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

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What programs are really the most valuable for genealogists?

I guess I should really have called this post, is there life after databases for genealogists? Even I have succumbed to the idea of the top ten of this and that. But after my most recent go around, I decided that the real issue was what programs are really the most help? Any database is valuable if it happens to have crucial information about your ancestors. But even the largest database in the world is useless if it is missing that same crucial information. What is worse, is the largest database in the world having your crucial information but not being able to find the information due to the failings of the search engine.

Viewed in this way, whether or not I use a program is immaterial to your own research needs. I can rate databases, programs or whatever by any criteria that may exist, but what it comes down to is utility for a specific purpose and that purpose is finding and organizing your ancestors (and mine). In fact, such a program may not yet exist. The records may still be on paper and we just might have to use the old "slog through the archives" routine to find the information we are looking for. You just might find the information you are seeking while standing in the middle of a field or forest somewhere you have never been before and being clear out of range of any electronic signals.

Computer programs and Internet programs are merely tools. We use those tools to find and organize information, but we should never substitute the tool for the goal. Tools are not the goals of genealogy. Finding and recording information about our families is the goal. The most valuable program is one that helps us achieve our goal in the most efficient way possible. So, it seems to me that the most valuable programs are those that help us in the best and most efficient way to find our ancestors.

For this reason, I must rate Google's search engine as the most valuable resource we have. If there is anything a genealogist needs to know about computers and the Internet, it is how to use Google's vast resources effectively to find what you need to know and where to look further. I have said before that the way to learn how to search is to practice searching. But it also helps to know how the search engines work. Google provides a huge number of resources to teach you how its programs work. Start with Inside Search, the basic Google website with information about the search engine and its features. Watch the videos, learn about all the Tips & Tricks and try some of the teaching exercises.

The next step is to realize that not everything valuable to genealogists is readily available online. Some of the information we need is locked up in "private" databases some commercially sponsored and others in a variety of organizations and institutions. For example, all of the resources of and are not necessarily searchable by Google. So you may have to use Google to find where the records are kept rather than searching the records directly. So I may use Google to find a record source, but I may still have to travel to the source to examine individual records.

For example, I can use Google to find a collection of papers about one of my ancestors in a university library. I might be able to see the catalog entry that mentions my ancestor's name, but the content of the records may still be in the boxes on the shelves of the Special Collections section of the library and to see the records, I may have to travel to the library and ask to see the collections. In addition, there may be some very restrictive and special requirements for viewing the records. I may need to contact the library directly to find out what those restrictions might be.

Even though Google does a fabulous job of finding stuff, it is not the end all of resources. I suggest that the next resource or program you might want to know about and use is As a genealogist, you are simply missing the boat if you do not use along with your use of Google.

As a very basic first step, I suggest that we search for all the names of all the people we are looking for in both Google and Such a search will give you a good start at research. Oh, and by the way, you should search for every variation of the names also. Also, you might want to add a couple of search terms, such as "genealogy" or the a place where the person lived. If you want to find a person with a common name, add in various family members. Put the names in quotation marks to tell Google that you are looking for that specific string of letters.

Now, once you begin to find information another type of program becomes valuable; a program to organize your data. Fortunately, we have a huge selection of programs for all types of computers. I am asked repeatedly if there are any Macintosh genealogy programs. Try searching online for "macintosh genealogy programs." You will find quite a selection and then you can research reviews on each of the programs and then try out the ones you think you might like. Of course, the same thing applies to Windows, Android, iOs and every other operating system.

So, what programs are really the most valuable? Those that help us succeed in our search for our ancestors. I am a fan of the New Yankee Workshop. I would love to have a woodworking shop with all of Norm Abram's tools. He has a tool for every conceivable type of job. I realize that I am the same way, but my huge tool workshop is on my computer and online. How long do you think it took Norm Abram to learn to use all those tools? How long did it take to accumulate all of them? Don't give up. Learning about all the tools is not the main goal. Tools facilitate our searches and make us more efficient and effective, but they are no substitute for actually doing the work.


  1. Brother Tanner,
    Your newsletter is EXCELLENT. Would you please help me understand the following: a woman in my ward claims to have 33,000 names in her database. The best comeback I've heard is to say, "So?" Any thoughts?

    It is obvious why I must remain ANONYMOUS.

    1. I have several comebacks for that type of claim. Actually, 33,000 is mild compared to some of the people I talk to. I suggest just smiling and saying, I didn't know genealogy was a competition sport.