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How Genealogy Works

Genealogy Software

Genealogy software can help you create a Web page to share your research with relatives.

Genealogy software is the first step in computerizing your family history. Changes are more easily made with software, and the variety of reports, charts, and forms provided ensures that there is something to suit your needs.

Why Use a Genealogy Program?

Genealogy software has been around since the 1980s. Since those early programs came out, a lot has changed in genealogy -- particularly the methods we use to research and share our ancestry with others. Genealogy programs have kept up with these changes and with the advances in computer technology in general. These programs are valuable time-savers.


The best genealogy programs help you cut down on duplication. When using forms such as pedigree charts and family history sheets to organize your ancestors into family units, you'll find yourself recording the same information in more than one place. In the pedigree chart you'll list name, date and place of birth, date and place of marriage, and date and place of death. Then you'll record the same information on one or more family group sheets. That's a lot of writing! If you use a genealogy program, however, you enter the information once and then direct the software application to incorporate that data into whichever form you want.

Accuracy in Genealogy Programs

A good genealogy program has a lot more to offer than simply saving you some time. What are the benefits? A good genealogy program will:

  • Alert you if you enter conflicting information. Say you enter "1845" as the year of birth and then accidentally key in "1809" rather than "1908" for the date of death. The program will catch the mistake and notify you so you can fix it right away.
  • Let you enter information only once. You can then recall that information from lists. Once you type in a place name, such as Haverhill, Essex County, Massachusetts, for example, you'll never have to type it again. The program allows you to select that place instead of retyping it.
  • Help you with consistency. Reducing the number of times you type something reduces the potential for typos or omission of information.
  • Give you a place to store notes and family stories.
  • Help you create a family history book, with pictures of family members or documents.
  • Give you the tools to create your own Web page so you can share your research with family members all over the globe.

Not All Genealogy Programs Are Created Equal

As you research genealogy programs, other things to consider are ease of use, the number of events in a person's life you can record, the cost, and the provision of technical support for the program.

Another important feature to many people is the interface. The interface is what the screens look like as you are entering information about your ancestors. If you find the fields of the program confusing, or find it difficult to locate menu items, it's a safe bet you will be frustrated with the program. And that defeats its purpose! It would be smart to find a different program.

As a beginning genealogist, you may not have an idea what you want in a program. After all, you are a beginner and don't yet know all that you will want to record about an ancestor. As you travel deeper into your family history, you may find that the genealogy program you started with doesn't do everything you require now.


The acronym GEDCOM stands for GEnealogy Data COMmunication. This feature, which is built into genealogy programs, allows users to create a file in which the information from one genealogy program can be exported and transferred into another program. Sometimes the transfer of data goes smoothly, but other times you may have to clean up the file because the new program doesn't understand where to put all the information.

Using GEDCOM, you may be able to transfer your data from one program to another with minimal cleanup, saving yourself hours of retyping. Your genealogy program should be a help, not a hindrance. Don't stick with it if it frustrates you.

Testing Genealogy Programs

Before you decide on a genealogy program, you may want to see which ones offer a demo version that lets you try it out before you commit. A few offer only a predefined demo; others allow you to use the program for a certain length of time or up to a certain number of people researched. Two programs, Personal Ancestral File (PAF) and Legacy, are free. However, the free version of Legacy advertises all sorts of extras that you must purchase.

Trying before you buy is the best way to know if you will like a specific program or interface. If it seems intuitive to you -- that is, you just know where all the options are going to be found -- then it's probably a good program for you.

Source Citation

Good genealogists cite their sources. A source is any record, letter, interview, or other resource that has supplied you with the information you've recorded. Sources include vital records, wills, tombstones, baptism certificates, letters, Web sites, and anything else used in the research process. Anytime you add a name, date, place, or relationship to your genealogy database or to your family group sheets and pedigree charts, make sure you have a source connected to it.

All genealogy programs include at least one template for creating a source list; there are a few programs that offer many different templates. It's important to remember where you found your information. You never know when you'll want to go back and confirm a fact, especially if subsequent research doesn't match what you have listed, or if someone asks where you found the information. So, to save yourself time and grief in the long run, take the time now to create a comprehensive record of source citations.

Making Your Computer Work for You

When genealogy programs first came out, most researchers were used to using pedigree charts, family group sheets, or even index cards to track their family histories.

Technology has come a long way since then, but some genealogists haven't yet embraced all the different ways that computers can be used in genealogical research. Organizing your ancestors into family units is one of the only ways in which computers are helpful. There are a number of software applications created with genealogists in mind that can expedite your search in other ways.

Obviously the presence of the Internet is extraordinarily useful. You'll learn more about using the Internet on the next page of this article. For now, let's look at some other software applications for organizing or evaluating the facts you uncover.

Organizing Data With a Genealogy Program

While genealogy database programs organize the individuals in your family tree, there are other programs to help you organize the facts you uncover as you progress in your research. Some of them are specialty programs, whereas others are programs you may be familiar with already, such as word processing programs and spreadsheet applications.

Programs such as Clooz ( offer templates of some of the more frequently used record types. These templates allow you to abstract specific facts when making a photocopy of the record is not possible. The benefit of such a program is that you don't have to remember the important points to abstract. It's a great way to ensure that you get the pertinent information from the record -- especially for people just beginning their research, who might not know exactly what to look for. Clooz also allows you to look at the information in a different way: Instead of combining people into a family unit, which is what a genealogy database program does, these applications remove the family connections. People are linked only through records. This change in focus provides a different way to view the information and often reveals relationships you had previously overlooked.

What Else Can a Computer Do?

There is no limit to how your computer can help you track your family history. Be creative and demand a lot from your genealogy programs and your computer. You can

  • Abstract information found in cemeteries or census records.
  • Diagram pieces of land based on descriptions found in land deeds.
  • Track medical information.
  • Create elaborate charts or use timelines to aid you in your research.

Where to Turn for Help Using a Genealogy Program

When it comes to genealogy programs, there are a number of places to go for assistance. First, there is the help option built into the program as well as the accompanying printed manual. There are also books that focus on specific genealogy programs, some of them written by genealogists for genealogists, some of them written by the developer or programmer. To find what is available for the program you are using, try visiting bookstore Web sites, such as, and entering the name of your genealogy program to see what comes up.

Mailing lists and bulletin boards on the Internet are another good resource. Sometimes the program's developer monitors these communication avenues, but most of the best help comes from other genealogists.

Another valuable technological tool that can help you compile your family history is the Internet. Discover what the Internet has to offer to budding genealogists by reading the next page.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.