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

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Do I need a "genealogy program" to do my genealogy?

This is not another post about paper vs. computerized genealogy. My question addresses a serious issue that goes to the heart of what most people consider "doing their genealogy." At one end of the spectrum we have "professional" genealogists who, after doing intensive research, write "proof statements" based on the "Genealogical Proof Standard." The process is usually described something like this:
The Genealogical Proof Standard is the standard set by the genealogical field to build a solid case, especially when there is no direct evidence providing an answer, or when there are conflicts in the evidence. 
See Amazon ad for the following book,

Rose, Christine. Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case. San Jose, Calif: CR Publications, 2014.

The fact of the matter is that a "professional genealogist" could do everything they do for clients using a word processor and a copy machine or other scanning device. In fact, they could do without a word processing program and still use a typewriter. There is nothing about doing genealogical research that would have to rely on a computer or any particular computer program. Professional genealogists would not accept a "computer generated" genealogy as an acceptable professional document. 

But what about online research and digitized sources? Of course, almost all genealogists now recognized the need to do some research online, but in the end, there is still a major issue with the completeness of research if you rely only on online sources. 

I acknowledge that this level of genealogical research is still necessary in some instances and because this is the case, there is a real issue about the need for the spectrum of "genealogy" programs now available. Some have taken umbrage with my use of the term "program." I use the term in its most general sense, i.e. a set of instructions given to a computer. From my standpoint, any time I turn on any electronic device, it is using a program. You can call it what you want, app, routine, subroutine, to me they are all "programs."

Many of the computer programs stylized as "genealogy specific" are in effect specialized database programs written in a particular computer language. Each of these programs reflect the understanding of the programmers about what a potential genealogical user would like to store about his or her family. But none of these programs actually do genealogy. They are simply elaborate methods of storing information. A professional genealogist would immediately reject almost all of the programs because the source and citation style does not conform to a recognizable standard. For example, none of the currently available genealogical database programs will automatically produce a source citation that conforms to the Chicago Manual of Style. Why would I use such a program if I have to rewrite every one of the citations the programs produces?

If a computer program developer develops a program either for individual use on one computer or for general use online and calls it a "genealogy" program, does that mean that the program is necessary to do genealogy? If my primary activity as a "genealogist" is writing Case Studies and Proof Arguments, isn't my primary genealogy program a word processor? 

What if I don't really care about proof statements or client reports? What if all I want to do is see my family in a pedigree chart? Do I really need a program to do that? 

I think the answer to all this is simple. What we do as genealogists depends on our expectations and the end product of our research. The various electronically designed devices and programs may be tools, but our main activity involves our individual research and writing. I use the tools to save time and to organize my research. But it is always a good idea to question whether or not using a particular program is helping me to achieve my goals. 


  1. I think the key point is "to organize my research". If it's not organized, it's harder to analyze. Roots Magic happens to be my choice.

  2. I agree with the organization factor. I also believe that modern genealogy software makes it enormously easier to do a good job of creating and maintaining a family history, including finding and citing documentation, than manual tools.

    As far as the "Professional Genealogist" and their scoffing at citations that don't fit the Chicago Manual of Style, I don't give two shakes. The purpose of a citation is to allow later readers to relocate the document cited, and the exact layout of the citation is of much less importance than that it has the necessary information to find the source. It's far more important to actually locate the documentation and include the factual data correctly. Modern software can make such documentation easier to find, both by searching online, and by suggesting types of records and locations to find them offline when needed, based on existing data.

    1. Exactly, you took all the wind out my follow up post. :-)

  3. Professional genealogists (of which I am one) do not scoff at the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). I have a copy of it on my desk right now.

    Citation is an art. But creating art still requires using the proper tools. CMS is simply not the right tool for citing genealogical evidence found in manuscript works.

  4. I should have mentioned that the right tool is "Evidence Explained" by Elizabeth Shown Mills. EE incorporates the basic principles of CMS into its citation structures.

    That said, Daniel is of course correct that a main purpose of a citation is to allow later readers to relocate the document cited. (Another purpose is so that the original researcher can also refind the document later on.) The structure in EE is there to insure that the necessary information to later find (or re-find) the document is captured.

    In court filings, it seems to me as a non-lawyer that there is a lot of details in them that is not needed. But I assume that lawyers perceive that legal "best practices" demand that level of detail. It is the same way in genealogical research. Genealogists have learned from experience what the best practices are in citing genealogical evidence, and Elizabeth Shown Mills codified these principles.