Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, August 8, 2009

For genealogy, let the computer do what computers do

Old habits die hard. I still find that many people, including myself, fail to use the full power of the computer for genealogy, simply because we cannot think like computers. Now, don't get me wrong, although we often talk about computers thinking and reasoning, they are still rather stupid machines that do only what we tell them to do. So, how do I fail to use the full power of my computer? The answer is a little bit complex. We, myself and many others, still hang on to paper based thinking and habits.

Here is one example. I still have a pile of handwritten notes sitting next to my computer, probably an inch or so of paper, that I will likely never look at. Each time I go to the Family History Library, I make notes of my sources and what I search, only to return home and add the notes to the pile by my computer. I always remind myself to transcribe my notes into the computer and add them to the individuals concerned in my program of the day (I use a lot of different programs, like PAF, Legacy, RootsMagic, Ancestral Quest, etc.) But the notes never seem to make it from the paper to the computer and the next time I go to the library I am reminded of my errors and omissions.

I could solve the problem by using my laptop to advantage and actually storing my notes right on the computer in the note sections of the individuals I am researching. So why don't I change? I have a lot of excuses, but it comes down to habit. I am used to carrying around yellow pads and a pens and pencils, but I am still not used to opening up my computer and using its power to organize and store my information.

Another example. I scan thousands of documents. Whenever I mention this fact to anyone connected with genealogy, they always ask me, how do you organize all the information so you can find anything? Here, I am slightly ahead of the pack. I don't organize anything. I put it in a huge pile and let the computer find what I want. In the case of the scanned images, I use Picasa from Google to "organize" my scans, photos and images. All I have to do is label each image (which I am behind in doing) and let the computer "find" any image or set of images I need for any purpose. Now, if I could just find something that would do the same thing for my handwritten notes...

From a different perspective, I see people almost every day who are fighting the technology. They "hate" computers and can't seem to find anything on the computer or the network, including the latest copy of their own data files. It may be that some people just cannot learn to use computers, but from my own personal experience I believe it is a matter of priorities. Genealogists do not learn to use computers because they do not wish to do so. Using a computer is not a question of age or physical ability, I have seen people in their 90s use a computer like a professional. I have also seen people who a severely disabled use a computer with one finger or even their arms or legs. Most of the people who complain the loudest about computers will not take the time, nor do they have the interest in learning how to use them.

What do computers do well? Quickly organize (read this as search and find) huge piles and stacks of information. The Internet is now the largest and most disorganized pile of information in the world, but by using computers to do what they already do well, this pile of unorganized information is highly useful and high accessible. Computers aren't toys or games, they are tools, and very powerful tools at that.

More later on this subject.


  1. I use my computer in my genealogy, but I also keep a paper trail because of the truly ephemeral and ever-changing nature of computer storage. I started out in the days of eight-inch floppies, then to 5.25" disks, 3.5" disks, tape, Zip drive, and now USB drive, external hard drive, and CD. I have discovered that if you are not careful in the CDs you purchase, you can get some that will fail rather quickly, with a resultant loss of data!

    Storage media are continually changing, and as computers change as well, we will have to be flexible and be able to "migrate" our stored data to the new media and new formats. Because of this, I much prefer keeping a paper backup. It's the belt-and-suspenders approach!

  2. Hi James, It seems I keep finding articles from other Randy Seaver's Blog that refer me to yours. I always seem to enjoy your blogs so I will finally join your group today to be able to receive directly from you. Keep up the good work! I really say Casa Grande is my home town even though it really isn't but too many good memories and friends still there.

  3. I finally decided that the computer can search through a pile of notes on paper faster than I can so I just scanned in my note sheets with a few key words. This saves me from having to transcribe, which I never seem to get around to. I also use Outlook notes as post-its.