Unless you want to spend a long time with a pencil and ruler and be prepared to redraw your family tree on a regular basis as you discover new facts, genealogy software will be a key tool in tracing your family history.
In this section we’re looking specifically at software that runs locally on your PC. However, some online genealogy services websites provide a facility to store information in the cloud and use it to draw your family tree online.
Here we discuss, in general terms, what you could expect of a genealogy package but before you decide to make a purchase, we suggest that you read some independent comparative reviews, including our own review of Family Historian 5. Specialist family history magazines would be a good place to look, such as Family Tree Magazine .
Putting it simply, genealogy software provides two main functions. First it allows you to create and edit a database of your family history and second it provides tools for displaying the data in various ways, most notably as a family tree. However, it would be wrong to consider these two functions as totally independent since some packages allow, for example, the database to be edited by dragging items around while viewing a family tree.
Indeed, it would be extremely rare to carry out the two processes sequentially since, for most family history enthusiasts the search for additional information is never-ending. Furthermore, being able to view the “story so far” graphically is often an aid to further research.
Most packages use a proprietary standard for the database and it’s not guaranteed that a database from one package will be importable into another. If the necessary export and import functions aren’t available, nearly all software can write and read in the GEDCOM format which is considered the standard for genealogical databases.
However, many packages don’t support all the options within the GEDCOM specification which means that records might not import fully to a different package. Note that compatibility between different packages isn’t only an issue if you’re considering changing from one vendor to another. Since family history research can often be a collaborative venture, it pays to be able to import from as many other packages as possible so you can merge other peoples’ research with your own.
The data can be displayed in various ways and while some packages allow you to create websites, CDs and DVDs, and books of your family history, most of these can be considered “wrappers” for the more fundamental ways of illustrating your family history. Basic methods of presenting the data include readable reports and charts of various types, the latter being what most people would think of as family trees.
However, the phrase “family tree” is a broad term that encompasses several types of genealogical chart. The two classical types of chart are the descendants chart and the ancestors chart. So, for example, a descendants chart of Fred Bloggs shows Fred at the top, followed by his children in the line below, grandchildren in the line below that and so forth.
Alternatively, Fred Bloggs’ ancestors chart again shows him at the top but, this time, parents appear below, then grandparents and so on. Another option is the hourglass chart which is a combined descendants and ancestors charts with a named person in the middle. In addition, depending on your preference, charts can often be formatted vertically so they are read from the top to the bottom, or horizontally in which case they’re read left to right.
Traditionally, family trees contained basic textual information but not a lot more. So, for example, the box that represents a person might include a name plus dates for birth, marriage and death.
There’s a limit to how much data you’d want to display in each box by default, because it would limit how much of the tree you can display at once. Most packages allow you to show a photograph in each person’s box but the better packages allow you to associate a whole range of additional textual information, photographs, video clips and audio recordings with the people in your tree.
While you might not choose to display all this data automatically, there will be some way by which someone viewing a chart on-screen can access the additional data. Storing media will also be useful if you decide to create a website or a book of your family history.
This article is part of a larger feature on family history. Go to the introduction to tracing your ancestors.