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"Darling! Where is my grandfather's certificate of birth?"
"You think it was on my writing table? It isn't there anymore!"
"Well, if it was there the other week, love, where it is now? I'm looking there, and it's not there."
"Belinda! Where did that sheet of paper go with my Mom's information, you know the one with my great, great Granny's name scrawled across the top?"
When I began my family tree research, conversation between me and my wife went something like the above. It was wild. I had a pile of indispensable facts that sat on my desk in no particular order. It consisted of every document and photocopy I could find or buy about our family's history, cocktail napkins with bits of the past on them, and assorted tablets filled with data. In next to no time, I was losing track of vital pieces of information, some of which I couldn't remember I'd lost until weeks later. It was an expensive lesson and hopefully one you can avoid. Information and birth certificates needed to be reordered and once again attempts were made to organize it. I began to wonder if I'd taken on too much. It was then that I discovered the wonders of family tree software to help a build a tree but organize all my thoughts, bits and random errata into a coherent, usable form
With that said, I would like to share with you my experience with family tree software and the different websites out there on the Net to help you produce your family tree. First, there is a difference between websites that have research tools and information, and websites that offer ways to document your findings.. Initially I want to talk about those software and websites which keep track of the information you will collect and organize it into a usable form. I will also attempt to clarify what is, at times, a blurring of the two types of sites and software available.
What I won't do is bore you with a lengthy list of software and websites. I will only list the sites I know, the ones that are most well-liked.
- Geni.com - Ancestry.com - Tribalpages.com - PAF from LDS - Family Tree Maker - Roots Magic
Why bother? It seems bizarre I know, but why would you want software for making family trees? Well, first for most folks, you want a single place where you can store the mass of data you are going to detect. Let's be honest. That's not exactly what the software is about! When most folks start learning how to make a family tree, they are pretty much interested in seeing one of those big diagrams with all their names listed. You want a framed version on your wall with your whole history in front of you, right?
Okay, so what we have figured out is that you will need somewhere to put all your info. Unless you are thinking to keep thousands of napkins strewn about or if you are super-organized and keep paper records in a neat system, you will want to be able to keep everything in one place. When you start doing your family tree, you will want to record all the facts you come to, like birthdates, addresses where your family lived, occupations, etc.
As you get more into looking into your family tree, I propose that you keep all the source numbers you use for research. I will explain this in another article, but keeping links on how you got the facts, means that if you need to check it, you can get to it easy.
You will want to be able to develop full charts with your software . It is great if you can develop other reports, such as story boards, which give a semi-automated story for your family depending on what details you fill in.
Software and websites to consider include:
Let's take a closer look Geni.com one of the new sites on the Internet. It has built its reputation on a very simple marketing model - appeal to young people and non-techie types. The basic premise of this site is different than other genealogy software offerings. You fill in your details, fill in your family's details and invite your family via email to expand on what you know.
Geni.com has one of the simpler interfaces of any of applications I've seen so far. You can add whole family members in an instant! A great working plan, too, why do all the filling in of forms manually?
On the downside, this site does have a few serious design and processing flaws which would give one pause for thought when filling in personal info. After all, you are putting in very personal stuff like mother's maiden name, family names, dates of birth and the like. Another flaw, although not confirmed is that when you add your relatives' email addresses Geni will send emails directly to family members. As a result, they've gotten a reputation of being a bit spammy for their tactics. To date, they have denied this, but it is a well known rumor.
Another area that needs improvement is in the reports and graphs produced by Geni.com. They are limited as it only allows you to input a limited data set. That is sufficient for some users; however, if you want to do an in-depth tracking of your relatives over their lives or from census to census, it is less feasible. You will wind up having to log one data set for each person while a viable workaround, it is time consuming and extra work.
Other things that make this website less than ideal:
- There is the inability to share information across trees, even if you have the exact same names and email addresses.
- With the addition of many software packages for family tree building, it was decided that there needed to be a standard file format. This standard is called GEDCOM, and utilizes the extension *.ged. It is also a way to allow you to import data from other programs or family trees. Geni.com doesn't support this format.
Geni.com is, however, free! And while some may say that you get what you pay for, I find some things about this site that is worth considering. I can tell you that I am not entirely convinced that this is the most appropriate tool for all but the very beginners.. It doesn't present you with credible tracking tools or reports and your data is potentially unsafe if the company is sold.
Ancestry is the next website we will review. In actuality, it is pretty similar to Geni.com in conception; you enter your details online, store and retrieve your saved information from a single location. Ancestry.com in essence, serves as a hub for all of your family genealogy info There are, however, some very significant differences between them. Ancestry.com has been around for a while and their attention to security is top-notch. When you put your personal, family details out there on the Internet, security is a real issue. You want to know who is reading your material.
Ancestry.com has some definite variations:
- Ease of retrieval: Retrieve your information directly from Ancestry. - Cross family trees: Make crossovers to other people's family trees. - Add extra information to genealogy: Add extra information like occupations, addresses, christenings, and the like.
You are, of course, relying on the company to secure and store details about you and your family, so you may want to be careful what you publish; however, Ancestry.com has a strong encryption algorithm which can give you some piece of mind.
On the upside, it is directly linked to Ancestry, so when you add a new family member it will check its database for details and offer you what it thinks might be relevant information about other portions of your family. You can check it and directly add any information you find useful from Ancestry to your family tree. There are many advantages to this including speed and ease of use. Ancestry will match you to other people in your family who might be building family trees of their own, because as they build, the database is updated.
The ancestry online tool allows you to add multiple entries for addresses, occupations, and the like which, once you start to use the census information, will become increasingly significant.
On the downside, it still has limited print functions and exports and imports aren't possible, so should you ever want to move your material to another area, you will need to retype everything you've collected.
See the video here:
While Tribal Pages.com is very similar to the other two online based systems, it does take steps in the import/export area by introducing GEDCOM and it also sports some really fine reports. The interface, unfortunately, isn't very user friendly and at points is downright hard to understand. It also seems to continually mix up family trees making it an altogether frustrating journey.
Personal Ancestral File (PAF)
This free piece of software is provided by the Latter Day Saints as from their familysearch.org website. While the software has an easy to understand interface and you can add details as you like, it isn't linked to any of the online databases and there are some entries for the LDS that can't be disabled. There is a reporting tool from the same site that enables you to print your family tree viewing up to 3 generations and there is an extra addon for $6.75 which will allow you to produce 10 generation printouts with posters. While the free software is good, there are some reasons one would want a full fledged piece of software that has complete reporting capabilities and a better user interface. It does, however, do GEDCOM imports and exports.
Family Tree Maker and Roots Magic
In base functionality Family Tree Maker and Roots Magic are very comparable and both are similar to PAF. The major difference comes in user input of the free version and in their reporting capabilities. The reports from the paid for software are very customizable, and as a result produce some great storyboard type reports.
Roots Magic and FTM2008 allow you to produce standalone versions of your family tree on a CD (or share via email), so that you can give it to family members. You can also make a website that you can show relatives and friends.
Roots Magic comes in two variations for the UK and one for the United States. The US version is comparable to the basic UK version, and it might be all you will ever need. At a price of only $30 or £15, and you can buy and immediately download it online. You can also download a demo version (15 days) from the Roots Magic website. In my video tutorials, I will use the Roots Magic software, but will show also you how to do the same things in PAF.
Family Tree Maker 2008 will cost you $10 more at $40, but it does have the advantage that you can link directly into Ancestry. While you will have to wait for the CDs to arrive, it is a very nice piece of software. I have never personally been all that thrilled with its link to Ancestry, but that and the wait is its only downside. The link is indiscriminate at best and at times returns all sorts of nonsense.
Family Tree Maker 2008, as a result, has been less than well received by most people because of some of the aforementioned issues.. The 2006 version seems to work much better and is on the whole considered a much more stable product. Go figure..
Roots Magic video here:
I would initially look into PAF: it is cheap, easy to use and has everything you would need for a simple setup. Meanwhile, I would download a trial version of Roots Magic to consider. At $30 dollars, it isn't a huge outlay and will give you a lot for your money. Although FTM2008 links direct into Ancestry and has some more fancy bells and whistles, it's not all that useful and can be downright frustrating according to many users. PAF will give you the ability to export GEDCOM files which you can then import into something like Roots Magic later anyway. It is excellent preliminary step if you don't want to spend anything or not that much.
Simon is a writer in the field of genealogy, and has a blog on free genealogy research at How to Make A Family Tree for Free