This question is often asked at NEHGS. Approximately sixty programs
for genealogical recordkeeping on a computer are available; about half a
dozen are most commonly used. Personal Ancestral File (PAF) is the
leader in number of users. Roots III, Family Roots (FR), Everyone’s
Family Tree (EFT), and Brothers Keeper (BK) all have large and loyal
followings. Family Tree Maker (FTM) is a recent and popular entry. All
are fine programs for keeping genealogical records, but there are key
differences. The following questions are designed to help you decide
which program best fits your needs.
My own experience with these
six programs varies. I own and use PAF and Roots III. Recently I have
used BK and FTM, but not as my principal program. My knowledge of FR and
EFT is derived mostly from other people’s reports.
type of computer do you own?
If your computer is
“IBM-compatible,” you may choose any of these six programs. Roots III
however, is not available to Macintosh users. FR is the leading program
for non-IBM and non-Mac computers, accommodating Commodore, Apple, CP/M,
and TRSDOS users as well.
If you have not yet bought a computer
and want one primarily for genealogical work, consider an “IBM
compatible”, since there is much more flexibility in choosing programs
and “add-ons” (mini-programs used with a major program for specific
functions). Regardless of the type you choose, however, consider one of
the many used computers available from longtime “power users” who wish
to upgrade to models with more capacity and speed. All of the above six
programs work well on a unit with 640K RAM and 20 Mb hard disk storage.
Speed (the number preceding the “Mhz” in the specifications) is not a
major factor with any of these programs. A slow 6 Mhz computer may be a
tortoise next to the 33 Mhz hare, but you won’t grow old waiting for it
to finish. And don’t even consider buying a machine without a hard
Is space limited on your computer?
though the most powerful of these programs requires very little hard
disk space, the data and text you enter may take much more. See the
chart at the top of p. 113 for a comparison of hard disk utilization
among the various programs. PAF and BK compress your notes into one
file, regardless of how many people or families you are tracking. When
you request data on specific individuals, the program retrieves only the
information on those persons. BK permits a small amount of text with
the data, but if more text space is needed BK creates a separate file
for each individual, using more space. ill your hard-disk space is low,
this factor may be important. EFT and the Roots Writer add-on also
create a separate text file for each person but allow no text with the
data, so they use more disk space than PAF or BK.
you want the program to do?
Some people are content
with a program that acts like a card file, storing data for later manual
organization. Each of the above programs is capable of this basic
function, and will also print pedigree charts and family group sheets
automatically from data you input for each name. All but FTM can print
Ahnentafel charts as well.
These standard charts can require a
lot of paper when printed. A book of family group sheets could overwhelm
any family member to whom you were generous enough to present it.
Although I’ve identified only about a quarter of my ancestors to the
13th generation, my pedigree chart is 127 pages long. I last printed all
my family group sheets about two years ago, largely because they filled
two three-inch notebooks even then; and I now can identify about twice
as many forebears. In addition, the charts as then organized were
uninteresting to read.
Except for PAF and FTM, these programs can
also print reports in Register format (some can print other
“readable” formats, such as modified Register, “Henry,” and
outline). These formats consume less space when printed, and we are
accustomed to them, but they work only for descendant genealogies. If
you are preparing a work covering the entire progeny of one immigrant
ancestor, then by all means choose a program that will organize and
print in one of these “readable” formats.
Most of us, though, are
really working on a family history (defined here as a record of
ancestors), rather than a genealogy (a record of descendants). To date
the only program that provides a family history report is Roots III, in a
format called “reverse Register,” since unlike Register format
it numbers many ancestors from one descendant rather than descendants
from one ancestor.
FTM creates rather attractive box charts for
individuals and data. The program is more limited in other areas, but
the charting feature has made it very popular. Users of other programs
frequently have FTM on their computers to create boxed descendant charts
from data in other programs. FTM inputs data from Roots m without
Some people use a genealogy program only to store
information and plan to reenter it later in Register format on a
word processor. Such reentry is needless duplication. As an example,
Roots III created a report of my entire ancestry in “reverse Register”
format and sent it to my word processing program, all in about
twenty minutes. With an hour or so of editing (including the automatic
creation of an all-name index) the document was ready to print. Manually
entering the same report on a word processor would have taken months.
*PAF was the originating
program. This is the time it took to create the GEDCOM file of 2,177
individuals, 865 marriages, and 1870 notes files that was used for the
How good are you with technology?
people shy away from genealogical programs simply because they are
afraid of computers, or have difficulty understanding manuals. In both
cases it’s comforting to have a patient user at your side to get you
started. But you don’t need one. With a little practice you can
move through many of these programs. PAF and BK are very “user
friendly,” so well designed that you usually don’t need a manual. Each
program offers step-by-step instruction. The manual may explain how the
computer organizes your data, but it explains it simply. EFT and FTM
also are “easy” to use.
I wish I could say the same for Roots
III. It definitely is not intuitive so you will need some instruction.
The manual is as difficult to follow as those for PAF and BK are easy.
Unless you know a Roots III user who will help you, you may well have
trouble with the manual. Explanations are very uneven, with some matters
well covered, some far too detailed, and some crucial points nearly
skipped. The Roots III manual should differentiate between instruction
for the learner and technical background. Three excellent books can help
Roots III users: Kay Ingalls, Getting Started with Roots III(1990)
and Donna Przecha, Understanding Roots III (1990) and More
Understanding Roots III (1991). After using the latter two books, I
now have no difficulty navigating Roots III.
PAF and Roots III
users’ groups, scattered around the country, offer a good opportunity -
both in meetings and newsletters - to learn more about their respective
programs. These groups are also a lot of fun.
There is a sizable difference in the cost of
these programs. Roots III is by far the most expensive ($250 for the
basic program, plus about $50 each for the GEDCOM and Roots Writer
add-ons - which most users will want). For about 10% of the cost of the
“complete” Roots III package you can buy PAF. At $45, BK is only
slightly higher than PAF. Actually, BK is shareware; if you try it and
decide you don’t want it, you’re not obliged to pay the $45 registration
fee. If you don’t register, however, you’re not eligible for upgrades,
which are important. FTM can be bought for under $60, with the GEDCOM
facility about $30 more. FR and EFT are priced between the extremes of
these other programs. Some genealogy magazines carry advertisements from
mail order vendors who offer Roots Ill at substantial savings. I
haven’t seen advertisements for other discounted genealogical programs.
How do you cite sources?
All these programs
have some provision for citing sources. Some, like PAF, allow you only
to incorporate citations into the text (or “notes”). BK and Roots LII
let you place citations into the text, but you can also make them part
of each event field you enter. These footnotes remain hidden, but can be
retrieved by the touch of a key -you can print them in your reports, or
not. Both programs let you reuse a footnote for more than one field or
record, modifying it each time for different page numbers.
reuse may seem a minor point, hut when you must cite the same source
for each parent’s and child’s birth, marriage, and death, you will
appreciate the convenience of this feature. It also seems more natural
to cite sources at the data-entry rather than text-writing level. I’d
like to see every program allow the option of footnoting in data fields.
What do friends and relatives use?
question is important. You may want to share data with other family
researchers, and thus your programs should be compatible with theirs.
Compatibility means more than GEDCOM, which lets users of genealogy
programs share data via a common format. GEDCOM doesn’t necessarily
transfer ALL data from one program to another. You may, for example,
purchase PAF and one day offer to exchange data with a relative who uses
Roots III. To a point all is well, since all names, with their event
dates and places, will transfer from one system to the other using
GEDCOM. But the Roots III user must transfer your footnotes (in the PAF
text portion) into his Roots III footnotes which are (in all
probability) adjacent to the fields they document. This transfer process
can be tedious. The real difficulty comes with data the Roots III user
shares with you. The footnotes aren’t accepted by PAF, which has no
place for them. Notes about the reliability of one source or another
(called “surety code”), and the extra fields which Roots III allows its
user to create for such items as occupation, residence, cause of death,
etc., will not be incorporated into PAF (unless you enter these items
manually) because PAF has no equivalent fields.
If you plan to
share much data with other users, consider purchasing the same program.
Then you will have complete interchangeability. A major source for 
“downloading” information from another computer to yours is one of the
many Family History Centers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints. All six of the programs here discussed will accept data from
these centers through GEDCOM.
Ease of Data Entry
Some programs have developed shortcuts to speed data input (and make
it uniform). PAF allows you to move about on a pedigree chart and add
to or subtract from it. PAF also allows you to view on one screen all
data about an individual (including multiple marriages and notes) and
move to various editing screens from it. BK uses the ditto mark to copy
the previous location field (useful when a person is born and dies in
the same place). It also uses an equal sign (=) to copy information from
the same field in the previous record (useful for entering several
children born in the same place). EFT utilizes keyboard macros (up to
10) for fast insertion of frequently used names. Roots III and BK let
you enter the first few letters of a locality, and press a key to bring
into view all place names beginning with those letters. You then choose
which one you want. This feature is a big time saver and markedly
increases the uniformity of place names.
finds duplicate entries. Such entries often occur when you enter each of
a couple’s children, and a few months later again enter the name of one
of them as someone’s spouse. A match/merge feature (like the excellent
one in PAF) allows periodical searches of your entire database for POSSIBLE
duplicates. The PAF match/merge then displays two possible matches
on the screen simultaneously, allowing you to decide whether they are,
in fact, the same person. If they are, you have the option of merging
them into one record. Roots III will also search for possible
duplicates, but it isn’t so easy to evaluate whether they are
duplicates, and the merge must be done manually. I haven’t discovered a
match/merge feature in the other programs.
of Disk Requirements
I ran a test to see how much disk
space would be needed for identical data and text in the various
programs. The source data was in PAF. It took only ten minutes to create
the GEDCOM file needed to transfer this data to the other programs.
Several facts became evident from the test. EFT uses a LOT of
disk space for its data and text; I don’t know why. Roots III, the
program with the most features, uses the least disk space both for
program and data. However, Roots III also created the most files, which
lengthens the backup time. After three months of using Roots III (and
transferring all my footnotes from the text area to the data area), I
cut the number of files to less than half. The total required disk space
remained about the same. FTM and FR were not included in this test, as I
did not then have access to them. Since FTM is limited to 1200
individuals in each “tree,” my sample database was too large and
would have to be split.
Where to Obtain Programs
Please contact these companies for the latest prices and ordering
Brother’s Keeper: John Steed, 6907
Childsdale Rd. Rockford, MIl 49431. BK may also be downloaded from
bulletin board services.Everyone’s Family Tree: The
Dollarhide Systems Inc., 203 W. Holly St, Suite M4, Bellingham, WA
98225. (1-800-733-3807).Family Roots: Quinsept
Inc., Box 216, Lexington, MA t)2173. (1-800-637-7668; 1-617-641-2930, if
calling from inside Mass. or outside the U.S.).Family Tree
Maker: Banner Blue, Box 7865, Fremont, CA 94537. (415-794-6850).
FTM is also sold by software retail stores.Personal
Ancestral File: Salt Lake Distribution Center, 1999 West 1700
South, Salt Lake City, UT 84104. (1-800-453-3860, ext. 2584).Roots
III: Commsoft Inc., Box 310, Windsor, CA 95492-0310.
(1-800-327-6687). Roots III is also sold by mail-order discounters.
information for Roots III books: Kay Ingalls, Getting Started with
Roots III (1990) is available from Commsoft, Box 310, Windsor, CA
995492-0310; Donna Przecha, Understanding Roots III (1990) and More
Understanding Roots III (1991) may be ordered from
the author, 10576 Rancho Carmel Drive, San Diego, CA 92128.
MacDonald, a native of West Bridgewater, Mass., has been a Library
Assistant at NEHGS since 1989. A member of the Society’s Computer
Committee, he is compiling a Genealogy of the Descendants of Thomas
Chubbuck of Hingham, Mass.