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

Friday, February 19, 2016

More Thoughts on Genealogical Database Programs

My father was a second cousin one generation removed to my mother. But they may also be second cousins without the removal condition. Whether or not they were second cousins with or without the removal condition, depends on some speculation as to the relationship of some of my ancestor which would be inappropriate to discuss in this post.

Without going through my family tree and realizing that my parents share a great-grandparent, how would I know that they were related? But what if one of my progenitors was only distantly related to the person he or she married, then how can I discover that information. Shared DNA can suggest a relationship, but the identity of that relationship can only be determined by doing research. For example, suppose my parents were only distantly related rather than second cousins. A DNA test might reveal a shared genetic relationship but, of course, the identity of the shared ancestor would not be known without research outside of the DNA test.

When two people who are related, no matter how distantly, marry they are participating in the process of pedigree collapse. For example, normally, you would have 16 great-grandparents. If your parents are related by sharing a great-grandparent, then the same people show up in both your mother's and father's pedigree so the total number of your great-grandparents is less than 16. Pedigree collapse is a major genealogical issue. In families that come from a rather limited geographic area, it is entirely possible that every one in the entire area is somehow related and that shared pedigrees are the rule rather than the exception. After years of being married, my wife and I discovered a common ancestor many generations in the past. This not an uncommon occurrence.

Unfortunately, I have yet to see a program that clearly indicates that my parents are related as second cousins. In fact, I had to become substantially involved in genealogical research in order to understand the relationship between my two parents. None of the programs I have used in the past or still use provide me with any particular insight into this relationship. In fact, a standard pedigree view of my ancestors does not even show the relationship because the intermarriage happened in different generations. My father's great-great-grandfather was the same person as my mother's great-grandfather. If you can't follow this, believe me, it is even harder to show on a pedigree chart. The only way you can see the same people on the same chart is to show six full generations and then spot the fact that the same people appear in both my father's and mother's lines

I use this as an example of the limitations of our present methods of representing genealogical relationships in commercial genealogy programs. I have written about this several times in past and had extensive discussions with other researchers and developers of genealogical software about this subject. I'm concerned that much of the information we discover as researchers is being lost simply by virtue of the fact that more complex kinship relationships are poorly represented by the structure of current genealogical database programs. Another example I have used in the past is the existence of god-parents. Depending on the particular culture involved, god-parents can be and usually are closely related such as with a child in a Catholic baptism or when a Catholic couple is married as is recorded in Catholic parish registers. These important relationships are either obscured or lost when the information concerning the baptism or marriage is entered into a genealogical database program.

The reality of this limitation was brought home to me again by my participation in RootsTech 2016. I had an opportunity to view and discuss dozens of different new and old programs. Only a very small number of the existing programs attempt to address these issues of relationships at all and none would automatically indicate that my parents were second cousins. Determinations of these and many other relationships are left to the users. But, as I already mentioned, these types of relationships are usually lost in the methodology used to record and display information in the most commonly used programs both online and for the desktop.

One of the closest representations of more complex family relationships is demonstrated by the Heredis program from, a French company. Here is a description of this feature from the website:
Extended Family View

This new and more comprehensive view of your family shows its composition as a whole: siblings, remarriage, stepchildren, step- brothers and step-sisters, children from other unions of the different spouses… noting or not when they belong to the direct lineage. All the people with whom they lived, all those who they knew are in the extended family. A practical tool for analyzing re-marriages in the family.
This program is available for Windows, Mac and mobile devices. For the first time at RootsTech, I met the representatives of this company. One of the issues I raised with them and another issue with many, if not most, of the genealogical database programs is the ability to connect to and share information, such as sources, individual data, media items etc., with the large online family tree programs, particularly the Family Tree.  This ability to move data from one program to another is what I consider a major consideration for the survival of desktop computer programs. There is a distinct migration away from using desktop programs for storing family tree information, but at the same time, there are many reasons why genealogists should consider having their own, personally maintained archive in a desktop program.

When I write about the ability to share information, I do not mean that the program can merely act as a substitute search engine and display matching entries in an online database, but that there is a mechanism in the program for moving that information into the local program without the tedious procedure of copying and pasting each entry in each field. One of the major challenges today is the super abundance of online data. Moving that data and attaching it to the individuals concerned has become a considerable burden on the genealogical researcher. Although have an abundance of sources is huge benefit, it is severely limited in its practical application by the difficulty of transferring that information to a single, unified location whether it be an online family tree or a desktop genealogical database program. As programmers and their programs solve this issue, they will gain a tremendous advantage in the marketplace. It follows that those programs that already provide that type of service, the ability to easily import information from online genealogy programs, have already established their superior position. While being able to search an online database directly from a program is a benefit, it is a limited benefit without the ability to efficiently transfer the information found to your own program. The best example of this implementation in a desktop program presently is the RootsMagic program from RootsMagic recently announced an agreement with and will be adding an agreement with in the near future. This is added to its existing agreements with and also has its own program, Family Tree Builder, that synchronizes with the online program. The program, Ancestral Quest, from has also made some progress in this area with online searches and synchronization with along with and other programs that enable online searches but still lack any synchronization functions. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of all of the programs or their functions. I might also mention's divestiture of the Family Tree Maker software and its acquisition by If you feel I have neglected to mention your own favorite program's search or sync capabilities, please feel free to comment to this post.

I am seeing some progress in this area and I laud the efforts of those who are beginning to make this happen.


  1. The Next Generation (TNG) program years ago implemented a relationship-widget that shows detailed relationships between any two members in a family group, even a very large one. Unlike the AncestryMemberTree program, TNG does not truncate relationships (just saying that 3rd cousins "are married") or distort them by incorporating spouses of cousins as having the same relationship to individual X as does the actual cousin.

    Some genealogy programs have provision for details of roles in documented events, such as godparents. UFT did before Ancestry bought it and made it die as unwelcome (and effective) competition.

    1. The Next Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding (TNG) is not technically a desktop genealogical database program but thanks for the observation. See

  2. Relationship calculators exist in lots of programs, including Ancestral Quest, Gramps, PAF, and RootsMagic, just to mention the ones that I have here. Their drawback is that they will only tell you for the couple that you select yourself, and if you're not aware of the issue in the first place, you will probably never try.

    Gramps solves this with the Related Relatives Gramplet. It's a downloadable 3rd party add-on that checks all spouses for common ancestors, also if they appear in different generations, like for you and your wife. This tool can take a lot of time, so you may prefer to run it on a GEDCOM with a proper segment of your tree, like your a child's ancestors.

    1. My comments, as I stated, were directed at commercial genealogy programs. Gramps is a free open source software project. But, as you point out, the program itself does not calculate the relationships.