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

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Do I need my own genealogy software program? -- Answers pro and con

As time passes, I come back more and more frequently to the question of the need for a personal, genealogical, database program. The issue is that considering the existence of multiple, online family trees, is there really a need for purchasing a program that sits on your own computer and may or may not have direct contact with the online family trees. Do you or do you not need your own, personal, genealogical database program? The technological truth is that the genealogical landscape is changing nearly every day and the multiple sides to the question become more and more difficult to resolve.

Why I need a desktop, personal, genealogical database program.

The main arguments in favor of owning a desktop, personal genealogical database program focus on the issues of control and complexity. With your own program, you can limit access to "your" data to yourself. You have complete control and autonomy. You can control what is private and what you want to share, if anything. This is the antithesis of the online community. All the data you put online is in danger of being shared with others, no matter how stringent the avowals of privacy. The news is regularly full of supposedly secure websites being hacked and the contents being made public. In addition, even though the online websites allow you to make your family tree "private" in some cases, the information is shared with others either directly or indirectly. Some websites make no pretense of privacy and all the information is shared with the entire online community.

Your own need for a separate program must take into consideration if you want to share your data with a collaborative family tree such as that on, that anyone can edit. How would you know how to respond, if someone changed the data and you didn't have a copy of what you had previously entered into your own computer? Of course, everything you put in your own computer is completely correct and everything anyone puts online is wrong. So you need your copy of the data secure in your own computer so you can correct any changes made to a family tree. I hope you can detect the sarcasm in these statements. But the issue of maintaining a "clean" copy of your data is real. If you do have your own "private" tree on an online program, no one else can make changes, unless you invite them to do so. But, otherwise, a shared tree is always subject to change.

What if you can't continue to pay for your subscription to an online family tree? How would you maintain your access? If you keep your data on your own computer, then you do not have to keep paying just to download or change your family tree. Anyway, you say you are using Personal Ancestral File and intend to keep using it as long as it will run on your new computers and new operating systems and even if it will not, you will keep the old computer and operating system so you can continue to use the program. (It is technically true that I still have a file in Personal Ancestral File on my Windows computer. I keep it there to check whether the program still works with new operating systems. So far, it seems to be working with Windows 10).

If you think keeping your only in an online program is secure, perhaps you need to read the Terms and Conditions of the online programs. They, in effect, own your data or at the very least have a broad license to use it in any way. I could quote some pretty interesting language from some of the online websites' Terms and Conditions that might surprise you. The websites essentially have complete control over "your" user supplied data. I do not feel it appropriate to quote any one website as an example. It would not be fair, because nearly all of them have similar provisions.

By having your own personal program, you have more sophisticated reporting and publication tools than those currently available in online programs. This is true. The desktop programs have stayed well ahead of nearly all the online programs in ease of use and their ability to provide formatted content in reports. If an online program has the ability to produce a report, there is a possibility that there will be an additional charge involved. If I have my own program, I do not have to pay for the reports or other content beyond the cost of purchasing the program or its license.

All of these considerations are persuasive in convincing me to maintain my data in a program on my computer. The next issue, of course, is which program. I will leave that up to you. My preferences keep changing. I have yet to find the perfect program.

There is one more consideration. How will you family know you have a private program online? How will they gain access to the program if you are incapacitated or die? The same could be said about having your data on your own computer, but this is a valid and important consideration. In times past and presently, families have been known to throw out all the old papers (read years of genealogical research) without even examining them for important documents. The same thing can happen to a privately maintained computer program.

I don't need a dedicated program, I can use an online private family tree if I need one and anyway, there is nothing private about dead people. 

The idea that you own your genealogical research is a sham. How do you even know if what you have discovered has not been discovered and recorded many times before by other relatives? How many times do you think someone else has done exactly the same research that is so new to you? The only way you can be assured that the "unique" data you have in your file is not common knowledge is to share it on an open, collaborative, online family tree program. In this regard, you should also not be so conceited to think that you own your ancestors. Every descendant has exactly the same claim that you do to any information you find or acquire. This is really the best reason for sharing all of your data online. It is true that some changes to collaborative programs are arbitrary and capricious, but there are other researchers out there who may already have solved some of your most difficult research issues and absent an open, collaborative program, you will never know of their existence.

The need for a desktop program depends entirely on your ability to do research in depth. If you are merely copying information from online trees and incorporating hints from the online programs, why bother with your own program. If you reach the level of involvement where you need to maintain information that is more detailed or has other considerations, you can then transfer your data to a desktop, personal program at that time. Some of the online programs have companion desktop programs that synchronize you data, thus avoiding the issue of keeping your own accessible copy of the online data if you choose to stop paying for access or fail to pay for some other reason.

The issue of preserving your research after your death is partially solved by maintaining a publicly accessible, collaborative copy of everything in an online program such as Family Tree. In the case of, there are no fees and there is no danger that the information is going to totally lost. Any of your interested relatives will have access to the data and even though there is the possibility of changes being made to the data, it is really an issue of preservation and collaboration.

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Ideally, you will want to keep the bulk of your research in an online, collaborative, free, genealogy program like Family Tree. At the same time, for all of the reasons outlined above, you may also wish to maintain another, more private family tree. The ability to share data between family trees online, such as the current links between and for LDS users, is an example of what can happen. Even absent this advantage, it is possible to maintain both a private, desktop copy of your data and share those parts that are appropriate online to support the idea of collaboration and still maintain some semblance of privacy.

The preservation issue is real and is a valid concern. You need to make provisions for the preservation of your research. On way to do this is to put it all online on a free, collaborative website. That is one of the main reasons for the creation of the Family Tree.


  1. Mr. Tanner,

    Question for you. You said

    "What if you can't continue to pay for your subscription to an online family tree?"

    What website are you talking about, where you PAY a subscription fee for an Online Tree?

    Thank you.


    1. There are dozens of subscription genealogy websites, starting with,, etc. also, if you put your own website online and pay a monthly or annual fee for hosting, advanced version, and so forth. If you store your data online in a fee-based backup system, you have the same issue.