People have certain expectations for a potential mate—traits they can’t stand and qualities they can’t live without. For software-seeking genealogists, these six characteristics are must-haves:
1. Easy data entry
A genealogist’s first rule of thumb is to start with yourself and work backward. That’s exactly what you’ll do when you launch your genealogy software for the first time. You’ll begin by completing your individual record—typing in your name, date and place of birth, parents’ names, spouse’s name, children’s names and other genealogically significant details. The program should let you choose from a list of predefined fact or event types (birth, marriage, occupation, physical description, religion and so on), but you also should have the option to add a fact type that isn’t in the program’s list.
Once you’ve entered the relevant information about yourself, you can do the same for each family member. Many programs will let you add photos, sound clips, short home movies and DNA test results. Some have an auto-fill feature that saves you keystrokes by anticipating what word you’re entering.
As you add individuals to your family tree, the software will keep track of who’s related to whom—and how. You should be able to view your data in an individual, family or pedigree view, any of which will let you navigate between generations and edit information. You’ll start to see your family tree take shape and get a sense of where the holes in your research lie.
If your family facts don’t add up, your software should raise a red flag. Let’s say that you enter your great-grandmother’s birth date as 1875, and then you enter her marriage date as 1872. The software will alert you to a possible error. In the event you come across conflicting data during your research, most programs will let you add multiple dates and locations for each fact—for example, two birth dates.
2. Swift source documentation
If you do encounter conflicting data, you’ll be glad you took advantage of your program’s source-documentation functionality. Most programs will let you cite a source—birth certificate, census record, Aunt Sally—for each fact. Generally, you create a record for each source by selecting the source type and filling in details such as the location, title and author. The next time you want to cite the same source, simply select it from the source list, rather than retyping the information. Many programs even let you attach images of sources.
3. Graphical charts
Half the fun of tracing your family tree is being able to show off all your hard work. Genealogy software can help you create a variety of attractive charts that you can print and hang on the wall or give as gifts.
Common chart styles include the ancestor (or pedigree) chart, which displays all of an individual’s ancestors three to five generations back; the descendant chart, which displays an individual’s descendants; and the hourglass chart, which shows an individual’s ancestors and descendants. You can choose from pre-designed templates, and customize charts by changing the colors and fonts and adding images.
4. Handy reports
In addition to attractive family tree charts, genealogy software can create text-only reports, such as family group sheets (which summarize basic facts about a couple and their children), ancestor and descendant reports (similar to ancestor and descendant charts, but with more detail), individual timelines and narrative reports (which turn facts into sentences and are used to create family history books). You can print reports and add them to a research binder for quick reference at home or on a trip to the library. Some programs give you the option of saving a report in Rich Text Format (RTF), so you can view and edit it in any word processing program. You also can save a report as a PDF file or an HTML document for easy e-mailing or posting on the Web.
5. Slide shows, scrapbooks and other publishing options
Most programs let you incorporate images, text, and audio and video files to make multimedia scrapbooks and slide shows. You also can combine reports, charts, photos and text to create your own printable family history books.
If you have a Web site, you can generate HTML reports to post online. Some programs will even walk you through building your own family history site.
6. Simple research swapping
Want to share your research with other genealogists? It’s easy using the universal family tree file format called GEDCOM (short for Genealogical Data COMmunications). You and your cousins don’t need the same software in order to swap data. No matter what software your relatives have at home, they can view your family tree if you send it to them as a GEDCOM file, as opposed to your software’s proprietary file format.
Just use your program’s “export” function to save all or part of your family tree as a GEDCOM, and e-mail it over. If a cousin sends you a GEDCOM file, you can import it into your family tree, automatically adding her research to yours (or select individuals to add to your file one by one). You also can upload portions of your family tree to online pedigree databases; relatives can then download your data and add it to their own family files.
For genealogy software recommendations, visit our Software Guide.