Today’s technology users face an overwhelming buffet of genealogy websites, programs, apps and tools. Figuring out which ones to use and then keeping track of them all is enough to give anyone a tech tummy ache. Too much of a good thing can make you sick—or at least sick and tired of navigating the countless tech tools available.
The good news is that you don’t need every tech tool ever created to accomplish your genealogy goals. In most cases, for a given function, just one tool will do. Ah, but which one, you ask? Soothe your suffering by simply focusing on these 10 technology tools that fulfill most any genealogist’s needs.
1. Online search: Google
Google is the search engine you hear most about, though other good ones are out there: Microsoft’s Bing; Dogpile, which specializes in searching multiple engines at once; and DuckDuckGo, which focuses on your privacy.
Google reigns as king, though, for good reason. First, its search architecture, called Caffeine, features continual index updating, which gives you fresher results. Google also packs a wide range of innovative, free tools, such as Patents (search for names in old patents), Books (millions of digitized, searchable books), News Archive (old editions of newspapers, though Google is no longer adding to this collection), Scholar (search scholarly papers) and Earth (map places your ancestors lived). Finally, you can put Google to work for you by automating searches with Google Alerts. Sign up for a free Google account, run your favorite genealogy search, and then copy and paste your query into Google Alerts. Select your delivery preferences, and Google will run the search for you 24 hours a day, emailing you relevant results. It’s like having your own free genealogy search assistant.
2. Mobile genealogy device: iPad Air
Like it or not, the future is going mobile. According to data compiled on the website Super Monitoring, an estimated 91 percent of the world’s population had a mobile phone by the end of 2013. There are more mobile devices—phones, tablets, etc.—than there are people on Earth. The trend will continue as “cloud computing”—using programs and files located online rather than on your home computer—becomes more prevalent. Microsoft’s Office 365 Home and Adobe’s Creative Cloud are leading examples of how companies—including in the genealogy industry—are moving toward cloud-based, subscription models for access to services, and creating websites and apps optimized for use on mobile devices.
Whether you have a smartphone or a tablet (or both), a mobile device keeps your load light and your research flexible. Our favorite? The iPad Air. Lighter than ever at just 1.05 pounds and sporting the iOS7 operating system, the iPad Air is a great solution for genealogy on the road. If you prefer Android operating systems, check CNET’s rundown on the top-rated Android tablets for 2014. Whatever you choose, your mobile device will be an integral part of your tech-savvy family history endeavors.
3. Note-taking: Evernote
Evernote is leading the pack of note-taking programs on the market. Launched in 2008, it now boasts 100 million users worldwide. It’s no wonder Evernote has taken the genealogy community by storm, as it did college students: Both demographics are heavy researchers. Evernote makes managing, organizing and retrieving research notes a snap. And unlike OneNote, one of many Microsoft tools, Evernote is all Evernote Corp. does—the company is 100 percent focused on note-taking solutions.
As a cloud-based program, Evernote stores a master of each of your notes on its server, and then keeps them updated on all your computing devices that have an Internet connection. Never again will you accidentally work on an old version of a note. And sharing notes with other researchers is a breeze, because each note sports its own web address. Simply copy and paste the address into an email to share it.
Start by downloading the free software from the Evernote website. Evernote will detect whether you’re on a PC or Mac and deliver the right version. Also download the web clipper for your favorite browser to make saving online content a snap. Then jump on your mobile device and download the free Evernote app (available for all the major operating systems). Now you’re ready to take and store notes of every kind: text, audio, video, attachments, web clippings, even handwritten.
4. File storage, transfer & sharing: Dropbox
With all the mobile computing you do, you’ll want an easy and preferably free way to grab the genealogy files you need, regardless of which device you’re using and where you are. That’s where Dropbox comes in. It gives you cloud-based storage to synchronize digital files between your computers, smartphones and tablets. It’s a favorite among genealogists for several reasons:
• Ease-of-use: Dropbox is one of the easiest cloud storage services to use. Getting started is fast and easy, thanks to a simple and elegant design. Sign up on the Dropbox website and you’ll get 2 GB of free storage. That’s plenty to get you started, and Dropbox is one of the few storage services that offers the opportunity to get more free storage by referring friends. Unlike many other services that have upload limits, there are no limits to the size of the files uploaded via the Dropbox desktop application or mobile apps.
• Flexibility: Are you a PC user at home, but an Apple mobile user on the road? No problem; Dropbox works equally well on PCs and Macs, Android and Apple, and the Kindle Fire. At the library without a computing device? Just sign in to your Dropbox account on a library computer and all your files are within reach. Make sure you sign out and close the browser window when you’re through.
• Reliability: An early arrival on the cloud storage scene, Dropbox has built a reputation for consistent reliability. It also secures your files with 256-bit AES encryption and two-step verification.
5. Remote access for mobile devices: Splashtop 2 Personal
No matter how awesome your tablet or smartphone is, there are times when you need the power of a desktop computer. This might be when you’re on the road and need to work with a genealogy database. If you use a program like RootsMagic, Family Tree Maker or Legacy and you want the full functionality of the program, you’ll need to use them on your computer. And if you come across an online video in a Flash player on your iPad, you’re out of luck because the iPad doesn’t support Flash. Splashtop Remote solves dilemmas like these by providing remote access to your computer on your mobile device.
Start by downloading the Desktop Streamer from the Splashtop website onto your desktop computer. Leave your computer running (sleep mode is fine). Then head to the app store on your mobile device (iOS, Android) and download the low-cost app. Next, launch the Splashtop 2 Personal app on your mobile device. You’ll see a screen, but no Streamers (computers) listed yet. Tap the Settings (Gear) icon and click “Create an account.” Enter your email address and create a password, being sure to follow the password guidelines. Connect your mobile device and Streamer to the Internet at least once in order to log in to your account on both devices. You’ll then be able to connect your iPad to your Streamer within a local network.
You’ll need the low-cost Anywhere Access Pack (AAP) to connect your mobile device to your computer from a different network when you’re at a library or other location away from home. Once you’ve experienced the power of remote access, you’ll never want to leave home without it—although you’ll happily leave that heavy laptop at home.
6. Online backup: Backblaze
With so much of our precious family history stored on our computers, automated backup is essential to safeguard files against computer crashes and natural disasters. The good news is that you no longer have to remember to back up your data to a portable hard drive daily, weekly or monthly. Online backup services let you set up a backup and forget it. The not-so-good news is the sheer number of backup services you have to choose from can give you indigestion. Though many services could fit the bill, Backblaze consistently rises to the top of list.
Backblaze’s strengths include support for Windows and Mac OS X users, unlimited storage space, unlimited file types (even video, which many other services don’t automatically include) and no limit on file size. Users’ data can be backed up automatically when the computer is idle, on an hourly schedule, or continuously. AES encryption is used to ensure security. If you lose your computer files due to a hard drive crash or other calamity, files can be restored and delivered in the form of a digital download, on an external USB hard drive up to 3TB, or a USB flash drive up to 128GB.
The newest Backblaze offering is the free iPhone app, which makes it easy to download your backed-up computer files to your iPhone. Simply sign into the iPhone application and you can select the photos, music or documents you want to download. A free 30-day trial makes getting started easy, and the low monthly rate of $5 offers peace of mind.
7. Library searching: WorldCat
When libraries started launching their own websites, it was a huge boon to genealogists, making it easy to plan ahead for visits and maximize research time. But things could get a little more complicated when trying to determine which online library catalogs to search. The United States alone has more than 120,000 libraries of all kinds—that’s a lot of websites to visit.
Then in 2006, the WorldCat website opened its doors to the public and made prepping for library trips a whole lot easier. WorldCat is said to be the world’s largest bibliographic database. It originated from a catalog that was created starting in the early 1970s. Today, 72,000 libraries in 170 countries and territories contribute their collection descriptions to the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) global cooperative, in which WorldCat participates. The catalog now contains more than 300 million records, representing more than 2 billion physical and digital items in more than 470 languages. This immense online bibliographic footprint makes it the perfect place to start every library search.
Though you can use WorldCat without signing up for a free account, there are advantages to registering: You can create research lists, make notes on catalog listings, create bibliographies of your favorite books, and write reviews. You can run a keyword, author or title search, or click Advanced Search for more help constructing your query. In your list of search results, click on a title and then scroll down to Find a Copy in a Library. Enter your zip code, and the results will be presented to you in order of their proximity to your home.
Still not convinced WorldCat is the ideal starting point for library searches? How about this: A recent partnership between FamilySearch and the OCLC means that the FamilySearch online catalog is now searchable with WorldCat.
8. Consuming online content: Feedly
Run a search on genealogy in Google’s Blog search and you’ll get more than 12,000,000 results—talk about overload. But don’t let it scare you away, or you’ll miss out on great, up-to-the-minute blog posts, podcasts and videos that can aid your research and nurture your ongoing genealogical education. And there’s an easy way to consume just the online content you want: Feedly.
This free online content aggregator app—a tool to pull together the online content you select—works with your web browser and mobile devices (iOS and Android). When the providers you select publish new online content, it’s automatically sent to your Feedly account. Rather than having to hunt down your bookmarked websites and go look for what’s new, the latest content comes to you.
Feedly’s strength is its super easy-to-use interface, which makes adding and organizing content a breeze. You can add content providers to Feedly in a couple of ways: You can search for keywords and/or websites in Feedly’s search box, click a selection from the results, and then click the green +feedly button. Or, you can add the free Feedly bookmarklet to your web browser toolbar, and when you find an RSS feed (the address that allows you to subscribe to a website) you want to add, just click on the bookmarklet.
You can organize your feeds by category, such as libraries, archives, research locations, surnames, etc. Go a step further to diminish overload by setting up a Priority category that includes your list of must-read items.
You also can choose how your feeds will be displayed for quick scanning of post titles. Usually, you’ll get a “snippet” view of the first few words, so you can easily decide which items to spend your time on.
9. Social media management: Hootsuite
Many genealogists have turned to social media to connect with other researchers across the nation and around the world. Facebook, Twitter and Google+ offer instant access to the collective genealogical brain trust. But all those tweets and posts can quickly flood your computer, drowning useful information in a sea of online noise. Before you decide to forgo social media and become a family history hermit, try an aggregator tool such as Hootsuite.
From one convenient dashboard on the Hootsuite website, you can monitor online conversations and send tweets and Facebook posts or schedule them for future publication. Why would you want to schedule a post in the future? How about setting up three months of reminders for your next family reunion in one sitting? Or automating your genealogical society’s news and calendar events? And bloggers can set up an entire week or month of blog posts for publication in a fraction of the time it would take to post them one at a time. Think of Hootsuite as Grand Central Station for your social media life, getting you where you want to go in the shortest amount of time. Follow these steps to get started:
1. Sign up for a free Hootsuite account.
2. Add the social networks you participate in, such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Foursquare.
3. Add Tabs and Streams, which allow you to run and save advanced searches, filter for content and manage lists and followers.
4. Compose and send your messages.
5. Optionally, install apps found in the App Directory to further customize your dashboard.
6. Download the free Hootsuite app for your mobile device (iPhone, iPad and Android). Hootsuite’s beta mobile web app also is available for iOS, Android, Blackberry or Windows.
Need more help? Check out Hootsuite’s Getting Started article or take in free webinars found in the Help section.
10. Viewing and posting video: YouTube
Considering that more than 100 hours of video are uploaded just to YouTube every minute, the world of video can get overwhelming pretty fast. But don’t shy away from YouTube because of its cute baby and crazy cat videos. It also offers genealogy demos, vintage newsreels, family stories and other footage that could nurture your family tree.
If you have a free account with Google (owner of YouTube), you’re already on your way to managing this video treasure trove. Head to YouTube and sign in with your Google login, or sign up there if you don’t have an account. Once you’re signed in, you’ll find an array of powerful tools to help you zero in on footage relevant to your research.
The YouTube search box, powered by Google, is the key to locating videos of interest. The same search operators and techniques you use with Google will work on YouTube. Search for ancestral places and timeframes, your favorite genealogy experts, family history plus a surname, and “how to” plus some genealogy topic you want to learn about.
Your account includes your own YouTube channel and the Creator Studio, where you can create and upload your own videos, view videos from channels you subscribe to (give Family Tree Magazine’s channel a try) and create playlists of your favorites.
When it comes to tech tools, your options are as endless as a five-star buffet. These 10 certainly aren’t the only ones available, but they are proven options for managing the flow of genealogy information. Once you put these tools into place, you can spend less time nursing your tech tummy ache and more time tracing your roots.
Tip: You can add easily YouTube channels to Feedly. Just copy the channel’s home page URL and paste it into the Feedly search box. Before you hit the enter key, add /feed to the end of the address.
Tip: If you use Evernote on your tablet, download the free Dolphin web browser app. Dolphin has the power of web clipping to Evernote built right in.
Do you spend more time “talking” to people via text and Facebook than to the people right in front of you? Forget to eat when you’re surfing the internet and reading blogs? Feel like Pavlov’s dog, compelled to respond every time your phone beeps? If you answered yes, maybe it’s time to give yourself a brief technology break by following these tips:
• Schedule quiet time: Turn to your calendar program of choice to schedule time for research, reading or just a much-deserved break. In apps such as Google Calendar, you can set a reminder that’ll pop up on your computer or mobile screen when it’s time for your R&R.
• Switch from “push” to “pull”: When you’re doing research or otherwise don’t want to be bugged, switch your phone and email settings to Do Not Disturb (DND), a manual mode in which you decide when to “pull” messages. On the iPad, tap Settings>Do Not Disturb, or just swipe up from the bottom of the screen to open the Control Center. When DND is on, a moon icon will appear in the status bar. Android users can access DND settings through Settings>Sound & Notifications>Do Not Disturb.
• Filter for Favorites: In many email programs, you can set up advanced filters to tag or move messages into separate folders. Target messages from or to certain email addresses or with specific words in the subject with filters so they’ll get your attention first.
From the October/November 2014 Family Tree Magazine