Why you need a file naming scheme
People make mistakes. They change their minds. They are inconsistent.
Computers may drive us crazy and occasionally fail, but their actions are predictable. When sorting data, “A” will always come before “B,” until other instructions are given.
Understanding this simple fact is the key to creating a useful genealogy file system that can be used by anyone with access to your digital files. Your heirs will not need special software, special operating systems, or special knowledge to retrieve and open your electronic files.
But. . . technology has limitations. Users rejoiced when Windows broke the 260-character limit for filenaming. However, after several years of “really long descriptive filenames that include many names places and dates,” genealogists are learning that lengthy filenames do not always play nice with other operating systems, software, or backup programs.
When files are nested inside file folders or moved to external hard drives, these storage locations are added to the file path, making the filename even longer.
Dropbox users may receive error messages during file sync because some programs may be unable to open files that exceed the maximum character length allowed by the operating system or software.
Avoid problems by following these four tips for easy digital filenaming:
E- Eliminate Special Characters
Forget all about the special characters scattered across your keyboard. Computers have special uses for these symbols that will conflict with filenames such as “Is this Grandpa?” or “Susan/Mary/Joan.” It’s best to omit any special characters:
! @ # $ % ^ & * ( ) [ ] ? / \ | < > , .
A – Avoid Spaces and Periods
Likewise, spaces and periods have another job in computer filenames. Spaces are often replaced with “%20” and the period is used to indicate a file extension such as .doc or .jpg.
Eliminate spaces in your filename; use underscores and dashes instead to separate parts of the filename, if needed. I use underscores to separate major parts of a filename such as name, date, place, event, and dashes to separtate sub-parts such as forename and surname. For example:
S – Shorter is Better
When it comes to filenames, shorter is definitely better. You will be able to see more of the filename in your file listing and you’re less likely to run into problems with too-long filenames.
Decide on a file naming style or “convention” and be consistent. Choose a scheme that is shorter rather than longer. The filename is not the place to write our the full work “pennsylvania.” Use consistent, universal abbreviations such as PA.
Y – Year First, for Dates
Let your computer doesn’t what it does best: organize and sort. Decide if you will organize your files by date or by surname. Either way, when using a date as part of the filename, always use the YEAR first, followed by the day month, or month day (your choice, just be consistent)
E – A – S – Y
- Eliminate Special Characters
- Avoid Spaces and Periods
- Short is Better
- Year First for Dates
Establish good filenaming habits going forward and once you’re comfortable with a system, convert old filenames to your new system. Be kind to yourself and don’t try to change all your genealogy filenames to a new format until you find youself naming new files consistently and effortlessly in your new standardized format.
Looking for more ideas to streamline your genealogy digital workflow? Check out my book How to Archive Family Photos (available from Family Tree Books and Amazon).
Like these file naming tips? Please share on Pinterest and Facebook!
Thank you for supporting The Family Curator website by using my affiliate links.