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Organizing Family Information

Article Date: 
30 July, 2010 - 06:00

The past few years have seen many entrants providing software for family history. The new FamilySearch pedigree software has added significantly to this mix for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It has also, through its capability to allow third party programs to use its functions, brought many companies into the mix of software available.  There are more options for family history software now than ever before.  Many of these new software entrants are record managers.  The last several times I have spoken I have been asked about record managers and the future.  I will try to answer a couple of the most common questions I am asked.
Describing the use of a record manager is a good place to begin.  Record managers, depending upon their capability, have a number of uses.  With a record manager, someone doing family history records the information they have found.  Names, dates, places, and sources for each piece of information are be recorded.  The individuals are organized into families with the relationships and sources documented.  Some record managers allow task lists to be kept for each individual, and overall task lists.  Some record managers provide suggestions for future research.  Many provide for digital copies of source records to be added.  Sometimes these digital records are copies of birth, death, or marriage records.  Sometimes the digital records are photographs of the individual or their families.
Record managers also allow for information to be shared.  Most record managers provide for GedCom (Genealogical Data Communications) files to be created that allow information to be shared with others.  Some provide automatic uploading to websites, and/or the creation of family websites.  
Record managers are essential for good research.  They record information discovered, conclusions reached, and items yet to discover.
The primary question I am normally asked, is, “What record manager do you use?”  I am always reluctant to answer this question.  The record manager an individual chooses is largely the product of what one is trying to accomplish.  I am also consistently asked the question as to whether or not a record manager is needed now that new FamilySearch is released.  My answer generally, “It depends.”
Now that I have given the two helpful answers of “It depends, and It depends,”  I will try to give a little more helpful insight.
The second question of whether an online system is sufficient is a good place to start.  There are a number of places to go to maintain family information.  Ancestry.com has a fairly robust set of features to support documenting family information online.   Their trees are designed to allow an initial gedcom upload, and then allow the information to be maintained.  Information can be made private for only the person who contributed it or can be made public for anyone to view.  Editing can be restricted to the contributor, or to those designated by the contributor.  There are also other online trees that have similar features.  The main risk with the commercial sites, and even most of the non profits, is that the organization will either go out of business, or that they will decide not to offer this tree service as a part of their offering at some point in the future.   These services also have limited reporting.  It is often difficult to print a variety of charts that are helpful for research.
FamilySearch offers a unique tree at new.FamilySearch.org.  It is only available to members of the LDS Church and volunteers in family history centers at present, but will have a general public release in the future.  This tree is a truly collaborative experience.  Contributions are visible to everyone.  Information contributed can only be changed by the individual who contributed it, but the summary view of the individual can be modified by any user.  The sourcing system is fairly poor at the moment, but is being worked with a high priority to improve it and allow sources to easily be linked to records.  This system is at the heart of the LDS genealogical work and so it is highly likely that this information will be maintained over time.
For many individuals who are just casual participants in family history work, these online trees may be sufficient to help organize family information, provide documentation of the work that has been completed, and provide a solution free from the loss that can happen with information on a personal computer.  They also allow the best solution for sharing with other family members.  For the serious researcher these online options are likely not enough.  None of the online systems today have robust reporting options.   None allow good queries of the data, and there is little research and pedigree analysis provided from any of the solutions.  They are excellent for collaboration, but lack many of the features that the serious researcher will want.  My recommendation is a hybrid approach.  Both Ancestry.com and FamilySearch provide a synchronization option that allows data to be maintained locally and synchronized with an online tree.  Over the next few weeks I will review each of the major record managers and provide a comparison of their features.  My focus will be on the record managers that have both the capability to maintain a copy on the users local PC as well as a synchronized copy online.