RootsTech 2014

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

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

My Top Ten Useful Programs for Genealogy -- Part Two Online Websites

When I wrote about my top ten most useful desktop programs, it turned out to really be about twenty or so, but in categories. It looks like this post will turn out the same way. The premise here is that these programs fall into categories and consist of programs that are not necessarily directly connected to or ever associated with genealogy as such. I view most of my computer programs more as general purpose tools that can be used for a variety of purposes. For example, you don't use a word processing program to just write about genealogy, you probably use the program for many other totally unrelated purposes. It is the same way with all of the types of programs I use. The possible exceptions are those programs dedicated specifically to genealogy. This is also true of some very limited utility-type programs. These programs are like specialized tools, in contrast to general purpose tools.

I do not treat this list as my "top ten" in any sense of competition or recognition. My point here is that these are the programs I currently use. This could change any day. I may find another program that I feel is more useful and I my start using a program again I previously abandoned. That is one reason that I try to make this kind of list periodically.

This list in unavoidably centered in the United States. This is not out of any desire on my part to exclude the huge number of useful genealogy websites in other parts of the world, but my family is heavily centered in America and goes back into the 1600s in many lines. With a few notable exceptions in Australia, all of my ancestors come form England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and with two lines in Denmark. There are some very useful Danish websites and many in the UK and Ireland, but that is another time.

One difficulty I am running into lately is the movement of programs from localized desktop only status to programs that work with or only work on the Internet. Take Dropbox.com for example. Is this a desktop program or an online program? I think everyone would agree that it was a creation of the Internet. There is no way the program will work without the Internet. But what about programs such as Family Tree Maker and Family Tree Builder? Are these local or online programs? I am sure there are people who use both of these programs and never connect them to their respective websites; Ancestry.com for Family Tree Maker and MyHeritage.com for Family Tree Builder. I consider these types of programs to fall into the "online" category for some purposes and as "desktop" programs for other purposes.

I guess the threshold criteria for entry in this particular list of online programs is whether or not the program will work without an open network connection. If I can use the program without being connected to the Internet, it is still mainly a desktop program. However, you will immediately notice that my number one program category for local programs were Browsers which don't work at all without an Internet connection. That's what I mean, the distinction is becoming blurred.

One challenge of doing online genealogical research is the diffuse nature of the pertinent websites. They are all over the Web as evidenced by Cyndi's List which contains over 330,000 links. It is really hard to focus on any small set of programs since there are hundreds that I use from time to time. I finally gave up trying to bookmark programs and now just do a Google search when I need to go back to a program I used previously.

Well here goes the list. Oh, but before I get down to business here, I am skipping bowser programs because they were in my last list.

No. 1 Search Engines
Hands down, I use search engines more than any other online program and there is no doubt that I use Google almost exclusively. From time to time, I get questions in classes at the Mesa FamilySearch Library about other search engines such as Microsoft's Bing. It has been a while since I wrote about comparing the various search engines so a short comparison might be in order. I usually select a search term associated with genealogy in some way, such as the name of an ancestor, and do identical searches in several different search engines. I have traditionally used the name of my paternal Great-grandfather, but lately, I have switched to less prominent ancestors. One challenge is choosing a name that isn's so common that all of the results are meaningless. I thought this time I would choose, Henry Christian Overson, aother Great-grandfather. The search terms I used were "Henry Christian Overson" Arizona. I put Arizona into the search to help eliminate other people with the same name. Here are the results of a search in several search engines:

  • Google.com -- 366 results with every one of them on the first page a reference to my ancestor
  • Bing.com -- 12 results with all of them on the first page my ancestor
  • Yahoo.com -- 12 results with all of them on the first page my ancestor
  • Excite.com -- No specific number given but it looks like about 20 correct hits but a lot of incorrect hits also.
  • Ask.com -- No specific number given but it looks like about 20 correct hits but a lot of incorrect hits also. Looks exactly like Excite.com.
  • AOL.com -- 327 results, looks like they are using Google's search engine. 

Your results might vary, but it looks like I am still well into the Google camp.

No. 2 Email Programs
Let me just start out by saying I don't like any of them very much. I have a Gmail account that seems to work OK, but the local email clients I have tried have not worked all that well including Microsoft's Outlook and Apple's Mail programs. Right now, I use Sparrow which is now owned by Google. Small world isn't it. Since I get hundreds of emails every week, I depend on the programs pretty heavily. Sparrow has been working OK for me for some time now (not much of an endorsement).

No. 3 Big Online Genealogy Database Programs
Well, of course I am going to list the same programs I always put in this category. Here they are:

Missing from my list, of course, is findmypast.com. This is mainly due to the fact that I don't do much UK research, yet. I suspect that this is one of my next big areas of research. I am not going to try and compare the five websites. They all have there unique advantages. In including FamilySearch.org in this list, I am including the Research Wiki, Family Tree and the FamilySearch Catalog. 

No. 4 WorldCat.org
This selection is easy. I use this program many times each week. I also put it in a category by itself. I cannot imagine life without a library and I cannot now imagine libraries without WorldCat.org. This is ever more the case since the FamilySearch Library Catalog has been integrated into WorldCat.org

No. 4 Mapping Programs
This category, of course, brings me back to Google and Google Maps, but I use a whole variety of other mapping programs for a whole variety of purposes. Probably, one of the most useful programs is OldMapsOnline.org. This is a portal program to tens of thousands of free online historic map collections, including the David Rumsey Maps. I also find it to be the best interface. At the other end of the spectrum, with the worst possible interface is the USGS.gov National Map, Board on Geographic Names and Historic Topographical Map Collection. This huge website has extremely useful geographic information, but is so badly organized that it is impossible to navigate. Another very useful website is the Newberry Atlas of Historic County Boundaries. This is a must-use website for anyone doing research in the U.S. 

No. 5 General reference programs
Oh my, this is a vague category isn't it. I could just list the entire Internet. But what I mean here is programs that provide a broad number of resources. What I am thinking of is like the USGenWeb.org project. This is a collection of websites with a huge number of resources for genealogists. Another helpful program is the RootsWeb.com program, now owned by Ancestry.com. Both of these programs deserve more attention than they usually get. The FamilySearch.org Research Wiki would fit into this category, but I included it with FamilySearch.org

No. 6 Large Online Libraries
Well, this category could go on for a very long entry on its own. So why not take a look at the following lists of libraries. You might get the idea that there were quite a few places to go for research you hadn't considered. 
Of course, I have to mention the Library of Congress, DP.LA the Digital Public Library of America, the National Library of Australia's Trove.nla.gov.au and Europeana.eu

No. 7 Cemetery Location Programs
I don't know how we lived before FindAGrave.com (another Ancestry.com program) and BillionGraves.com (now in partnership with MyHeritage.com). They are easily the most useful newer types of websites imaginable for genealogy. But don't forget Interment.net and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Gravesite Locator

No. 8 Online Family Tree programs
Here is a category I could easily get mired down in. I have a real love/hate relationship with online family trees. I think they are necessary but totally out of control. I hesitate to focus on any one or more family tree programs since I am presently struggling with them all. I am partial to FamilySearch.org's Family Tree simply because I think it shows great promise, but I am harvesting so much information from Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com that FamilySearch Family Tree has taken a backseat for a while. 

No. 9 Online Newspaper Websites
OK, so this is another really broad category. Here is the most comprehensive list of websites that I know about from Wikipedia. I must admit that I use the Library of Congress's website much more than I do any other. There are so many places to look however, that this is a real challenge. Also, there are still many newspapers only available on microfilm or in paper format. 

No. 10 Online Digital Books
Of course Google's Book site tops this list, but there are several other notable websites. Here is my rather selective and short list:
Here is a link to a more comprehensive list called The Online Books Page from the University of Pennsylvania. 

Well, that's the list. Have fun. I would appreciate comments with more suggestions. Thanks. 





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