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

Sunday, March 23, 2014

My Top Ten Useful Programs for Genealogy -- Part One Desktop or Local Programs

As you begin expanding your understanding of what is and what is not genealogy, you find that there are some things that are very useful to genealogists that don't come with a genealogy label. I see many "genealogists" who are very dedicated to gathering their family history and doing research into their ancestral lines, but have such limited computer skills and such a narrow view of genealogy, that they are like a person starving to death with pockets full of money in the middle of a supermarket.

Obviously, we benefit from word processing and spreadsheet programs, but there are so many more programs that can be used to benefit our involvement in genealogy that almost never get mentioned as such. It has been quite a while since my last posts on the subject and I guess it is time to go back and update some of the posts I have written over the years about the programs I am currently using. Part of making progress in doing genealogy is continuing education about our areas of interest. This education should also include a significant effort to upgrade our computer skills. is a huge resource for instructional videos on almost any imaginable subject. I realize that to many people watching an instructional video is like going back to school, but from my standpoint, learning and school are not synonymous. I find that there are things I need to learn about every day.

Recently, I started back into using the program. I had drifted away from the program for quite a while and it took reading an entire book on the program to get me started again. You may also have noticed that I started using for to-do lists and such. As I continue to work on the computer, I keep finding new programs and features from older ones. It is a continual process of evolving and education.

I guess it is time to get to the list. Here are the program categories, but not in any particular order. Some of the categories turn out to be generic, in the sense that I don't rely on any one program exclusively. My top ten might really look like a top twenty or thirty, but really I view some programs as a group and not individually.

No. 1 Browser programs
This is an easy first place program category. The first thing I do every day is open the network to see what is going on in the genealogy world. I use my iPad for reading the general world news, away from my computer, but almost every time I sit down to work on the computer, I start with opening a browser. Right now, I am using Google's Chrome. Oh, by the way, if you don't know what a browser is, it is a program that runs on your computer to allow you to see websites on the Internet. I say I am using Chrome right now because that could change any minute. If I find a viewing or website problem, I will move immediately to another browser, usually Firefox from I also use Safari and Opera on occasion. I very occasionally use Internet Explorer but never if there is an alternative.

No. 2 Word Processing Programs
I realize that there are a lot of word processing programs out there in the world but I have been using Microsoft Word for so long that I just don't bother to use anything else. I think this is probably one of the areas where most people would benefit from some instruction. Word is a very complicated program and spending some time with a few tutorials will really help your over computer experience. If you choose another word processor, make sure you learn how to use its capabilities.

No. 3 Photo Processing Programs
This is an area where the number of available programs is overwhelming. I use Adobe Lightroom for almost all my photo manipulation and storage needs. But this didn't come without a great deal of effort. I do not recommend a program such as Lightroom unless you are really, really serious about photography and not just genealogy. If you have any images at all, I strongly suggest downloading the free Google program, Picasa. This program will identify and organize all of the images on your computer and any attached hard drives. It does this without moving the images or making an extra copy. It also does not send a copy to Google unless you want it to do so.

No. 4 Genealogical Database programs
You might notice that this category refers to "programs." That is on purpose. I use more than one, in fact, many more than one single program. Now, I realize that this is anathema to most users who view programs like they do having a permanent home, but I move from one to another as my needs and interests change. Here is my current list. I would suggest that using any one of the following programs would work for anyone. I find that the programs are changing so much that my jumping from program to program may have to be abandoned in the future simply because I cannot keep up with all of the features of all of the programs. I will also have to mention the fact that there are some Windows only programs that I would use more and maybe exclusively, if they came in Apple OS X versions. Here is the list: OS X and Windows Windows
Ancestral Quest Windows
Celebrating Family History Windows
Family Tree Maker OS X and Windows
Family Tree Builder Windows
Reunion OS X only
Legacy Family Tree Windows

The fact that I don't have a program listed does not mean that I haven't used it. It just means that I haven't found it to be as useful as the others. I may add a program to the list or stop using one depending on what I perceive to be the benefits. I realize that there are many, many more programs with many more supporters out there. I suggest reading reviews on the GenSoftReviews website for more comments and suggestions.

No. 5 Dropbox
I am fully aware of OneDrive and Google Drive, but I use for online storage almost exclusively. I find both OneDrive and Google Drive to be cranky and hard to use. Dropbox is almost a daily routine part of my computer life. But as I mentioned above, both and are making serious inroads. I probably ought to devote an entire blog post to these three programs. I also use the Evernote program Skitch on my iMac for screen shots.

No. 6 Dragon Dictate
I have written about my experience with voice recognition programs recently, but the Dragon Dictate (Dragon Naturally Speaking on Windows) program needs to be included in my list. In this case, there are no comparable programs with which it can be associated. When I feel the pressure of writing a lot of content in a relatively short time, this is one way to get down more information. Whether or not it is faster than using the keyboard is debatable, but it is a change from typing and I can write some types of posts much faster using dictation.

No. 7 Spreadsheet programs
I use Microsoft Excel more than most of the other available programs but back when I first started using a desktop computer, I found that the spreadsheet programs gave me the first insight into the power of a computer to solve day-to-day problems. Microsoft has shifted its software from selling the programs to renting them online. This works for Adobe, but may not work for Microsoft. There are too many open source and free software solutions to choose from.

No. 8 Presentation Programs
I feel like I am supporting Microsoft singlehandedly. I use PowerPoint even though Keystone is available on OS X. I have looked at Apple's  program and others and always come back to PowerPoint because of the compatibility issues. I am never sure that when I take a presentation out into the world that it will turn out to work unless it is PowerPoint.

No. 9 Photoshop
I suppose I could have called this category "photo manipulation programs" but I only use Adobe Photoshop, so that's what it has to be. For the rest of this description see Photo Processing Programs above.

No. 10 VueScan
VueScan is a universal scanning tool available for both OS X and Windows. The main attraction is that it works on both Windows and OS X so I have the same program for each. It also captures scanned images in RAW format. That is enough to sell me.

Well, that's the list. I could keep on going, but it gets more difficult with many more programs to choose from.


  1. Thanks much for this list. I appreciate how you have categorized it as I need some guidance in several of these areas. This was just the prompting I needed to better utilize Dropbox and Evernote. I also look forward to checking out quip.

  2. I would be interested to know what features you like about each of the following from your list above: OS X and Windows Windows
    Ancestral Quest Windows
    Celebrating Family History Windows
    Family Tree Maker OS X and Windows
    Family Tree Builder Windows
    Reunion OS X only
    Legacy Family Tree Windows

    I can barely keep up with synchronized FamilySearch Family Tree with my one desktop program.

    Ann A.

    1. I don't usually do software reviews for a variety of reasons. But I think that a post with your suggested topic might be appropriate.

  3. Not to be too heavy handed, but like the photo manipulation a very good asset would be to learn desktop publishing. Word processing is a crude substitute and its main purpose is to create the content. Desktop publishing programs like Adobe InDesign provides complete control over the content. To be concerned about the gathering of the information, but not the presentation is quite sad, I believe, now that we are out of the age of the typewriter. Here is a well "published book" as a website.
    It's also quite helpful.

    1. We use InDesign almost exclusively, but I do not recommend the program to anyone who is not very experienced in design and layout programs and is highly motivated to learn a very complicated program.

  4. Very good post James. I use many of the programs you mentioned. However, I do limit myself to just one genealogy database, Legacy. I appreciate the informative articles you share with us.

  5. I'm relatively new to the Genealogy research world. But I have been using Ancestry and FTM on my Win7 PC. I have a laptop that is running Linux and FTM can not be loaded to it. Is there a program that is compatible with Ancestry that will work on Linux Unbuntu?


    1. I'm not sure what you mean by compatible. Ancestry is online. But Family Tree Maker is only available for Mac and Windows. Anyone else know of a solution?