When I was a kid, family reunions weren’t about genealogy as much as they were about eating. Who cared how many branches of the family showed up, as long as Mom made potato casserole and Grandma brought her famous lemon banana salad?
Well, those days are long gone, and like most genealogists, I regret all the lost chances to interview the elderly keepers of the family’s history — or as my sister called them, “those old ladies who lived out in the country.” Fortunately, though, my Faulken-berry family still has an annual reunion, and if I were to attend, I’d take a lot more than a covered dish. Here’s the gear all you tech-savvy reuniongoers should consider packing in your picnic basket.
Personal digital assistant (PDA) or laptop computer
PDAs are do-it-all gizmos — and they aren’t much bigger than a deck of cards. They can hold your genealogy data, double as a picture album and even beep to wake you up in the morning (or from your afternoon nap). PDAs sell for $99 and up; most companion genealogy programs — such as Ged-Star <www.ghcssoftware.com>, GedWise <www.batteryparksoftware.com>, Pocket Genealogist <www.northernhillssoftware.com>, HandyTree <www.arkansoft.com/HandyTree.html> and My Roots <www.tapperware.com/MyRoots> — cost under $20. You even can get the PDA version of Personal Ancestral File desktop software for free from FamilySearch <www.familysearch.org>. All these programs let you convert your desktop software to PDA-readable formats. Plus, if you and your cousin Joe have the same PDA platform and software, you can “beam” your data to each other’s hand-held devices.
A laptop takes up more trunk space, but you could bring it instead of a PDA. You can show relatives all your family tree data and digitized ancestral photos, play your heritage slide show and surf the Web for your ancestors (if you can get to a wireless hotspot). If you’re considering buying a laptop, this may be the perfect time to get it. Laptops start around $500, depending on the brand and features you want.
Don’t forget to bring blank CDs or DVDs. Burning images and data to discs is a great way to swap photos and research finds. Plus, the discs make great gifts for relatives who can’t attend.
What better way to capture reunion pictures than with a digital camera? Not only can you instantly make sure you get a perfect group picture, but you also can document the priceless mementos your cousins brought, such as Granny’s hankie or Great-aunt Helga’s teacup. Digital-camera prices continue to drop: You can now pick up a good-quality, 5- to 6-megapixel camera for around $200. The more megapixels your camera has, the better the image quality.
Remember to throw extra memory cards, back-up batteries and a battery charger into your reunion kit — you’d hate to get midway through the gathering and run out of battery power or storage space. I travel with 2GB of memory cards and three batteries, but I’m a fanatical picture taker. To be certain you’ll have enough memory card space, you can download your photos to your laptop computer each night.
Digital tape recorder
If I had to choose only one tech toy to take to my family reunion, it would be a digital tape recorder. In my opinion, nothing captures a person’s character like hearing him or her speak. Back in the 1960s, I used an old reel-to-reel recorder to preserve one of the few family interviews I ever conducted. The tape captured the inimitable voice of my great-aunt Dollie recounting the tale of her father’s birth during a Civil War raid in northern Missouri. Unfortunately, I’ve since lost this treasured family item — but I used to love listening to Aunt Dollie’s story over and over. You can capture your relatives’ voices, too. A decent-quality digital tape recorder sells for about $40. Look for one at your local electronics store.
OK, I know what you’re thinking. “Why in the world do I need a scanner?” Well, consider this scenario: Great-aunt Josephine has brought her vintage family photo album to the reunion, and you’re dying to make copies of her photos. But sweet old Josie wouldn’t think of letting the album or the pictures out of her sight. Ta-da! Scanner to the rescue.
You easily can scan photos directly from the album (before her attentive eyes) to your laptop. Once you return home, you can play with the pics in your image-editing software or burn CDs for other relatives. If you don’t want to haul a scanner — although many are now about the size of a legal pad — you could take pictures of the old photos with your digital camera. Scanners come as cheap as $30, so you won’t have to break the bank to get one.
If you’ve seen your kid or grandkid walking around with wires sticking out of his ears, holding a credit card-size (or smaller) gadget in his hand, chances are he’s hooked to an Apple iPod <www.apple.com>. You might ask to borrow it for the annual reunion — in addition to holding thousands of songs, this light-as-a-feather MP3 music player also can display up to 15,000 color and black-and-white photos. Some players even let you display the pictures as a slide show. If you can’t borrow an MP3 player, a new one will cost you $140 to $500. You’ll show the kids and other relatives you’re the hippest genealogist around with this ultimate show-off gadget.
You’ll be happy to have your cell phone on hand if you get lost on your way to the family fest — just call up the reunion planner to talk you in. Once you arrive, swap numbers with your cousins or, if you have a camera phone, take pictures and send them to relatives’ phones or e-mail accounts. And if your group splits up for excursions around town, you can communicate with one another. Check cellular service providers for phone prices and plan details — and before you sign up for a new plan, make sure it gets reception at your reunion location without outrageous roaming fees.
I joke that I take more power cords, chargers and batteries on a trip than I do clothes — and once you get into the digital reunion revolution, you will, too. Just don’t forget that all-important low-tech staple: the food.
So many things to do, so little time. Use this checklist to keep track of the tasks you need to accomplish before traveling to your family reunion.
Transfer your most up-to-date genealogy data to your laptop or PDA.
Charge batteries for all your electronic equipment.
Load photo-sharing software onto your laptop or PDA.
Photocopy or burn CDs of pictures to give your relatives.
Pack any family treasures (old diaries, letters, a wedding gown and so on) you want to display, plus a book for recording everyone’s contact information.
Write a list of genealogy questions to ask cousins.
Learn how to use your camera and other gadgets.
Create a summary of your gadgets’ basic operating instructions or pack instruction manuals for the most complicated devices.
Buy extra memory cards, blank storage disks and batteries.
Untangle and organize all power cords you need to pack.
Prepare the casserole or other dish you signed up to bring, and print copies of family heritage recipes to give each attendee.
From the August 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.