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  • Is a Computer for Genealogy Really Necessary?

    Joanna D. Posey

    Published Date : 1987
     Is a computer for genealogy really necessary?  This question is often asked at genealogical conferences and at genealogical computer seminars.  The answer is not as cut and dried as one may wish.

    Certainly, we have seen quite a change in modern technology including the development of the personal computer system.  Even with this in mind, genealogists have spent a tremendous amount of time in recording family data through traditional manual record keeping methods.  To each of us there comes a moment of decision as to whether or not a computer would be more advantageous than traditional recording methods.

    For years, we’ve learned how to organize materials in binders and packets, using a variety of forms such as the research log, pedigree charts, family group sheets.  Many family historians can find their family information quickly using this manual system. which has worked quite well for what they wanted to accomplish.  The use of a typewriter and bottles of correction fluid are all that is really needed to meet their goals.

    However, others who have bulky data, accumulations of hundreds or thousands of names, dates, and places, along with research and historical notes, are literally being haunted by their own file cabinets, drawers, and closets.  To respond to a query, family historians spend a great deal of time searching for all of the data relating to the query.

    Then, it’s off to a Xerox machine to stand in line with 10-12 odd-sized sheets of paper, fumbling or dropping a page or two only to forget what has been photocopied and which ones need to be copied.  Finally, the post office is the last stop in this time consuming track event.  In this example, a complete day may be used in such activities for each query received.  Although this continual adventure is great exercise, the time utilized could be more productive and cost effective with a personal computer system. How? Let’s talk about several applications.

    First of all, it should be remembered that the personal computer system is not a genealogical cure-all nor always the best way of keeping records, but its advantages, using correctly chosen hardware and software, far outweigh its limitations.

    The personal computer system is basically a records management tool.  Most of the computer systems chosen by family historians are for the primary purpose of automating record keeping chores.  Do they do the job?  Yes.  However, there are many personal computers on the market which are quite different in handling genealogical record-keeping tasks.  Some units have the necessary power to manipulate and index complete family histories and perform many other genealogical computer applications, while other machines are not internally able to perform such tasks and thus are limited for genealogical purposes. The selection of the computer and software packages determines how skillfully genealogical tasks are performed.

    Once Dreams, Now Reality

    Years ago, family historians would dream of the time 4000 individual genealogical records could be placed on one 5¼-inch floppy disk and accessed for information with lightning speed.  This is no longer a dream but reality.

    Upon other occasions researchers dreamed of updating a family group record, and having a new copy printed in seconds without a typewriter. This, too, can be performed with many genealogical software packages on the market.

    In fact, it is possible, with a leading genealogical software package, to place thousands of family members in branches of families on one floppy disk, merge and split files as needed, print new forms, append word-processed biographical sketches, historical and research notes, insert electronically prepared maps and charts, and complete a myriad of other tasks in just a short time.

    Another question arises - Is a computer cost effective for me?

    This answer depends on your own individual goals and genealogical project objectives.  (For information on identifying project objectives and individual goals, refer to Chapter 9 of Tracing [31] Your Roots By Computer.) Certainly, there is a cost in obtaining a personal computer and related equipment and there is a cost of time in typing genealogical data on the equipment. Family researchers who are only interested in direct line ancestral generations may not need a computer.

    On the other hand, a growing number of active genealogists feel that the personal computer is the only way to record large amounts of family data. It should be remembered that after the information is stored by a personal computer, many functions may be utilized with just a push of a button or two.

    For example, in testing various genealogical computer applications, we have found that the amount of time used in keying in the data was well worth the effort, especially in preparing copies of descendant records for family members.  To illustrate, what began as a test of computer equipment and software at Posey International using Posey data ended in producing a complete manuscript, The Descendants of Francis Posey (1615) Through His Son, Benjamin (1648).

    What Else Can Be Done In Genealogy With A Personal Computer?

    All genealogical computer applications are categorized into five major, well-defined areas:

    Records Management




    Genealogical Business Operations

    Records Management, as previously mentioned, is the division wherein linked genealogies and unlinked clusters of family data are prepared and electronically stored.  Several software packages are available which vary in capacity, capability, and function. The software selection process is a cautious matter of accurate education.

    Graphics is the second division, which encompasses the drawing of maps, customized charts, computerized photography and related applications.

    The third division is Word-processing.  In this category, text is placed in paragraphs and in sections, as electronic filing folders. Text, ideally, should be integrated into genealogical computer filing packages. The purpose of word processing is to consolidate family stories, biographical sketches, and lengthy research notes and, then, clothe the genealogical data now in skeletal form.

    Once the text is on a computer disk, that portion may be recalled, updated, deleted, or modified at any time without having to be retyped using a conventional typewriter.  Many hours of text preparation may be saved when using a personal computer system.  This area alone is usually cost-effective and cost-justified, especially when integrated with other computer applications.

    Telecommunications is one of the most progressive genealogical computer applications.  Currently, there are several genealogical projects being developed which will allow personal computers to talk with other personal computers to exchange genealogical data, to coordinate research activities, and to plan major events.

    Commsoft, a genealogical computer software developer, has designed the National Genealogical Conference for the personal computer genealogists.  Currently, there are 16 identical computer stations around the United States.  By allowing a personal computer to dial a number closest to the researcher via modem and phone line, the family historian can electronically talk to other researchers about significant applications or research techniques.

    Additionally, the NGC network is the first electronic surname query media of its kind. [Read more about the NGC network in the Dec. ‘86-Jan. ‘87 issue of the Genealogical Computer PIONEER.]

    Instead of writing letters to genealogists on paper, sending the communication through the mail and waiting for the answer, it is now possible to talk with other genealogists, daily if desired, and find answers with greater speed and accuracy. Genealogical telecommunications opens up an entirely new vista in tying families together.

    Genealogical Business Operations is the last division, which includes all administrative tasks used in a family association with a personal computer system.

    Genealogists have caught the automation enthusiasm because each major application division has on-going improvements and new developments in genealogical computer use.  These developments enhance every facet of genealogical record keeping and research techniques.


    One can readily see how the use of technology can expedite the never-ending pursuit of genealogy.  By speeding up record keeping labors, family historians may find more time to do additional research or to spend precious moments with living family members enjoying lasting family ties.

    It should be remembered that one does not need a computer to do genealogy.  Many family researchers will opt to continue using manual methods of record keeping.

    However, as long as genealogists have access to personal computers, they should fully understand their capacity, capability, and functions and use the systems to their own greatest genealogical advantage.

    The decision as to whether or not the computer is a necessity in genealogy depends solely on each individual, his needs, bulk of information, the scope of his genealogical projects, his own research goals, and his willingness to learn how to [32] use technology to its greatest genealogical potential. It is entirely an individual decision. Which choice will you make?

    By Joanna D. Posey
    ©Pusey International, 1987

    Joanna D. Posey is an internationally recognized genealogical computer consultant.  She has produced several educational aids, including Tracing Your Roots By Computer, The Next Step, and the video Ties That Bind.  She is publisher of the internationally distributed educational newsletter, The Genealogical Computer Pioneer.  As you have questions about genealogical computer use, please write to: Posey International, P.O. Box 338, Orem. Utah 84057 or call (801) 377-5504 days or evenings.

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