FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Organizing your genealogy files


Camp records. Census records. Death certificates. Pedigree charts. Photographs. Probate files. At some point, you will realize that you have an ever-growing collection of family history documents. Do you have a filing system that works? Or do you have a disorganized mess of unlabeled items? Perhaps you use the “stack of papers on the dining room table” filing system. Or, the “stick it in one folder on your computer desktop” method.

The only method of organizing your genealogy files worth using is the one YOU will follow. If you try some fancy system and give up after a few weeks, it wasn’t worth your time to begin with. What you need to create is a system by which you can find the records quickly. I generally organize all of my research (both paper and digital) by surname. Other researchers might organize by date or type of item. My system might not work for you, but it does work for me.

Digital Files
Start with a master folder for genealogy, which contains one folder for Mom’s family, one folder for Dad’s family, one folder for Spouse’s family, and one folder for Other (all those genealogy items that aren’t specific to a family surname, such as blank templates, general information, bibliographies, etc.). You might have other folders you want to create, perhaps Daughter-in-Law’s family or Friend’s family.

Within Mom’s, Dad’s, and Spouse’s folders, I create a folder for EACH surname I’m researching. All items pertaining to a specific surname are placed in that folder. When a woman marries, her pre-marriage documents stay in the original folder (usually father’s surname), but documents during her marriage stay with the spouse’s surname folder. Each time a new surname is discovered, simply add a new surname folder.

It’s important to take a few more steps to truly organize your files. Within each surname folder, I use a template of the most common items. For Nikkei research, my template looks like the image below:

Theoretically, every document should be placed in one of the folders. It doesn’t matter if you found a record on or, or you have an original document, it still needs to be filed.

If you keep a family tree on one of the digital sites, you probably attach documents right there. It’s fairly simple to attach a document to a specific person on your or tree. It’s also important to download each document you find online, and save to your computer, and/or print for your paper files. You can simply download the documents straight into the surname folders.

It’s also important to label your documents in a way that makes sense to you. My preference is to begin each label with the surname, followed by the given name, middle name if there is one, date, location, and type of document. For example, a census record label might be “Okazaki, Ichimaru, 1920, Santa Maria CA, Federal Census.” You can certainly make the labels as detailed as you want, but be consistent. It’s even helpful to have a master list of all your terminology. Rather than having DC, Death Cert, and Death Certificate as different labels for the same document type, pick one and stick with it. Some labels are easiest spelled out, such as Koseki Tohon or Koseki Translation or Kakocho. Other researchers label their files differently. They may begin the label with a date or with a location. Just pick what works for you and be consistent.

In addition to labeling your files, it’s also a good idea to write a citation for each document. Even if you don’t follow the formal citations of “Chicago Manual of Style” or “Evidence Explained” by Elizabeth Shown Mills, you should know where each item came from, such as the National Archives in College Park, MD., your auntie’s personal collection, or a specific database online.

Paper Files
As with digital files, I organize paper files by surname. Each surname has a binder with acid free sheet protectors. Within each surname binder, I separate the families by generation. The sections typically contain vital records (birth, marriage, death), family group sheets, and important documents. All of my loose papers which don’t require archival preservation go into heavy-duty, legal-sized folders with dividers and arranged by surname. These files contain items that I haven’t yet scanned, notes on a particular family or research interest, and files which are too big to fit into the binders. The binders on my bookshelf hold 8.5” x 11” pages. They don’t, however, fit standard Japanese paper, which is closer to 8.25” x 11.75” or legal documents from the U.S., which are usually 8.5” x 14”.

There are plenty of books about organizing your genealogy files. “Organize Your Genealogy” by Drew Smith is available on Amazon Kindle, Rakuten Kobo or paperback. “Organizing Genealogy Research Using Archival Principles” by Nancy Loe, is an e-book available through the Sassy Jane Website:

Regardless of what method you choose, keeping organized will make your genealogy journey much more productive.

Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist who is past president of the California Genealogical Society. She specializes in Japanese American records. If you have a genealogical question which might be answered in this column, send an e-mail to The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

See the 2024 CAAMFest