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

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The last gasp of PAF

In the last post I began a discussion of the issues involved with GEDCOM as a genealogy program data transfer standard. Like the last post, this one is also likely to be full of acronyms and jargon. One of my conclusions, more of a guess, is that FamilySearch, the originators of the GEDCOM standard back in 1984 (actually the predecessor organization) are still committed to Personal Ancestral File (PAF) as a genealogical database program and therefore cannot abandon GEDCOM or PAF would lose it last small grasp on utility. The issue is made more complex by the huge PAF user base whose data would be essentially abandoned if the program were officially discontinued. The situation would be analogous to what happens today if an old PAF user shows up with their data on a 5 1/4 in floppy disk, which by the way still happens. It is a similar problem faced by Microsoft in maintaining some semblance of support for its existing user base in newer versions of Windows.

I recently had some old files in Microsoft Word and found to my dismay that the newest versions of Word do not recognize or open the files. I was able to solve the problem using OpenOffice but it is instances like this that are likely at the core of the issue about upgrading or abandoning the GEDCOM standard for a newer one. This is not entirely a programming problem. Any newer standard could include support for the older formats, but it is perception problem among all of the existing PAF users. I would guess that only a very small percentage of them have even yet considered migrating to a newer program.

OK, to be fair, PAF is still a viable program, but unfortunately, most of the people using the program do not realize its limitations. As a result, we still have tens of thousands of the program's users who are failing to properly attribute sources to their information and are otherwise not documenting their research in a way that can be ported successfully to other programs. It is not that PAF cannot add sources, it is that the source citation programming is itself very limited. I do not want to get into a critique of PAF, but my main objection is its limitations on sourcing. PAF and current version of GEDCOM are sort of like an old car, it was new and modern at the time, but in comparison with the latest models is now really old and clunky.

I freely admit, that using a newer genealogy program does not automatically make you provide sources, but at least, in most cases, the opportunity is there. 

Today, DearMYRTLE wrote a post called "Build a BetterGEDCOM." She indicates that she and others are working on wiki for the purpose of discussing the possibility of building a better GEDCOM. She has several other issues with GEDCOM. To quote DearMYRTLE,
FamilySearch requires certification for software programs such as RootsMagic to integrate with the "newFamilySearch" mega-lineage database now being advanced beta-tested by LDS Church members. (Believe me, from what I've heard, programmers spent months modifying and remodifying their individual genealogy software programs to comply with FamilySearch requirements. Other genealogy software programmers have opted out of the FamilySearch compatability altogether.)

There seems no reliable data communications exchange among genealogy software programs that takes into account data fields, multi-media files and hyperlinks not considered in the last GEDCOM update. 1996 was light-years ago from a technology standpoint.
In her comments she also refers to comments by Gordon Clarke of FamilySearch at the Bloggers Day Event on 21 October 2010, in which he commented that GEDCOM could be replaced by software APIs used to upload files to  Mr. Clarke's comment was probably very accurate, if GEDCOM's only present use is thought to be to upload files to New FamilySearch, the logic of not doing any further development makes some sense. But considering GEDCOM to be sort-of a New FamilySearch utility, leaves the rest of the genealogy community in the lurch. For years GEDCOM compatibility has been the touchstone of the genealogy software world. It was (and possibly still is) the de facto standard for file exchange between lineage linked database programs. As DearMYRTLE observes that "there seems [to be] no reliable data communications exchange among genealogy software programs that takes into account data fields, multi-media files and hyperlinks not considered in the last GEDCOM update. 1996 was light-years ago from a technology standpoint."

Now, that brings us back to the issue of PAF. If FamilySearch has no intention of updating either PAF or GEDCOM and if there is no practical way presently to exchange data between programs with losing some data in the process, then why are we hanging on so stubbornly to PAF and the old GEDCOM standard? Obviously from the perspective of FamilySearch, the development of a "new industry standard" developed outside of the realm of New FamilySearch may adversely impact all of the large databases, most of which now accept GEDCOM files for uploading information. At the time PAF and GEDCOM were developed, none of the huge online databases existed. However large FamilySearch is or becomes, it is no longer in the commanding position it once held whereby it could almost unilaterally create a file exchange standard. As DearMYRTLE indicated, there are a significant number of genealogy programs that basically ignore the GEDCOM standard and do very well, thank you.

Only time will tell if FamilySearch (now known as New FamilySearch) will become so large and so influential as to once again persuade the genealogical community to adhere to an arbitrary standard. It probably more likely that the genealogical software community will develop their own standard or standards rather than be dominated by one large entrant. Recognizing this inevitable change, why not move on from PAF sooner than later? Especially now while there are still a lot of programs accepting PAF data directly?


  1. PAF and GEDCOM are certainly not going to be developed any further by FamilySearch, as they have repeatedly and consistently said. They have not been hostile to others developing genealogical technology standards and products, but they have understandably decided it's not their job to shepherd standards efforts that go significantly beyond their purposes.
    PAF was designed as a tool for LDS Church members to organize and transmit their data to the Church, and everyone else using this free tool got to go along for the ride, essentially. This is also true of GEDCOM.
    There is a new GEDCOM-like effort about to get underway, and FamilySearch can take part or not. I am optimistic that they will, but it's not absolutely critical that they back the effort.

    The key point is that there is a void that exists for users of PAF and GEDCOM, and that no other efforts have been able to meet these users' need for the long term. The latest GEDCOM-like effort recognizes this fact, and in working on a community-driven, independent, standardized replacement for GEDCOM, we intend to meet users' long-term need for a both a data framework and a communication model between genealogical applications and services. It's not going to be easy, but the important tasks are rarely easy.

  2. I've always thought that if you want to transfer genealogy data from one place to another that you HAD to use gedcom (.ged). I never knew there was an alternative until just a few days ago. That's when I fired up my copy of PAF (I hadn't done so in a year or two) to reprint my wall chart for a family reunion. That's when I discovered PAF has been discontinued. That began a search for a replacement. So, my main question now is: What IS the best replacement?

    I obviously want to be able to access my many files which are all .ged format.

    I'd also like to be able to view two databases simultaneously on the same screen to compare them.

    I'm not a LDS member, so would like to be able to opt out of the Mormon stuff. I appreciated that ability in PAF.

    Also, rather than loading the software directly on my computer's hard drive, I'd like to load it on a thumb drive (along with all the .ged files) and operate it from there.

    Finally, I'd like to be able to take said thumb drive and plug it into either my Windows laptop or my Linux laptop and have it run in either.

    For sake of simplicity, I've limited my search so far to the three programs recommended as a replacement by FamilySearch: Legacy, Roots Magic, and Ancestral Quest.

    Based on what I've listed above as "wants" in a new program, which would you recommend?


    James Wagner
    Kingsport, TN

  3. Your PAF program will still work for the time being. I suggest your look at the for some idea of the current programs available and what the reviewers think. FYI PAF was discontinued in 2002.