Computers and Genealogy – a love hate
and the question:
“What type of genealogical software should I be using?”
People just beginning their family research may tend to use a computer coupled with spreadsheet software like Excel or a word processor like Microsoft Word to keep track of their genealogical data as they begin to collect and organize family data. Such software can be very helpful in recording and organizing information.
BUT the limitations of such software quickly become apparent for raw genealogical data – especially as you want to be able to see your data in changing and evolving ways – with out having to re-enter all over again as the need changes. You might for example create a little chart in MS Word – showing the children of Person X and Y. But then how do you also generate an ancestral chart – without retyping in all the names again. And as a separate note - you also quickly realize that unless you find some pre-built template – genealogical charts are difficult to create from scratch.
This brings up the need for some sort of “data store” or “database” where the genealogical data for a given set of persons – can be entered ONCE (for each person) and yet dynamically used in generating many different charts and forms – all from the single database. But even if one has access to database software – such as Microsoft Access or others - - one quickly realizes that you really need something very customized for the use of a genealogist which contains the combination of a database (where the data is stored), a user interface (the set of computer screens that a user interacts with), and a reporting tool that can generate many different reports, forms and chart – all tightly integrated into one software package and all specifically created for the use of storing/organizing and manipulating complex genealogical data and relationships.
About 30 years ago – not long after the PC came into existence – such family tree software also came into existence. One of the earliest ones was a package called PAF (Personal Ancestral File). As the operating systems evolved from DOS to Windows and the MAC - so did the genealogy software packages. Today there are numerous software packages that you can buy whose design is basically what we just discussed. Many of them provide capabilities that would have been perceived as near miraculous to genealogists of the 20th century.
No single program will perfectly meet each person’s unique needs. But there are numerous desk top packages out there that you can compare and contrast. Frankly I think it best find someone who can show you how they use the software they have chosen – and you can see first hand the look and feel of an application before you purchase it. You may also find tutorials and demo versions of the software.
Here is a site that compares various genealogy packages. It’s a great start to see whats out there – BUT don’t just assume because one package gets the highest score – that it must be the right one for you. Understand what your needs and goals are in the area of genealogy – and then find a package that meets your need. Talk to others and get feedback from peers.
Here is the link:
(however don’t stop reading here to look at the link – rather keep reading and come back to this reference link later)
HOWEVER – within the recent decades more and more tools and services have been made available on the Internet - and in many cases provide services that were way beyond the capacity of a stand-alone PC based system. More and more people have jumped on the genealogical bandwagon – without ever having installed a genealogical package on their local PC – but merely jumping into web based systems like Ancestry.com or Familysearch.org. (and from many perspectives that may be a good thing – ease of use for example, is usually higher on the web based systems – and technical things like installation, upgrade, and data sharing that one needed to know in the old world – may under many circumstances just be thrown out the window and not apply). There are some downsides though that one should consider – and personally I do not recommend for anyone who considers themselves a “serious genealogist” to rely wholly on web based systems for your main data base.
Within recent decades Software developers have been able to change the paradigm – so that the user no longer has to rely on a database on their own PC. They can now enter or upload their family tree data to an online database or service. This allows the user to very easily make their research and data available to others around the planet. It also makes exchanging genealogical data with others much easier – and conversely – easier to find people who are researching the same families as you are. It has also made it much easier for vendors to marry the union of providing genealogical software for maintaining family tree - with interfaces to large database that store millions of primary records of interest to family researchers – such as census records, wills, death records etc. It also free’s up the user from having to worry about keeping a local application up to date, working smoothly, and on a reliable and backed up computer. The systems on the Internet don’t (usually) require some installation or upgrade by the local user – and generally they have some robust backup processes for their system as a whole (though not replacing the need for personal copy of one’s data ). Generally it is one application there, available to use – for the entire world population that is interested. Some of these online services will be based on a paradigm where there is one single database – that all users have access to organize and maintain. Others will partition their data into each users own database – so that each user will be in tight control of their own data – but be able to make it viewable and searchable by others. Other system may be hybrids of the two polar opposite views in trying to provide the best of both worlds.
How does one know whether to purchase and use an application installed on one’s local computer – or to throw all that away – and rely solely on some system like ancestry.com’s on line family tree? The answers are often not clear to the newbie – though to many it seems like just jumping into the on line systems is easier. And even to the person who has been doing research for years (probably on a desk top system) - may not always be clear how to move into the “twenty first century” and still maintain the control of one’s data as they have in the past.
There is no single answer to these questions. And such questions are often a point of confusion and even frustration for genealogists across the varying spectrum.
Here are some web sites, however that may provide some food for thought as you ponder your needs and goals. Merely just jumping into a system – with no real thought of how it may accomplish long term goals and needs – may be the root cause of later having to re-input and re-engineer your processes and info. And quite often the perceived needs and goals often rapidly change as a person delves deeper and deeper into the genealogical hobby or avocation. The changing perception for the need of recording your genealogical sources being an example of an area most common to change from newbie to more long term genealogy enthusiast.
And as this following web site (that I recommend reading ) clearly points out – don’t think it has to be a choice between one and the other - a web based system or a local application – “There are ways to take advantage of both worlds”. Though in all fairness – In my humble opinion that is an easy thing to say and yet another thing for the average user to feel comfortable passing data between two disjoint systems and the technical hurdles that come with that. Thus the “love-hate” relationship that so many genealogist have with their computers.
SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER IN YOUR GENEALOGICAL JOURNEY:
· What would happen to your genealogical data if your computer crashed?
· What would happen if the online computer service you use (such as ancestry.com) for genealogy went out of business – or more possible – somehow “mangled” your data when they went through an upgrade?
· What would happen if you lost all your email messages?
· Do you have copies of all the data and media (photos etc,) that you have uploaded to any online system (such as ancestry.com) – stored on your local PC?
· Do you know how to transfer genealogical data from one system to another (such as using GEDCOM files)?
· Do you know how to download a GEDCOM file (a transferrable copy of your raw genealogical data) from your online database?
· Do you know how to share a copy of your database (or parts thereof) with others?
· If you have a database on your local computer – do you know how to upload your data to sites that will make it readily and freely available to others (such as rootsweb).
· Have you considered the fact that the online genealogical service you use may be charging others to view your data – that you would prefer be freely available. Where do they get off on charging others for seeing YOUR data? Are you able to freely share your family tree data with others who are not using the same on line service?
· Have you ever considered web based backup software? (for backing up the stuff on your local PC)
· Have you ever considered to what will ultimately happen to your paper collection of genealogical records?
· Have you ever considered to what will ultimately happen to your intangible email records of importance?
· Are others around the world easily see that you and them have families in common that you are both researching?
· Have you ever wondered what is the best way that a group of you can all work together collaboratively using a single on line database – that each of you can edit/maintain/query and report on?
· Do you have genealogical data on old media (such as floppy drives) that no one seems to be able to read any more?
· When was the last time you backed up your data? Was it more than a month ago? If so you don’t really have an effective backup plan.
· When others ask you to share some of your data – what do you find is the best way to share your data? – hopefully not just a screen print or retyping the family data back into an email.
SOME SUGGESTED ACTION ITEMS – though the whole point is – YOU need to find out what is best for YOU:
· If you have traditionally been a “desktop genealogy application user” - like using PAF or FTM etc. – consider opening a trial account with services like ancestry.com or others. Note ancestry.com does provide a 14 day free trial. BUT you MUST close your account – or you will be charged the full amount. Unless you are really satistfied don’t waste your money. (different people will have different experiences – because of differing needs and goals) – but if you do find it valuable GREAT! I have no problem with companies who charge money – if they prove the value of their service. I do have a peeve with companies that charge for access to data you provided them with and that you would normally freely exchange.
· If you have been a web based user – and consider yourself to have more than just a casual interest in genealogy. Seriously consider purchasing a stand alone application like those compared here. BUT you must realize that one and only one system will be your “bible” and source of truth and point of update – and then you can transfer to the other system. If you aren’t a techie and don’t have some technical assistance you can call on – this excersize may be not be worth your effort.
· No matter what system you use – GET TO KNOW what a GEDCOM is – and how it can help you and others . BUT unless you have a stand alone application to import it into – it will just be some “mysterious file” that doesn’t have much use for you personally.
here is how to download from ancestry.com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWp7HBCY6Bo
· Become familiar with systems that may allow you to upload your local genealogical database to be viewed by others.
Consider sites that are FREE and leave you in total control of your data. And allow you to bring such data out of the view of the world later on if you so desire (note that such systems will by their design – strip info from persons it perceives as being living individuals – to protect privacy).
Your creation of GEDCOM files will also have a similar routine.
· Become familiar with sites similar to ancestry.com that may supply some of your needs – and at NO COST
(such as familysearch.org or findagrave.com)
· Find ways on line to learn more about specific area of interest and questions you have
Here are some links and YOUTUBE and GOOGLE are also great tools for finding answers to questions:
Some web sites of possible interest on related subjects
comparison of web based systems
discussion of shared web trees
free ancestry searches
the best apps for genealogy
best on line family tree sites
Some interesting discussion of how popular genealogy is
various helpful sites