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  • The Computer Genealogist: Genealogy and the Digital Age: A Few Things You Should Know

    Maureen A. Taylor

    Published Date : June 20, 2003

    Many genealogists are technologically savvy. They use microfilm and microfiche readers, search the Internet, and scan documents and pictures into their computers. Some researchers even use handheld scanning devices and digital cameras. There is an incredible diversity of gadgets and tools available for use by family historians. Here’s an overview of some new ways to join the digital age without emptying your bank account.

    Digital cameras

    According to the Photo Marketing Association, about twenty percent of the cameras sold in the United States today are digital, with an increase expected as the cameras decrease in price. This figure suggests that if you don’t currently own a digital camera, you probably will soon. Why not? Digital cameras allow you to preview pictures before you take them, and never buy film again. It takes a few minutes to adjust to looking at the screen on the back of the camera rather than through the viewfinder, but after that it’s easy.

    Digital cameras have many uses for the family researcher. Take the camera with you to a relative’s house to make copies of family photographs, visit the cemetery and take pictures of the headstones, or bring the camera to a family reunion and email pictures to relatives with no additional cost.

    Purchasing criteria includes more than just price. Be sure that the camera fits your needs. Try it out at the camera store and read reviews before purchasing. Online reviews like those at Steve’s DigiCams ( can help you make the right decision.

    The keyword in this technology is “megapixels,” or resolution. Digital cameras are classed by the number of megapixels they produce. The average resolution of images posted on the Internet is 72 dpi (dots per inch), but if you intend to make traditional prints from your images you will want to buy a camera with several megapixels for crisp-looking prints.

    When purchasing a camera, learn what peripherals you’ll need. Can you connect the camera directly to your computer for downloading files or do you need a separate memory card reader? Does the memory card packaged with the camera have enough storage capacity for your picture-taking habits or will you need to purchase a larger one? While most cameras use regular batteries, a set of rechargeable batteries is a good investment. You may begin by planning to buy an inexpensive camera, but the additional costs of the peripherals compound quickly. Make sure you understand your camera needs before you purchase, and take into account the final charges.

    Image organizing software

    If you’ve scanned family pictures and documents, you know that you must name and organize those images in order to find them again. What if there was software that streamlined the process? There is, and organizing those various images just became easier. Picasa has received rave reviews in the Wall Street Journal and just about every PC and camera magazine. The New York Times called it “a housekeeper for digital photos.” The Picasa software ferrets out all of the image files stored on your computer, whether they are scanned images, digital photos, or files downloaded from another source. Picasa doesn’t differentiate between photographs and scanned documents — if an image file (jpeg, tif, etc.) exists on your hard drive, Picasa will find it. The software automatically organizes the files into albums, and allows you to assign keywords to the pictures. The keywords allow you to search all of your albums at once. You can even view thumbnails of all the images in your albums.

    Picasa is so simple that even a computer novice can use it — the software does all the work. Do you have a love letter written between your great-grandparents? Scan the letter, place it in an album, keyword the surnames, and you will be able to find the letter at a moment’s notice. Click on a picture in an album and email it to a relative, move it to another album, or print a copy. You can even order traditional photographs of your digital files through the Picasa website with a single mouseclick.

    Download a free trial version of Picasa at There are other types of photo-organizing software on the market, but for $29.95 this one beats the competition in price and ease of use.

    Image editing software

    If you need to improve the appearance of a family photo or enhance an old document, you might need to invest in a special software package. Basic image editing software is packaged with digital cameras and scanners, but these programs may not include all the features you will need.

    Be cautious when choosing image editing software. Some software, such as Adobe Photoshop 7.0, is intended for professional use. Its price places it out of reach of most home computer users and it has a steep learning curve (you’ll have to learn new techniques and a new vocabulary). In any book store, you will find several publications focusing on Photoshop — a good indication of the amount of time you’ll spend learning about the product. There are plenty of other choices, including Microsoft’s Picture It!, which comes in several different versions. It’s affordable and most people find it user-friendly. Once again, read reviews such as those on photo_editing_software/index.html) before you purchase any program.

    Once you have a software program, play with it until you’re comfortable with the features it offers. Create cards from your favorite family photographs or documents, create digital scrapbook pages, or just work to enhance your older family photographs. For ideas on creating digital scrapbook pages, consult You won’t believe what you’ll be able to accomplish!

    Photo printers

    Do you print the photographs and documents stored on your computer or do you share them electronically? The latter is probable. Special photo printers sell for less than $200, so explore the printing capabilities of your current equipment.

    Close to one hundred percent of film users are satisfied with the prints they receive, but that number drops dramatically for people printing digital image files at home. In fact, a Kodak representative once stated that, of the thirty billion digital pictures taken annually, less than six billion are printed.

    Prints made at home using regular inks and papers have a very short shelf life compared to those made with traditional photo printing methods. While you can share your files electronically, there is something satisfying about holding a photograph in your hands. And ask yourself if the next generation will be able to view your computer files on their updated technology.

    Digital image files have changed the way we store family photographs, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t continue the tradition of keeping print albums. The beautiful thing about the technology available today is that you can single out special pictures or documents and print them after you’ve improved their appearance with image-editing software. You can print them at home using special inks and papers, order copies through an online service, or use one of the kiosks available in many stores.

    Should you choose to continue printing images at home, use products specifically manufactured for print stability. Lyson, Ltd. ( and MIS Associates, Inc. ( can supply you with appropriate inks and papers. As consumer awareness of preservation increases, more equipment manufacturers are advertising papers, inks, and printing technologies to make prints that will last longer than ever before. Follow the latest research by looking at Henry Wilhelm’s website,, which also offers a list of suppliers. Wilhelm is the author with Carol Brower of The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures (Preservation Publishing Co., 1993).

    Preserving your files

    If you consistently back up your picture and data files, congratulate yourself. If not, you would be well advised to back up your picture files on a regular basis and make two copies of the backup. Store the backups in two separate places, protecting them from water, heat, scratches, and operator mistakes. If you click the wrong button when accessing your backup, you might inadvertently erase the disk or drive on which you store your pictures.

    Photo CD-ROMs or Zip drives work well as back-up mediums. While CD-ROMs used to have a short shelf life (under ten years), manufacturers now claim that the disks will last at least fifty years. Store your CD-ROMs in the same environment as your original photographs — at a temperature of no more than seventy-seven degrees Fahrenheit and forty percent humidity.

    The resources and tools described above are just a few of the options now available for genealogists — but the marketplace changes daily and it can be difficult to know of all the new technologies. Look to your fellow genealogists for advice. Beau Sharbrough writes articles on new technology for Ancestry Daily News and offers a public forum on the issues raised by these columns at Dick Eastman’s weekly newsletter at includes reviews of products of interest to genealogists.

    Picasa is available from the NEHGS Book Store. Order online at or call toll-free 1-888-296-3447.

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