Family History Software

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Computers and Genealogy

This article is part of a series.

Overview of Computers and Genealogy
The Internet and Family History
NGS Guidelines for Publishing Web Pages on the Internet
Family History Software
Collaboration and Sharing
NGS Guidelines for Sharing
Online Options for Family History Education
Security Concerns with Technology and Family History
Other Gadgets and Helpful Technology

This article originally appeared in "Computers and Technology" by Juliana Smith in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

Genealogical Software

Computers are an invaluable tool for storing and disseminating the large amount of information that family historians collect during the course of their research. Genealogical software programs help organize this data in one convenient location. This information can then, at the click of a mouse, be formatted in a number of ways, printed on various forms, exported to other formats, and used to plan further research.

Not long ago, the decision of which genealogical software to use was limited to a few programs. With the booming popularity of family history, and advances in related technology fields, there are now many commercial products available, as well as some shareware and freeware. Freeware, as the name implies, is software that is available free from the developer. Shareware is copyrighted software that is available in some form to be downloaded free, but conditionally. The product may only be free for a trial period, or some features or additional support may be unavailable until the product is paid for. Because of the costs associated with developing a product, most of the major software packages are commercial offerings.

Choosing the Right Software

There are a number of considerations in choosing software. The primary requirement is that the software be compatible with your computer, operating system, and any other electronic tools you plan on using with it. If you are running on an older operating system, or have limited or outdated hardware resources, your choices will be more limited and you may not be able to install some newer programs.

While most software is competitive when it comes to the most basic functions, some products may perform better than others in certain areas. Your individual preferences, work habits, and the goals you have in mind for your family history project will dictate which product best suits your needs. Some brands of software have added features, or have even been created entirely to address research characteristics unique to a particular ethnic or religious background. For members of the LDS Church, some software includes fields for LDS ordinance information, and some even allow for electronic submission of files. Personal Ancestral File (PAF) is one such program and is distributed free from the LDS Church. DoroTree has features unique to Jewish research.

There are a number of ways that you can find information on the products that are available. The website of the software purveyor is a good place to begin. In addition to listing any hardware and system requirements, a description of the product and the features it includes, you may find helpful tips, FAQs, awards the product has won, and links to reviews. Some sites offer free demos or 'tours' of the product with screen shots and a walk through the software's capabilities.

If you belong to a genealogical society, a mailing list, or just know other genealogists, ask what software others are using, what they have used in the past, and what their experience has been with various products. In addition, there are mailing lists and user groups associated with some products, where users share tips and any problems they have encountered. By joining the list for a short time or reading any archives of previous posts, you can learn about the experiences of others who use the product.

The periodicals of genealogical societies often include product reviews and there are a number of educational opportunities available on the Web. (These will all be discussed later in this chapter in the section titled 'Instructional Material for Technology.')

The National Genealogical Society's Newsmagazine regularly runs software reviews by genealogist Bill Mumford. He has created a Genealogical Software Report Card, which is available online. The Report Card assigns weighted points to various software programs based on the number of features available, and their importance and exclusivity, which allows users to see how one brand compares with another in each of twelve categories.

Keeping your personal preferences in mind, the aforementioned resources can help you to make an informed decision on the best software to suit your needs. The following section of the chapter will discuss some of the features that can help you to organize, record, share, analyze, and in some cases, research your family history.

Recording and Reporting

Genealogical software gives users the ability to centralize their information, making research easier and more effective. All of the names, dates, family groups, sources, notes, photographs, plans, and logs are brought together electronically. Scanned images of original records can even be attached to the electronic record of the people to whom they pertain. While this won't eliminate the need to keep the original paper documents, the physical location of those documents can be noted for easy access when needed, and wear and tear from handling will be greatly reduced.

Once information has been entered into the software, it can be presented in a variety of ways, allowing for greater analysis of information. Traditional charts like ancestral charts (also called pedigree charts), family group sheets, and ahnentafels, which formerly had to be handwritten on forms, can be produced quickly and easily. Descendancy charts, which had to be hand drawn (owing to the fact that descending families come in different sizes), can now be automatically created and again, printed quickly and easily. Kinship charts showing the relationship of one person to another, or to all other family members are easily available as well.

Hourglass charts can be created with ancestors listed above an individual and descendants listed below, and standard pedigree charts can now be reformatted both as fan charts or in a vertical style.

All good software programs include a way to cite records and sources. As noted in the previous section on citing electronic sources, citations are critical. Master source and repository lists available in many programs make it easier to cite records that are referred to over and over during the course of research. Programs with good source citation capabilities can make us better researchers, with fields prompting us to enter all the relevant information, which might otherwise be overlooked or forgotten.

There are often sections for notes, which can hold research observations, time lines, and information that doesn't quite fit into the traditional fields. Some software includes special fields for medical information, such as illnesses and causes of death.

Programs usually permit the selection of information that can be included on the forms, allowing the user to print different forms for different purposes (such as pedigrees with names and vital dates for taking along on research trips and for sharing, pedigrees with only names for a quick relationship reference, pedigree charts with causes of death for family health histories to be shared with your physician, etc.).

Notes and citations can also be included in some reports, allowing for a printable, in-depth report on individuals and families. Having this much information available in easily digested formats can make analysis of data easier and more effective. In some cases, the software may warn users when certain inconsistencies are spotted, such as individuals living to be over 120 years old (or possibly some other age, depending on the software), or a death date before a marriage date, and so on.

Some programs also facilitate the creation of heirloom quality charts, with attractive backgrounds, fonts, and formats that are suitable for framing. For family trees too large for home printing, there are also services available that will print oversized charts and even frame them for home decoration.


Genealogical software also facilitates new ways of sharing our family history research with others that share an interest in our family lines. Because everyone has their own preference for a particular brand of software, a way is needed for these different brands to communicate with one another. The Family History Department of the LDS Church developed version 1.0 of the Genealogical Data Communications specification (or GEDCOM as it is commonly referred to) in 1985. GEDCOM sets a standard format for the information found in family history databases so that it can be exchanged between individuals, regardless of the type of software used. Information is entered into the genealogical software program and then key elements can be exported into a GEDCOM file, which can then be imported by other software and converted to its own proprietary format to be read.

Software also allows for the merging of new information into family history databases. New information, new individuals, or, if desired, entire branches of a family tree can be merged into an existing file, creating a new and expanded database. Several warnings should be heeded, though, before merging files:

  • A backup of the original database should be created before attempting to merge new information. This way if something goes awry in the process the original information can be restored.
  • Check and see how your software handles merges, and read instructions carefully either in the software manual or through the Help files. Some programs will perform this function better than others. Look for articles on the subject, or talk to someone using the same software who has performed similar merges.
  • Check the accuracy of the information that is being imported against original sources to make sure you aren't importing erroneous information.

In this age of electronic information, privacy is a big concern. When sharing family history files, make sure that sensitive information on living individuals is either removed entirely or hidden, with sensitive fields reflecting that the individual is still living. Again, Help files or software manuals should show how to go about this task.

More information on this aspect of genealogical software can be found in the section on 'Communication and Sharing.'

Planning and Keeping Track

Planning and keeping track of researched records are critical and ongoing phases of family history research. Realizing this, many companies now include tools that address these needs.

To-do lists record those tasks that need to be done. These can also be called Research Journals, Research Tasks, or other similar names. In some cases, the to-do list is combined with, or also serves as a Research Log, helping users to track sources that have already been referenced.

Some software allows the linking of tasks with individuals and with repositories, and can be sorted as such. When a trip to a repository is planned, the tasks need only be printed for that repository, for easy reference. Tasks listed by individual can be referenced during the course of research for a quick check of what has been done and what remains to be done.

Several brands of genealogical software allow for the recording of expenses in the logs as well, which can be particularly helpful for professional researchers.


A growing number of software programs also include tools for creating publications, such as scrapbooks, family history or ancestor books, and photo albums. Some will take the names and dates that have been entered into the family file and insert them into a text report on that individual that might read something like this: John Smith was born on 14 June 1841 in Brooklyn, Kings County, New York. He married Sylvia Spoon on 15 February 1862, St. Mary Star of the Sea Church, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York. John died on 19 March 1898 in Brooklyn, Kings County, NY. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Brooklyn, Kings Co., NY.

This outline can be exported to a word processing format or as an Adobe PDF. Once exported to a word processing format, the information can be enhanced with information that the program is unable to include in this pre-packaged format.

Some software also allows for the export of maps showing family locations, charts, photographs, images, and other reports to be included in the publication. Indexes and title pages can be created, but again, the quality of the information should be checked carefully.

Some software even allows for multimedia files to be added to family files. Images of documents, photographs, and even video can be attached to individuals. Some programs allow for the creation of scrapbooks which can be played online or saved to a CD-ROM or DVD.

Many programs also provide tools for the automatic generation of Web pages using family history information. Since many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer free Web space with their service, this is an appealing aspect to many family historians. GEDCOM files can also be easily uploaded to user-submitted lineage collections. When publishing family history information online, genealogists should adhere to National Genealogical Society's Web publishing guidelines. (See NGS Guidelines for Publishing Web Pages on the Internet for more.)

Other Features

Most programs offer access to extended support functions and/or user groups, which include message boards, mailing lists, newsletters, and online chat forums. Some bundle other services to extend basic functionality.

For example, Family Tree Maker (FTM) can be purchased packaged with subscriptions to online data collections at Using a built-in search function, FTM automatically scans through online data collections at and notifies you when it finds a hit for an ancestor. When a matching record is found you can download the information directly to your file.

Charting all records and information for an ancestor or ancestral family chronologically in a time line can offer a clear, concise look at life events. In fact, the time line of an ancestor can form the framework for a biographical sketch that can be later used in compiling a family history. Technology has made this task much easier because of the ease with which we can insert and manipulate entries. There are any number of ways that you can construct a time line, and there are even pro-grams that will help you to do so. Legacy genealogical software will chart your ancestors' lifespan, and Genelines, (available as stand-alone software or as an add-on to Legacy) will help plot your ancestor's life against historical events, in a variety of charts.

The Master Genealogist creates a time line automatically as you enter in the records you have found in your research and the Individual Detail Report lists events (or 'tags' as they are referred to in the program) chronologically.

In addition to time lines, most software programs feature calendar utilities that can calculate ages or dates of events, even for dates that fell in the transition from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Software also allows for date estimations. Appropriate abbreviations can be found in the Help files or in the user's manual.

Once you have chosen your software, and begun entering your information, it is possible to pick up clues and facts that may have been overlooked or forgotten. Things that did not make sense scattered on various records, index cards, or scraps of paper, may suddenly come together to form a clearer picture of an individual or family.

Tips for Using Genealogical Software

  • If a manual is available, it is recommended that you read it before using the software. If no user's guide is available, the Help functions and any software tours should be explored thoroughly. Although most programs are very user-friendly, some functions may be overlooked or misused by new users, causing problems in reports and publications that are generated.
  • Set up a system for entering new information. If it can't be entered as you go along, create a file or 'inbox' for items that need to be added. Your software won't be as useful to you if the database isn't kept current.
  • Researchers sometimes keep genealogical information on more than one computer. Maintaining the most current database in each place is a challenge. Choose one location, possibly a desktop computer, as the primary database and only enter new information into that database. When new information is located on a road trip, rather than entering the data into your PDA or laptop computer's software, note it in a word processor or spreadsheet, and then enter the information on the main computer. Before each research trip, update the files in the portable devices for easy reference on the road. This eliminates the risk of having several different databases with varying amounts of information.
  • Record sources immediately. Again, with the wealth of information now available, as well as the transient nature of websites, it is critical to document where each piece of information was located.
  • Since computers can crash and data can be lost, it is important to make backup copies of your database, storing one in a location outside your home in case of a natural disaster, fire, or flood. For more on this see the section on 'Security' towards the end of this chapter.
  • Customize report-printing preferences to print the date on all printed reports, so that when referencing these paper copies, it will be possible to determine how current that particular report is.
  • Don't rely too heavily on large imports of data. While it takes longer to enter information manually, it may be worth the time. Often, scattered pieces of information from various sources suddenly come together to prove or disprove names, dates, and relationships as they are entered into the database.

Additional Software Products

There are a number of more specialized software products on the market that can help family historians. Clooz is a software program designed to help family historians manage the huge number of records they acquire as they search for their ancestors. Clues collected over the years can be filed neatly in templates and organized into reports.

Another program, GeneWeaver allows for better medical history reporting, creating printed individual health histories, medical genograms, medical pedigree charts showing dates, ages, and causes of death, blank questionnaires, a bibliography of references to medical and genetic health publications, and a checklist of family health history information resources.

There are also products geared toward specific record types. Because maps are such a critical tool for family historians, there are software packages devoted to mapping locations. DeedMapper'¯(available from Direct Line Software)'¯gives family historians the ability to plot landownership maps described in deeds grants, surveys, and claims.'¯The website for another popular map program, Animap (from Gold Bug software),'¯says it features '2,300 maps to show the changing county boundaries for each of the 48 adjacent United States for every year since colonial times.' Users can insert markers at locations significant to their ancestry, and the SiteFinder feature'¯contains the locations for 799,000 place names, some of which no longer exist.

There are also programs that can help you write a family history. Similar to the publishing features included in some genealogical software, Personal Historian uses events, dates, and notes from genealogical software, text from word processing documents, and photographs, along with information entered into the program, to create a family history. It also comes with a library of 'time lines, historical events, cultural fads, and memory triggers' to add interesting elements. As with other software publishing tools, verify the final product for accuracy.

The Association for Gravestone Studies sells software created for recording gravestone information. There are additional programs, created by companies and individuals, to help you create time lines, plan family reunions, organize photographs, generate alternate spellings for names, and much more.

Related Software and Online Products

Software programs created for purposes other than family history can also be useful. In addition to tasks such as writing letters of correspondence and histories, word processors can also be used to create your own chronology and have the advantage that they allow for the flexibility needed to include as much or as little information needed.

Step 1: Gather all the records available for a specific family group or individual ancestor and assemble them by date.

Step 2: Create an entry for each record, including pertinent information from the record and the source description. (Abstracts, extracts, or in some cases, transcriptions of the record can also be included if desired.)

Some typical record entries might look like these:

17 March 1850
Catherine Kelly's death
TOBIN, Catharine; d Mar 17, 1850; bur Mar 19; age 26;
d of consumption; res: 44 N. Water St.
(Website: Known burials at St. Patrick's Cemetery, Rochester, NY, by Richard T. Halsey, August 2001.)
3 June 1880
1880 US Census, Brooklyn, Kings Co., NY
Kelly, Elizabeth, White, Female, 54, boarder
(Hotel Branting, Madison Ave/58th St.), Single, NY, IRE, IRE
(Source Information: NARA film T9-895, E.D. 584, Page 31, SD 1, 466C. At Image 31 of 33. Copy of image at C:\\Genealogy\\Kelly\\Elizabeth\\1880 Census.jpeg)
1 April 1883
Kelly, Elizabeth died
(Death notice, and death ctf.)
[Transcriptions edited]
Also, from The Sisters of Charity of New York, 1809'1959, Vol. III by Sister Marie de Lourdes Walsh (New York City: Fordham University Press) Chapter 11, pages 225'226:
'. . . Meanwhile the home had been incorporated in 1870 under the legal title of St. Joseph's Home for the Aged, with the following Board of Managers:
Mother Mary Jerome Ely
Sister Mary Regina Lawless
Sister Ann Borromeo Obermeyer
Sister Mary Francis Wallace
Sister Maria Dodge
Sister Francis Borgia Taylor
Miss Elizabeth Kelly
Mrs. Daniel Devlin
. . . Miss Kelly continued on the Board until her death in 1883 . . .')
Brooklyn Directory listing
James Kelly, 155 Huntington, Brooklyn, NY, 1889'1890 (Lain's Directory ' database)

Step 3:

Go back through the records and analyze them, looking for more dates that can be filled in. Some examples include the following:

Kelly, James'born
(Estimated from 1880 U.S. Census data)
6 Jun 1819
Kelly, Jane'born
(Death ctf. 10 January 1882 she was 62 years, 7 months, 4 days)
ca. 1821
Kelly family immigrates from Ireland
(Estimated from birth dates and places of James and Catherine found on U.S. Census entries for James and Catherine's daughter Ann Eliza. Also from James Kelly death certificate in 1896'been in country for 75 years = 1821.)
1821 or before
Kelly, Mary A.'born
(1880 Census'daughter Kate's enumeration lists mother born Ireland)
ca. 1823'24
Kelly, Catherine'born
(Estimated from data on Known burials at St. Patrick's Cemetery, Rochester, NY'See 1850)
James Kelly moves to Brooklyn (per death ctf. in 1896'living in city 30 years)

Formatting, sizing, and color-coding can help to make dates stand out, sources easy to pick out, and delineation between individuals simple. It is helpful to also include sources. As entries are added, there may be conflicting information. Having the sources included makes it easier to find where these problems arise, and thus weigh the evidence. In addition, knowing what records have already been found is helpful in planning future research.

To keep the chronology current, make a habit of updating the time line whenever new data is added to your genealogical software program.

Relational Databases and Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets and databases can also be helpful tools for family historians trying to sort out the records of their ancestors, particularly when tracking families over the years through censuses and directories. They are best used in records with consistent formatting; where information can be entered and sorted by consistent fields.

Database search results presented in tabular format can be copied or imported into a spreadsheet and can be customized for further sorting. For example, if you were searching for a common surname in a large city, using various records that include addresses it would be possible to sort throughout by name, address, and year to note patterns and movement.

Relational databases can contain several sets of records, called tables, which can be linked together through common fields. For example, you could catalog all your books, photographs, documents, heirlooms, and so forth, with each catalog in a separate table, but with each entry noting the ancestor or family to which it pertains. This data could then be sorted and you can create reports of all the items you have collected for a particular person or family. Microsoft Access is a commonly used program and there are reference books like Microsoft Office Access 2003 for Dummies that can help you learn to use the program.1

Other uses include making charts that calculate ages throughout the years, inventories of located records, and research logs.

Downloadable Forms

Government agencies and other institutions have found it expeditious to make downloadable records or information request forms available on the Web. Not only does this save these agencies in terms of paper and other associated costs, it benefits researchers as well, in terms of saving time and sometimes postage.

There are also a number of websites that offer free utility forms to genealogists. Many commercial sites, like and offer free downloadable charts and forms, such as blank pedigree charts and family group sheets, blank census forms for recording information found on U.S. federal censuses, research and correspondence logs, forms for extractions and abstractions, source summaries, and form request letters (some in various languages).

Computer Organization

Your family history will eventually creep in to most areas of your computer. You will have word processing files, image files, GEDCOM files, e-mails, lists of favorite websites, and possibly audio and video files. Organizing them for easy retrieval can be a challenge.

Most of the computer files we work with are organized using a series of folders. As the number of files increases, so does the number of folders. If you are not careful, the number of files and folders can get to a point where it is hard to find anything. For this reason, it's a good idea to come up with a standard filing system that can be used across the board, so it will be easier to locate the materials you need.

As family historians, we tend to file information by name, record type, and/or geographically, or a combination thereof. This tendency can be reflected in an electronic filing scheme similar to the one outlined below and illustrated in the attached image.

My Family History
  • Surnames
    • Individual folders for surnames filed alphabetically.
    • Folders for each individual and one for information on the family as a whole.
    • Documents, photographs, time lines, etc. that reference individuals filed under the appropriate individual or family.
  • Ancestral Geographic Locations
    • Individual folders for countries, states, and/or counties filed alphabetically.
    • Information or documents pertaining to this geographic location, such as where to find vital records, what census records are available, websites of local societies, maps, etc.

Contact Information

E-mail clients (computer programs used to read and send e-mail) are constantly expanding their capabilities for use in the business world. Many of these capabilities can be modified to suit the business of family historians.

As connections are made with other family historians sharing surname interests, it can be difficult to keep track of who is researching what surname. Try using the contact list in your e-mail client. For each family history contact, include a list of surname and family interests in the notes section. When a piece of information is found for a particular surname, use the Find or Search function to locate a list of all the contacts that are researching that surname.

Another solution is to set up a mailing distribution lists for each surname. Then when there is information to share or a question to be asked, simply address the message to that distribution list.


Coming soon...

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