Working the System

Working the System

Don't let technical difficulties stall your genealogy progress. Use these 16 easy tips and timesavers to get in command of your computer—and speed up your family search.

What did genealogists do before computers? We’re not just talking about how the Internet has taken oodles of records from dusty library shelves and put family facts at your fingertips. Or even how genealogy software spits out charts and frame-worthy family trees festooned with your ancestors’ photos. That’s just the beginning of the ways today’s plugged-in genealogists rely on their computers: How about e-mailing cousins around the globe, keeping research notes and massaging old family photos into works of art? Just try doing all that with old-fashioned pens and notecards.

Trouble is, most genealogists are more comfortable with paper and ink than bits and bytes. Sure, you’ve upgraded to the latest high-tech gizmos and have more megahertz than you know what to do with. But too often the gadgets that are supposed to speed up your research end up slowing you down. And those computer manuals and magazines just confuse you — they’re written for techies instead of genealogists who’d rather be researching than rebooting. It’s like finding the missing puzzle pieces about your great-great-grandparents, except the records are in German. You need a translator.

You need, in short, this crash course in the little ways you can make your computer work for you, not the other way around. We’ve based our tips on PCs with Windows XP and Internet Explorer — since that’s what the majority of you use — but most of these tips work similarly with earlier versions of Windows and on Macintoshes. (Mac users, did you know that many of the things PC users do by right-clicking the mouse can be accomplished by holding down your command key and clicking your one-button mouse?) Where Mac shortcuts differ significantly from those in Windows, we’ve included tips for both. Try these techniques and you’ll be able to spend less time at the computer and more time finding your family tree.

Smarter surfing

The number-one reason most genealogists get computerized is to use Internet resources. Once you’ve found sites worth exploring, here’s how to get the most out of cyberspace:

Open search results in a new window. You’ve Googled <> to a list of promising sites or performed an < > search for your ancestors. But once you start clicking on matching “hits,” you’ll be led further and further away from that list of results — you may have to hit the Back button until your finger’s sore, or the original page may refuse to reload. Try this instead: Right-click on the link you want to explore and select Open in New Window. (Mac users, hold down the command button as you click the link.) Now you can follow wherever the link leads, while your original results page remains undisturbed behind the new window. Click the new window closed, and you’re back where you started.

Search your History for family history. Maybe it’s too late, and you’ve already lost that Web page full of search results. Not until the next day do you realize that the Ebenezer Quigby you found on an 1870 census transcription — and rejected as not your kin — is your Ebenezer after all. But where was that transcription? At <>? RootsWeb <>? Some message board? It’s all a blur to you — but not to your handy History folder. Click on the Internet Explorer toolbar icon that looks like a clock with a counterclockwise green arrow, or select View Explorer Bar History (or just hit Control-H). Up pops a pane on the left of your screen showing all the Web sites you’ve visited — typically, for the past three weeks — as folders. Click on a folder to see the pages within each site. But you don’t have to tediously scroll through this surfing history: Instead, just click Search to search the sites you’ve visited recently. (Go to Tools Internet Options to clear your History and customize how long it’s kept. Mac users will find similar options under Edit Preferences Web Browser Advanced.)

See more like it. You’ve finally found that site about Moravian church records and want to see others like it. Maybe you can: Try Tools Related Links, which uses a service called Alexa <> to find similar sites. It opens a pane on the left side of your screen where you can explore the results. (This is free, but Alexa also offers more-advanced services for a fee.) In Google, try clicking the Similar Pages link at the end of each result listing.

Scroll less. You can scroll through a single Web page in search of that elusive surname until your mouse starts smoking. Or you can just let your browser find it for you with Edit Find (or Control-F). Type the surname (or whatever word you’re looking for) in the box that pops up, then click Find Next. Various options let you search upward if you think you’ve already scrolled past what you’re after, as well as restrict your search to whole words and/or exact matches of what you’ve typed.

Offline organization

HTML, the code that makes the Web work, is wonderful for linking and arranging elements online, but not so great offline. These suggestions make it easier to save and work with information from the Web:

Save a Web page. The most sweeping method is to save the entire page to your hard drive. It still will be in HTML, but links on the page will be preserved. Internet Explorer lets you save entire Web pages in several ways: Select File Save As Web Archive, Single File if you want to be sure to capture all the images on the page. The similar option Web Page, Complete creates a copy of the page and its associated files (in a folder) on your computer, but may fail to grab all the images, depending on how they’re stored and coded on the original page. If you want just the text and links, save some hard-drive space and pick Web Page, HTML Only instead. For just the text, you can try File Save As Text Only, though the results may be strangely formatted or even missing elements. You’ll get cleaner results by copying and pasting into your word processing program — which leads us to our next tip.

Clean copy and paste. You may need only a chunk of text from a Web page — say, the part about your great-grandpa, and not all that stuff about other people’s ancestors. But when you select the text, then copy and paste it, the result looks like something from a ransom note. That’s because you’ve copied all the formatting from the Web page, and maybe even some HTML code and images that your word processor lamely tried to interpret. In short, it’s a mess. There’s a better way: Most word processing programs can paste plain text, without the ransom-note effect. (This also is useful if you’re trying to incorporate text from a Web page into an existing document, such as your family history, and want it to match the text you’ve already typed.)

Let’s use Microsoft Word, the most popular word processing program, as an example. Copy your text from the Web page, switch to a Word document, and select Edit Paste Special Unformatted Text. The text will flow in just as though you’d typed it.

That can be a tedious procedure, though, if you’re copying and pasting different bits from many Web pages into your family history. So automate the process with a “Macro,” and Word will “remember” the series of keystrokes. You assign a keyboard shortcut to the Macro (I use Alt-V for plaintext pasting, similar to Control-V for regular pasting — see the cheat sheet at right for more standard shortcuts), and Word does the work for you whenever you press the shortcut. (Word even will “watch” you and automatically create a Macro — except this doesn’t work with Paste Special, for some arcane reason known only to Bill Gates).

For plain text pasting, first create a new Macro — select Tools Macro Record New Macro. Assign a name and a keyboard command. A tape recorder-like box pops up. Go through the Edit Paste Special Unformatted Text rigmarole, then click the square “stop” button to stop recording. Now select Tools Macro Macros… and Edit your new Macro. At the bottom of that scary-looking screen, replace “Selection. PasteAndFormat (wdPaste-Default)” with this text: “Selection. Paste-SpecialDataType:=wdPasteText, Link:=False.” Then hit File Close and Return to Microsoft Word (or hit Alt-Q to close the window), and you’re done.

Now anytime you want to paste plain, unformatted text copied from the Web, just hit Alt-V (or whatever shortcut you’ve assigned).

Search and replace hidden characters. The text pasted from a genealogy Web site still may look funny, with weird line breaks and other oddities caused by unwanted “hidden” characters such as tabs and paragraph returns. Don’t waste time eradicating these by hand: Use your word processor’s search-and-replace function (in Word it’s Edit Replace or Control-H). To search for nonalphabet characters in Word, type ^p for a paragraph return or ^t for a tab. Can’t figure out how to find other strange characters in your program? You’ll see them if you copy a chunk of offending text and paste it into the Search field (or click More Special for a list of options).

Grab a screen shot. Maybe you need to preserve exactly what you see on the screen. Whether you want to keep an online image with accompanying text or preserve a display from your genealogy software, you need to capture a “screen shot” (if you want just the image, right-click and choose “Save Picture As…”). This is simple, though not exactly intuitive. See that button on your PC keyboard, probably at the top just past the function keys, labeled Print Screen? (It also may say “Sys Rq.”) Go ahead, push it. Bet you expected it to print what’s on your screen, didn’t you? Nope, what it actually did was copy a picture of what’s on your screen. To see it, save it or print it, you need to paste (Control-V) that picture into an image-editing program or your word processor. If your genealogy software lets you use images with sources, this also is a great way to record exactly where you got a fact. But what if you don’t want everything on the screen, just the active window? Simply hold down the Alt key as you press Print Screen.

On a Mac, just press Shift-Command-3 to create a screen shot, and then double-click on the image icon to see it in Simple Text. Or you can open it in an image editor, then save it as another file type (such as JPG).

Work with Web data. Internet Explorer makes it a snap to take a mass of unmanageable data online and work with it in a table or spreadsheet on your PC. Whenever the browser sees a Web page using the HTML coding also known as a table, it offers you the option to export the info straight into Excel: Simply right-click and pick Export to Microsoft Excel. (Macs, unfortunately, don’t offer a good equivalent to this feature.)

Many of’s results — when you click on an individual source from the global search results screen — appear in the form of a table. Searching the England and Wales, Civil Registration Index: 1837-1983, for instance, you’ll see columns for Name, Year, Quarter, Record Type, County, Volume and Page. An easy way to capture this entire table is to right-click on it and export into Excel. If you’ve got 553 results to slog through and wish had sorted them by year or county, just suck them into Excel (you’ll have to do 20 at a time and then combine them) and sort to your heart’s content.

Program pointers

Computerizing your genealogy doesn’t have to be limited to the Web and your family tree software. Some of the same programs that make offices more productive can power up your research work, too. Here are some more ideas for programs such as Word and Excel:

Crunch your data with Excel. It you own Microsoft Excel or other spreadsheet software, you’ve already got a basic database program. When you can’t squeeze the answers you need out of your genealogy program, give Excel a try. Some genealogy software — including Family Tree Maker 11 and Personal Ancestral File 5.2 — lets you Save As or Export files and reports in CSV format. That’s short for Comma Separated Values, which Excel can turn into a spreadsheet (each comma is a clue to start a new spreadsheet column). Excel also can convert text files separated by tabs, though it’s a bit more laborious.

Once you’ve got some piece of your family file in a spreadsheet, you can use the commands under Excel’s Data menu to “crunch” the information. If your genealogy software won’t let you sort ancestors by place (of birth, death, marriage), let Excel do it. Or take that trick a step further: If you have a lot of ancestors born in the same place, Excel will sort first by place and then by date of birth. For more-powerful options, turn on Excel’s autofilters under Data Filter AutoFilter. Use the instantly created drop-down menus to dig into your data. Want to display only those ancestors who were born and died in Elbert County, Georgia? Excel can do it in a heartbeat.

Try it in a table. Even if you don’t have Excel, a word processing program such as Microsoft Word can simulate a spreadsheet. Word’s Table functions are particularly handy for neatening up lists of ancestors and their key facts for use in a family history. You can get data from almost any genealogy software into Word simply by saving or exporting the information as an RTF file (short for “Rich Text Format”), which preserves most formatting such as bold or italics, or a plain-vanilla text (TXT) file. Typically, a genealogy program such as Family Tree Maker or Personal Ancestral File will export a text report with each field (such as name, birth date or birthplace) separated by a tab. To turn the resulting chaos into a neat table, open the text file in Word, do a Select All (Control-A) and choose Table Convert Text to Table. Use Table Sort to sort the resulting table by up to three different fields.

Publish for the Web. Not satisfied with the Web publishing capabilities of your genealogy software — or does it simply not give you an option you want? Once you’ve turned part of your family tree into a spreadsheet or a table, converting that into a Web page is a no-brainer. In either Excel or Word, choose File Save As Web Page (use File Web Page Preview to get a peek at the results before you commit). You even can add family photos right into the table and let Word take care of the formatting and coding to put them on your online page. Upload all the files to your Web-hosting service using an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) program, and your ancestors will be online. Note that Word and Excel don’t preserve the family tree relationships that make genealogy software special. You can, however, create your own links within spreadsheets or tables — from Great-grandpa as a child, for example, to a page showing him with his spouse and offspring — by right-clicking and picking Hyperlink.

Printing primer

Even though you’re becoming a genealogy computer wizard, sometimes paper is still best. Nothing beats the printed page for durability, ease of filing and sharing with the less-technologically minded. Try these tips for family history-friendly printouts:

Print part of a page. If that online land record you want to save is only part of a Web page, why waste a ream of paper printing the whole thing? Later, you may have a hard time even finding the information you wanted to print. Time to discover the tree-saving joys of the Print Selection option: Highlight the part of a Web page you want, select File Print (don’t hit the printer icon on the toolbar — that prints everything), and click the Selection button. This works with both text and images.

Macs have a Print Selection option in Word, but not Explorer. You still can print just a portion of a Web page, though: Go to File Print Preview and identify which pages hold the text or images you want to print. Hit the Print button, then change the page selection from All to your desired pages.

Identify your printouts. Increasingly, the sources in your pedigree files are Web pages instead of pages from books. But unlike photocopies from books, Web page printouts don’t automatically come with their titles at the top. If you’re printing a Web page to file as a source, you’ll also want to print the details about this page so you can properly record it — and find it again later. Fortunately, you can make Internet Explorer print headers and footers on every page to identify your printouts for posterity. Just go to File Page Setup. Here you can customize the content and position of your headers and footers by typing in any or all of the following characters (Macs have standard headers and footers; just check the Headers and Footers box in your Print dialog window):

&w = Inserts the Window title (such as Forman Family Genealogy Site)

&u = Inserts the page’s Web address

&d = Inserts the date in short format

&D = Inserts the date in long format

&t = Inserts the time of the printout

&T = Inserts the time in 24-hour format

&p– Adds a number to each printed page

&P = Adds the total number of pages (as in “page &p of &P” for “page 3 of 7”) &b = Centers the following header or footer text

&b&b = Centers text after the first “&b,” right-justifies text after the second “&b”

Print on both sides. Besides being a good way to save trees and reduce your tab at the office-supply store, printing on both sides of a sheet of paper can help keep together pages that otherwise may get separated in your files. In Word, this is easy even if you don’t have a “duplex” printer to do it for you. Check the “Manual duplex” box in the Print dialog box. Word will print on one side and prompt you to put the sheets back in the printer for side two.

Unfortunately for Mac users, the method is more convoluted: Use the Print dialog box to select Print Odd Pages under Word options. Print, then put the paper back in the tray and select Paper Source Manual Feed and Print Even Pages. Finally, hit print again. (Note: Some printer manufacturers recommend against printing on both sides of a sheet, so check your printer user manual.)

Print your links. The trouble with printing Web pages on paper is that you often can’t see what the links are. But you can print the links even as you’re printing the page: In Internet Explorer’s Print dialog box, click the Options tab and then check “Print table of links.” All the links in the page will print at the end of your document.

Mac users, you’ll once again have it harder. Copy each link by clicking on it and holding down the mouse button, then selecting Copy Link to Clipboard. Then paste it into a Word document using Edit Paste or Control-V.

From the October 2004 Family Tree Magazine

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