySearch.

        Thanks for your good wishes!

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