Saturday, February 20, 2010

A genealogy kit for the 21st century

I don't consider myself a genealogy pro. But over the past 11 years I've worked with a lot of traditional and new technology tools and have managed to build a fairly detailed family tree (700+ names to date, with the earliest going back to the 1700s) through interviews, examination of primary source materials such as photographs and vital records, and increasingly, using Internet-based resources as well as cheap software and digital devices. This post is intended to provide readers with a modern genealogy kit that can be used to build and/or expand their family trees in an organized fashion -- and share the results with relatives.


It's a tremendous amount of fun uncovering new names and facts about forebears. Another enjoyable aspect is being able to share new findings with kids, parents, siblings and cousins. Everyone in my family has been interested in the new names and connections that I've managed to dig up, and it's not surprising why: People in the United States are intensely curious about their origins. This has always been true, but in recent years the interest has spiked, thanks to media and technology trends. Consider the popularity of TV shows like History Detectives and the new PBS series "Faces of America," NBC's upcoming series "Who Do You Think You Are?" as well as the millions of users of and other genealogy websites.

The following genealogy kit is a list of tools and techniques that I've found to be effective for amateur genealogical research. It's not a comprehensive list, but should be enough for people who are curious about their origins and want to understand how technology can help them get started.

One thing to keep in mind as you look at this list: Genealogy basically boils down to finding, organizing, and sharing information, tasks for which computers and digital technologies are extremely well suited. However, the best genealogical tools at your disposal are your human connections. I could learn more about my ancestors in a one-hour conversation with my aunt than I could with a one-year subscription to Living people are far more likely to know certain details that aren't stored in databases or vital records, and can often answer that critical question about the deceased: "What was he/she like"? Therefore, the starting point for any genealogical research should be living relatives (especially older ones) who can hopefully fill in basic names, family details, and places of origin going back a few generations, can identify people in old family photos, and can also paint pictures of their personalities.

In-person interviewing tools: Video cameras and digital audio recorders

In the mid-1980s, my mother did something that would later kick-start my first organized foray into genealogy. She recorded a series of interviews with her father (my grandfather) on a cheap audio cassette recorder. I found the cassettes in 1999, many years after he had died. They were a treasure trove of information, and illustrated how important face-to-face interviews could be. But they also illustrated a problem with the technology: Physical media quickly become obsolete. I saved the audio by converting them to mp3s, but what if I had discovered the tapes 10 years later? Would they have been playable? Would I still have a cassette player to play them back with?

Now, when I do interviews, I try to use a storage technology that can be directly stored on a hard drive, uploaded, or transferred via websites and email using a common, established software format. It's not a guarantee against obsolescence, but it's far more likely that the files can converted to other modern formats and/or converted back to physical media for the purpose of sharing or backups. With tapes or discs, they may deteriorate or not have a machine conveniently able to play them back in 10 years' time. But mp3, .wav, and mpeg video formats have been around for at least 10 years, and will almost certainly be compatible with playback software in the year 2020.  

For video, Flip's cheap cameras come with a built-in USB jack for easy file transfer. You don't need any extra software -- the first time you slot it into your computer it will install software for viewing and transfering files. It also works with QuickTime media software on the Mac. Even better, they are extremely easy to set up. Unlike every camera made by a major Japanese manufacturer, the U.S.-designed Flip has a simple UI that requires no manual. The interface is dominated by a single button that a five-year-old can figure out (I'm not kidding). For a genealogy interview, it's a cinch to start the video rolling, place it on a nearby table pointing at the subject, and start talking. I am embedding a video below that I made a few years ago that shows how to use one.

For audio, the best devices are those that are easy to operate, create clear recordings, and use a standard software format that can be read by any computer. As a journalist, I have used several Olympus devices, which have reasonably good sound quality and create files in standard .wav format. However, they require special client software to operate, which is a big negative - installation is a pain, and the UI is mediocre.

I do NOT recommend using a BlackBerry for recording audio or video. The quality is terrible, and the video format is a proprietary one (mine creates .3GP files) that cannot be instantly read or converted by your computer. Further, installing BlackBerry media software on Windows computers is a buggy, frustrating mess.

Another alternative is using a PC or laptop-mounted video camera for interviews. The problem with this approach is the setup is a pain and it can be distracting or off-putting for the interview subjects, especially if the playback is displayed on screen. The last thing you want is for people to clam up or be distracted by technology when the interview is taking place. For the same reason, mounting a videocamera on a tripod or holding one up to your face as you do an interview will often result in an uncomfortable interview at first.

Phone/remote interviews: If you are unable to conduct an interview in person, the next best thing is to use the phone or an Internet service like Skype. If the subject is willing, try to record the conversation. Google Voice allows this with certain conditions (the subject has to call you, not the other way around), or you can use speakerphone with a digital voice recorder running. Be sure to ask the subject if it's OK to record the conversation before you start (it's not only a legal requirement, it's the right thing to do). If it's not possible take notes during the conversation and immediately after the call fill in additional details before you forget them.

Digital cameras: When I did a small genealogy tour last summer in New York state, one of the tools in my daypack was a digital camera with a 1 GB media card and a miniature extendable tripod. The camera was very useful for taking pictures of relatives, gravestones, and houses that were built by or inhabited by ancestors. On one occasion, it served as a makeshift scanner to take close-up pictures of documents that I couldn't take with me. A decent camera is a great way to preserve details for later examination, and I've also used the images in family genealogy books that I've distributed to relatives. Lastly, a camera is a good way to engage young people or other enthusiastic relatives who want to take part -- have them take the pictures of buildings, gravestones, and people while you take notes or conduct interviews.

I don't have any specific brand recommendations for cameras (you can browse Amazon's latest selection here). If you don't have one already, buy one that is good in low-light situations and has a high-quality setting (high-resolution pictures are important for copying photos, documents, and taking pictures of headstone inscriptions). For a lightweight collapsable tripod, I can recommend some of the Giotto tripods. The model I have weighs about two pounds, and is about the size of large, thick carrot. Collapsed, it can be used for document or photograph scanning (see inset image). Extended, it's about five feet tall.


A good family tree program is crucial for any serious genealogical effort. Paper files and hand-drawn trees are useful, but they are limited by several factors, such as limited sharing and cross-referencing options. Mac or PC software can help organize the enourmous amount of family names and associated data that turn up over the years, and create extremely useful reports and charts.

I cannot recommend any PC program. For OS X, I use Reunion for Mac. It's an adequate program, but suffers from a overly complex and somewhat dated UI. The reports that it generates are useful but require a lot of tweaking. But the cost (about $100) is worth it -- I could not organize the data and be as productive as I have been in my research without it.

A third software option for family trees is online tools, such as I will address those in the next section.

Online tools

When it comes to the Web, there are a few types of applications used for genealogy. Research is the one most people are familiar with, but some people use websites to organize and store their families' genealogical data.

The reasons for organizing trees online are compelling. It's easier to share and connect trees with other researchers. There is no need to install software, because it's accessed through a standard Web browser. You can change computers at will, without transferring family data between machines. You don't have to worry about your hard drive going on the fritz, because it's stored on someone else's server.

But the downsides are significant. The number one concern is security. Spectacular failures of online services that store personal data have occurred in the past (see this story about the Microsoft/Sidekick fiasco). It's also not hard for someone to inadvertently wipe out their own trees with a few misplaced clicks. In either scenario, if the data isn't backed up, the result can be years of painstaking work flushed down the digital toilet.

An additional aspect of security for the online genealogical services is public access to private data. I support the idea of sharing select family tree data, but it should not be the default option, and online services should take a stricter approach to publishing names and connections relating to living people.

Another drawback to the online services is you don't know where they will be in a year's time. Business models, hosting charges, M&A activity or other factors may result in servers being taken offline or data being moved. Or, policies may change, as's EULA makes clear:
Ancestry has the right, at its sole discretion, to modify this Agreement or the Service, including the Content of the Service, at any time.
In other words, prices may go up, certain features may be cut, or other changes may happen. When they do, users will either have to live with the consequences or go through the hassle of transferring or rebuilding the data somewhere else.

When it comes to research, genealogy websites can help you dig up some marvelous facts and insights. I have been able to locate records that I wouldn't have been able to find on my own, such as a document relating to my great-grandfather's WWI draft record. But has lots of problems as described in my review from two years ago. Other sites, such as some of the uploaded family trees found on Rootsweb or personal genealogy websites, are not adequately sourced -- it's not clear where the names or dates came from, which makes them difficult to verify or trust as being accurate.

In addition, a lot of people mistakenly think that research should start online and the only data worth finding is in's database and elsewhere online. In actuality, the best genealogical research information is lying right under most people's noses, either in the form of living relatives who know about family origins and personalities, or photographs, letters, and other documents lying around in attics and old folders. Tackle these sources first, as well as easily accessible vital records and graves, before spending a lot of time online. The data you get will be richer and more reliable, and it will help you hone your online searches without wasting too much time.

My other blog posts about genealogy-related technology:

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