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Genealogy in the 21st Century
This web page contains three topics:
Improving Technology: Does it Improve Research?
A futuristic genealogy concept appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation several years ago.
In the episode, the crew of the Enterprise rescued some frozen space travellers from the 20th century. One
of the rescued people wanted to return to Earth and find her descendants, if any. The computer then was asked to present
her genealogy for the elapsed 400-year period, which it did, locating a many-times great grandson in California!
Although there is nothing like this available now, many technological advances have been made over the past few
years. The impact of these advances on genealogical research is huge, and has both positive and negative effects.
The Internet has opened up a vast amount of information to the researcher. This information is so overwhelming
that it is difficult to evaluate for reliability. In addition, it is ephemeral in nature. All references to URLs (Uniform
Resource Locators) should include the date accessed. They are all subject to change and even disappear regularly, so be
sure to download or print important references.
In general, genealogical information on the Web comes in the following forms:
- Information of a how-to nature: how to use land records, how to write a research report.
- Information about a particular resource: the International Genealogical Index, for example.
- Information about a particular repository: the holdings or hours of a library or archive or courthouse.
- Commercial sources for genealogical reference materials.
- Indexes to particular records: the Social Security Death Index or Kentucky Vital Records.
- An enormous number of genealogies and surname indexes of variable quality.
- A growing number of digital images of original documents.
When used properly, this information is very valuable and will greatly facilitate your genealogical research.
When used indiscriminately, it will destroy the validity of your work.
We have come to take for granted the ability to microcopy (on film, fiche, or card) old records and books. The
availability of microcopy has increased the researcher's access to records as well as improving our ability to
preserve these records, but only a small fraction of the records needed for genealogical research have been microcopied.
The newest trend in record copying is digitization. Whole record groups are being digitized, indexed, and placed online.
New record images appear daily on the major subscription sites, such as Ancestry.com,
Fold3.com. There's even good news for those of us who prefer a no-cost option. FamilySearch
provides an incredible collection of records on its website, all free of charge. At some point in the future,
it may be possible to access their complete microfilm holdings online.
Increased access to these digitized copies of original records cannot help but improve family history research.
What possible negative effects could this have?
- Even professional researchers constantly remind themselves to study each record in context. The ease of a one-click
link from index entry to image makes it very easy to forget that failure to study context may lead to misinterpretation of a record's meaning.
- The vast and growing online resources make it difficult to judge each individual record's quality.
- The vast online resources make it difficult to remember that many more important records are available only in their original form.
The Personal Computer
The personal computer, especially when paired with other items of modern technology, such as the digital camera, has greatly
increased storage and dissemination of information. Software programs to handle your own personal genealogical research
have proliferated, making it much easier to keep track of your family history and research notes. More sophisticated
programs allow you to fully document all research and print out reasonable narratives, family group sheets, and descendant
charts. Some of them allow you to export the material in HTML (hypertext mark-up language) format for presentation on the
Internet. All of them allow you to export your data to other computers or import your data from other researchers. Ancillary
programs, such as spreadsheets, have the potential to improve your ability to analyze data and monitor research progress.
Surely there can be no negative aspects to the personal computer!
- Don't become a "name collector." It's so easy to acquire and store names and information that many researchers
forget that all information must be verified with the best possible sources.
- As technology continues to advance, today's methods may disappear entirely. Already, many records stored in old
computer programs are no longer accessible. If your research is dependent upon digital and magnetic data, you must
be ready to upgrade your technology as necessary.
- You must have backups and hard copies of all your data, or be subject to losing all your hard work.
Does this improved technology improve the quality of research? In a word, no. Ultimately, the
quality of your research depends upon your adherence to the Genealogical Proof Standard.
A point may be considered 'proved' if:
- The research is exhaustive;
- The argument rests on reliable records, correctly interpreted;
- Contradictory evidence is examined and soundly rebutted;
- All statements of fact are scrupulously documented;
- All deductions are carefully reasoned and explained.
- Keep an open mind. New evidence could invalidate your conclusions at any time.
This class has discussed many of these online holdings, but students need to be aware that
the growth in online digital images is phenomenal. Keeping up with changes is a fulltime occupation.
Here are my recommendations for continued education.
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- Join a local genealogy society. Whether you're a recent transplant or a multi-generation
native of your hometown, the collective knowledge of a local society is not limited to a single region
or time period. In addition, it's a joy to meet friends who share your enthusiasm.
- Join a national society, subscribe to a nationally respected genealogy publication,
or both. Reading high quality peer-reviewed articles is one of the best ways to continue your education.
In addition, many large societies maintain excellent websites containing online data and valuable
articles on research and education.
- Join a local genealogy society in your region of interest. This is a good way to contact
researchers with in-depth expertise in local records not available online or in any publication.
- Search the appropriate USGenWeb county website for possibilities.
- Subscribe to Eastman's Online Genealogical Newsletter.
Although I subscribe to, or monitor, several blogs and message lists, most of the news appears
first in Dick Eastman's excellent newsletter.
- Read, read, read!
Digital photography, graphics editing, scanning, and miscellaneous photography topics
- The Complete Guide to Scanning, by Larry Ledden, Family Technologies, Westfield, NY: 1996
- A Few Scanning Tips by Wayne Fulton
- Paint Shop Pro Tutorials. Adobe Photoshop also
has many online tutorials, but Paint Shop Pro is my program of choice. :-)
- The Photo Detective, a blog by Maureen Taylor.
Follow the links to some of Ms. Taylor's other excellent blogs and articles.
Creative presentations of your family history
The spreadsheet: powerful tool for data analysis and monitoring your research progress
- If you don't have a spreadsheet program, investigate OpenOffice.org.
The suite mimics the Microsoft Office suite of programs, but it's free!
- If you're unfamiliar with spreadsheets, there are many online tutorials. I took the
free online Excel classes at the HP Learning Center.
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Evaluating the Ideal Genealogy Program
In an ideal world, one genealogy program would meet the needs of every user; but, there are as
many different needs in genealogy as there are genealogists, and one computer program may not
be able to satisfy all of us. After many years of evaluating genealogy programs, I chose
The Master Genealogist, from Wholly Genes, Inc. as my personal genealogy program. Some of my own
requirements you may find unnecessary; some requirements you need, I may not need at all. Given
the power of the present-day personal computer, you should be able to find a program to fit your
needs. The following are program aspects to consider in your selection.
- The program you choose must be unlimited!
- No limit to the number of individuals the program can handle
- No limit in field or memo length
- No limit to number of marriages or children
- The program should be easy to use
- The manual should be logically organized, indexed, with all functions
well-defined and easily located. Examples should be clear and frequent.
- The program should have a tutorial based on a sample data base. It
should take the user through all aspects of the program: data entry, data
manipulation, and report generation.
- There should be context-sensitive on-screen help as well as an on-screen
help index. Icons should have bubble identifiers. All enabled keys
should be visible.
- Data entry should be as effortless as possible
- All programs should have the following features:
- a repeat key or other method of allowing single keystroke entry of previously entered data;
- user-defined macros
- some type of global updating of the data base
- Look for flexible date formatting.
- Do you want a valid entry check?
- Data base backup is imperative and should be as convenient as possible.
- Data should be automatically written to permanent storage frequently.
It is helpful if the user can define this frequency in the program configuration.
- Output to your word processor file is necessary for all reports.
- Company back-up
- Technical help should be readily available to any registered user.
You should not have to pay an extra fee for this help.
- With readily-available internet access, the company should have a
home-page and tech-support on-line.
- The company should be actively working on the program and should have
program update options.
- Talk to other users
- Is there a list-serve or chat group of program users?
- Is there a program user-group in your area?
For further program evaluation, you should consider your own genealogical computing needs. Are you...
The original researcher must consider all of the following:
- The program must not force the researcher to choose "correct" event dates or relationships prematurely. Multiple parent-candidates and event dates and places must be allowed. All data must be admissible without prejudice in the program.
- The program must allow multiple citations per event.
- The program must provide the researcher with a way to analyze and prioritize data and documentation.
- The program must provide the researcher with a research log or calendar to preserve research ideas and plans in an organized and readily-available fashion.
- The program must allow the researcher to manipulate the data in any manner desired.
- Search functions must allow logical concepts of AND, OR, NOT, =, <, >, etc. Boolean searches should be allowed on any field or combination of fields.
- Search results should be able to be sorted on any field or combination of fields.
- All reporting functions should be flexible and user-defined.
- All types of data: photographs, maps, text files, historical context, etc. should be accessible from within the program.
If you are the designated "family historian," you may not need as many research-oriented options, but you should consider these aspects of the program.
- Can you make logical and visually pleasing charts for your family reunions?
- Can you easily print the family story with pictures attached?
If you coordinate a one-name study or similar project consider the following:
- The program must allow you to identify duplicates and merge information easily.
- The program must accept data from a wide variety of genealogy programs.
- The program must allow you to identify data from multiple researchers and coordinate research efforts.
For more information on The Master Genealogist, visit the website at Wholly Genes, Inc.
If you would like to check out some other programs, visit Richard Wilson's web site
Comparing Genealogy Software Programs or
Bill Mumford's Genealogical Software Report Card.
The Genealogy Software Review is also helpful.
A Few More Genealogy Software Programs
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- Brother's Keeper:
This is a shareware program with quite a few fans. Users praise the reports. The full registered version is only $45.
- Family Origins: This site has a demo available for downloading. Users
claim it is easy to use and like the reports, especially the "hourglass" report.
- Family Tree Maker: Although many people start with this
program, it is one I don't recommend. Most researchers quickly find it limiting.
- Legacy: This program has some very good
features, is easy to use, and the company is very responsive to users' requests. The standard version is
also available as a free download.
- Personal Ancestral File: An old favorite,
this free software can be downloaded from FamilySearch.org. Additional utilities increase
the program's power. The program is no longer being updated, however.
- RootsMagic is relatively new on the scene. It's
similar to Legacy, but has a more streamlined interface. At $29.95, it's also inexpensive, and there is a free trial version.
- Reunion is the leading/only genealogy program for the Mac. I haven't used it.
Please mail comments and suggestions to Susan Johnston at