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  • Could a Computer Help Me?

    Donald MacDonald

    Published Date : April-May 1992
    Not many years ago computers were the domain of well-trained specialists. The personal computer (PC) changed that picture forever. Nowadays computers are everywhere. We use electronic wizards as calculators, automatic teller machines, and VCR programmers. Although it often takes a little education to learn how to use them, computers almost always extend our capabilities.

    When I began delving into my family history about 25 years ago, I put all my notes into a loose-leaf notebook, devoting a page to each person. When I had found a lot of ancestors, it was difficult to visualize how these people were related to each other. Very quickly I began to use drop charts, but these became unwieldy. I then devised a system of numbering each person so that relationships and generations would be clear. It worked splendidly, putting order into the mass of my collected notes - but there were still shortcomings.

    Soon relatives began to ask for copies of my work. Photocopiers were not then readily available, so I sat down and typed hundreds of pages of notes in triplicate with carbon paper. It never failed that just after typing a few sheets on someone, I would discover more information that belonged somewhere in the middle.

    The fun began to fade, and I laid my research aside. About five years ago my employer sat me behind a PC for the first time. It didn’t take long to see the possibilities computers held for my genealogical research. They could bring instant, constant order to my mountains of notes. At the time I had access to only a word processor and a primitive database program, but that was enough. (Don’t let the jargon upset you. A “word processor” is nothing but a typewriter that allows editing a document before typing it. A database program is the equivalent of a lot of file cards, but can sort the cards and search for data on them far quicker than the fastest fingers.) With these two new tools available, my interest in genealogy revived.

    Many other people saw the advantages of using computers for genealogy. A recent count by Genealogical Computing (yes, there are magazines on the subject, and NEHGS subscribes to them) revealed that over 60 programs have been written just to keep genealogical research up-to-date and readily accessible. Several of these packages are so well documented that a person with no computer experience at all should have little difficulty using them.

    Immediate update of records, and instant search and data retrieval, are only two advantages of using a computer. You are also forced to organize and standardize, which some might call a disadvantage but in my view it is a definite plus. You are less likely to forget to note a vital piece of new data when you have a fill-in form on-screen in front of you. Some programs allow you to customize those forms, so you need not accept someone else’s standard. Even programs that don’t allow customization generally have space (sometimes unlimited) for additional notes that don’t fit the form.

    If you’ve visited an LDS Family History Center lately, you’ve most likely seen a computer there – and a researcher is nearly always using it. It isn’t there for people to record data from their research elsewhere in the center, but functions as a research TOOL, allowing you (for example) to access all the IGI for a large geographical area in one operation. You could simultaneously search all sixty states, provinces, and territories of the U.S. and Canada for a certain name in only a few minutes. How long would 60 separate searches take manually? At the Center you can also print out the search results, either on paper or onto a floppy disc to take home. Once home, you can “upload” the data from the floppy into your own records, saving hours of transcription time. Family History Centers also have Social Security death records from ca. 1962-1988, accessible (unlike the IGI) only by Computer. These records can also be “downloaded” to a floppy disc and uploaded onto your own computer.

    One great fear of anyone who spends a lot of time in research is that someone will throw out a life’s work when [68] the genealogist dies. All too often we have heard that “Aunt Lucy kept all the family records but her children threw them out when she died.” Well, again the computer comes to the rescue. Some genealogy programs are in a mode compatible with a large computer in Salt Lake City - the Family Registry. If you have some significant data to contribute, contact your local Family History Center for suggestions on submitting your material on floppy disc for uploading into the LDS system, from which it can be accessed from any Family History Center in the world. Such submitted discs are received daily in Salt Lake City, and regularly uploaded into this vast network Had Aunt Lucy been able to transcribe the data from her painstakingly-collected old Bible records and family manuscripts onto a floppy and send it to Salt Lake, the information at least would have been preserved in some form and it might not have mattered quite so much that her children disposed of her papers.

    Perhaps you would rather make your work available in book form. Again, there are simple programs that will do almost everything for you except sell the finished product. (Actually, connecting your computer over your phone line to a bulletin board service can help you there also.) After pressing only a few keys you can get your computer to assemble all those completed forms you’ve completed into a Register (or Record or “Henry”) format publication. Then with surprisingly little editing, it is ready to submit for publication, or to distribute to your relatives. I know of one program (“Roots III”) that inverts Register format, numbering people in your family history narrative as well as your genealogical charts.

    Typical of the search capabilities of these programs is the use a friend recently mentioned. He wanted to examine census records for everyone in his ancestry alive during a particular census year. In only a few minutes the computer searched the records, focused on the year, and printed a report for him. He then had a list of people and probable locations to use when looking at the census microfilms.

    The bulletin board services (BBS) mentioned earlier are a boon in many ways. By connecting the computer to a modem on your phone line you are connected to thousands of people with whom you can share your research. You may ask them for help, or they may ask you. You can upload a small portion of your Ahnentafel (called a “tiny tafel”) onto the bulletin board; it stays there a while, is spread around the country to other bulletin boards, and you may well soon be in contact with others who with common ancestors or information you need. The major developers of genealogy software are also connected to these BBS and will offer help in using their programs if you get into difficulty.

    I'llconcede there are difficulties with using a computer. If you’ve collected thousands of records in your twenty or more years of research, the thought of transcribing all that material onto a computer is daunting. Furthermore, as with the paper system, when you are researching in the field, you always seem to need the one piece of information that you left at home. With the advent of notebook-sized computers, though, you can easily carry the equivalent of a four-drawer file cabinet full of data, in a unit weighing only five pounds. Cost still is another deterrent, although it is becoming less so. Fortunately, genealogy software doesn’t require a sophisticated computer. For the price of a color TV you can buy a used model that will do quite well.

    Finally, there is one difficulty that only good research technique will overcome. It is so easy to disseminate information using a computer that you must be especially wary of accepting someone else’s faulty research. Always VERIFY! (But that caution isn’t restricted to the computer genealogist.). NEHGS is taking an active role in advancing genealogical computing. In upcoming NEXUS columns you will see articles on how to get started, amid how to use the computer most effectively as a tool for good research. Because so much can be learned from shaming experiences, we are forming a genealogy Computer Interest Group for our members as well. We hope with these two moves to continue to serve our members and the genealogical community. We welcome your comments amid suggestions. Please address your computer-related concerns to Donald MacDonald at NEHGS, 101 Newbury Street, Boston, MA 02116. In an upcoming issue of NEXUS we will also provide some guidelines that will help you find the genealogy software right for your needs.

    Donald MacDonald has been a Library Assistant at NEHGS since 1990. He is compiling a genealogy of the descendants of Thomas Chubbuck of Hingham, Mass.

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