Sunday, September 6, 2009

Genealogy Basics

Many people have expressed an interest in tracing their family histories but don't know where to begin. For those interested in starting their family history research, typically the best place to start is with yourself and work backwards from there. Write down all that you know about yourself – your date of birth, dates of other significant events like graduations, marriage, and children’s birth dates. Continue back in time to your parents and your grandparents, again writing down all that you know about them and leaving room for the information that you will want to find later. Don’t forget to start including your siblings, your parents siblings, your aunts and uncles, and if you know any, the siblings of your grandparents. Also, don't forget to write down any of the family stories you heard growing up - they may contain embellishments but there will be nuggets of truth to be mined at a later date.

You can imagine that by the time you get to your great-grandparents, you are beginning to accumulate a lot of information and you will want to find a way to organize it. Using paper forms is one way (many free forms can be found on the Internet) but today, computer software is the best choice.

I have used a number of genealogy software products over the years and have found that each of the products currently available offer good value. The final selection really comes down to personal preference. You need to find something that works best for you. In particular, I have used three of the more popular products - Family Tree Maker, Legacy, and RootsMagic. Each of the software products allow you to input all of the events and information and record the sources of your information. Here's my review of these programs:

Family Tree Maker has changed dramatically over the years and provides an exceptionally good interface with Ancestry.com, one of the largest, subscription based collection of family history related historical documents available. The disadvantages are that the program doesn't provide a book publishing component that would allow you to easily share your family's history. Some genealogists have also found the data entry screens to be difficult to use.

Legacy has a good screen layout that is large and easy to use. Its built in relationship calculator, automated report and web page design features make this a good choice for many. Another advantage, particularly if you are starting out is that Legacy offers a free down loadable, standard edition (you can pay for a premium version later if you want). Although Legacy has a good source citation feature, it is not the easiest to use.

RootsMagic has recently undergone a complete makeover. The current version (Version 4) offers all of the ease of use that the other programs have but there are two features that I find to be outstanding. One, recording the sources of family history information is simple and quick with most major database sources already set up in easy to complete templates. Second, and perhaps most significant, is that the software has now been written using a computer language (Unicode) that economizes the software's file size. This has permitted RootsMagic to include a 'To Go" version. Now you can have your family history software and your full family history database stored on a USB key (also referred to as memory sticks, flash drives, etc.) that allows you to run your program on any computer by simply plugging the key into one of the computer's USB slots. I use an 8 gigabyte USB key that provides enough memory for the RootsMagic program, my full family history database of more than 10,000 individuals plus all the family photos and documents that I have gathered over the years (and still leaves room to add more).

My recommendation is to try each of them as there are free trial versions available from the manufacturers. This will allow you find the one that is right for you and will allow you to start building and organizing your family 'tree.'


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