I never thought my first genealogy software would help me so much!


A year ago, you heard my genesis story (Start) in genealogy. In the “good old days” (1975) all my records were on paper, namely:

I had pre-printed forms to fill in. They organized the information, but there wasn’t a lot of room on each page. I had enough sense to type, which was probably neater than hand writing. My parents’ Underwood portable typewriter — along with whiteout —were well used as I transferred my interview notes, letter responses, etc., to a consistent format. It was tedious, with ample opportunity to introduce errors (more about that later).

As you later read in Lucky, my daughter decided to tackle genealogy in the mid-1990s. Everything was unpacked after an eleven or twelve year break. I discovered the local library had Family Tree Maker 3.0 software to check out. I tried it out on my Compaq (Win 3.1) desktop, and decided it was worth converting my information to the computer.

Truthfully, I could have migrated to computer ten years earlier, with my Atari 1200XL. If you didn’t realize I am a geek, that cat’s out of the bag! Someone had developed genealogy software for Atari, but would require me to retype all my information, something not terribly feasible with a new baby. Data storage would have been a problem (remember how little 5 1/4″ floppies stored?), and I still would have needed to print everything out. Printer ribbons weren’t particularly cheap. So while we did use the Atari for Mike’s MBA research papers, finances, home inventory, and even a frogger-type game I found code for, I passed on genealogy.

The Atari 1200 XL. It needed a TV to do anything, plus an external disk drive and an adapter to connect an Epson NLQ (Near Letter Quality) dot matrix printer for any kind of useful output. 64 KB RAM and 16 KB ROM. No, those are not typos! Ah, for the good old days . . . Image linked from Wikimedia Commons, attribution Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

So Family Tree Maker 3.0 became my FIRST genealogy software, and I started the process of retyping all my information. Had I used the Atari software, I still would have had to redo data entry because the file formats were different. It was a slow process, but it allowed me to reacquaint myself with everyone. I also realized the benefits of entering each piece of information only once.

Earlier I mentioned the risk of introducing errors. Maintaining the tree entirely on paper means a person’s information is typed between one and three different times:

  • on the pedigree chart (if they are a direct ancestor)
  • on the family group sheet as a parent (if they are one)
  • on another family group sheet as a child (if the parents are known)

If they married more than once, that’s another sheet to type. Plenty of opportunity to

  • misspell a name
  • mistype a date (birth, marriage, death)
  • mistype a location

If I later realized a piece of information was wrong, I needed to remember ALL the places (sheets) that information might be typed on, so I could correct it. Miss any, and I’d have conflicting information confusing things. Software allows me to type each piece of information only once. Each chart, form, report, or screen view is generated on the fly, using that single piece of data, so everything is consistent. Can I make a mistake? Certainly! But one correction will take care of it.

Paper didn’t provide much space to document where information came from. I could type a citation on the back, but that was a little awkward. My paper forms (yes, I still have them!) don’t have citations. I’ve been steadily working at improving documentation in my software (now Family Tree Maker 2017 — the equivalent of v. 23, I think?). As software changed, adding a source citation feature, I got more diligent about recording them. The newest versions have Evidence Explained templates, so I need to revisit all the citations to beef them up and make them consistent.

So why was that FIRST software so important? It changed the WAY I researched. No, not chasing “shaky leaves!” Even with many more people in my file (about 5500 right now), I can easily check out who I have information on. I don’t have to flip through multiple binders or hanging files, or the single binder I actually had, with everyone filed alphabetically. I can add in more details about their lives (occupation, military, residence), that paper family group sheets don’t have space for. I have plenty of room to incorporate notes about inconsistent data, or why I drew certain conclusions. When three different censuses tell me three different ages, I can record each, picking one as preferred. If later information causes me to change my opinion, it’s easy enough to change the preferred fact. No whiteout required!

Software makes citations simpler to apply, and I can easily attach digital images to them. Finding the actual document is much easier/quicker if I don’t have to scour Explorer looking for it, trying to remember how it’s named. Easier citations means I’m more likely to DO it, instead of putting it off. Having citations keeps me from searching the same place more than once. I should log better than I do, but citations help in the meantime. Baby steps!

Software has changed WHO I research. I try not to be a “name collector,” but if I were typing up physical sheets, I think I’d be less inclined to follow through researching collateral relatives. Sometimes they simply fill in tree details, but other times they answer an important question. Sometimes they let me help out extended relations.

When I found Edward M. Kranz (husband of my grand aunt, Sophie Meintzer) in the 1880 census, he was with his parents and his younger siblings. On paper, I would have picked up his information and his parents’ names. I wouldn’t have bothered with his siblings, or other details about his parents. In my database, I now enter all the information from the census, so I don’t have to go look it up again.

Now when 2nd cousins from that branch ask me questions, I have a little information for them, and some idea of what they are talking about. If I decide to help them with research, but I don’t want all their extra people (not related to me) in my file, I can easily spin off a new file with just the relatives I need for that research.

I also research BETTER. It is easier to decide if someone is part of our tree, or not. I have a number of people who I have determined (at least, as of now) are not relatives. They are different than the person in my tree (do not have the right parents, siblings, etc.). I leave them in, however, with all their information (and sources!), and an explanation about why I think they don’t belong to us. If a cousin (or I!) find a document of theirs later on, I have solid facts about why I think they are not connected. “They aren’t related to us, but I don’t remember why,” is a pretty poor answer. Researching them again to gather that proof is a waste of time. Hanging onto them and their information saves me time in the long run. And if a new document does connect them to us — I still have all the prior research handy.

Sharing information is also much easier! I can create whatever report I like (with citations, if needed!), and email the PDF to whoever I like. No pulling sheets from a binder, going to Mailboxes, Etc. to make copies, then the post office to mail them. Ditto for document images.

Twenty years ago, most of the above benefits never crossed my mind. Software was simply cool, and maybe it would save a little time. It was certainly quieter than the click-clack of the typewriter keys, so I didn’t keep the rest of the family awake! I’m glad I took leap into the fledgling realm of genealogy software 20+ years ago.


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