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Twigs & Trees: Getting the Most from Your Genealogy Software
by Rhonda R. McClure

July 03, 2003
See Previous Columns

One common thread among genealogists is that zest for learning. As we progress in our ancestry, we often find ourselves having to read up on the history of a region or the limitations or peculiarities of a particular type of record. We thrive on this. We attend conferences to learn more about many different aspects of researching our family history. When it comes to our genealogy software, though, we often offer excuses instead of embracing the chance to learn.

One of the most common excuses I hear from other researchers is that they don't have time to learn their genealogy software. They would rather be researching. Another big excuse is that many genealogists didn't grow up with computers and the learning curve is just too much. If we weren't so excited about genealogy, like my husband, then we would have excuses about why we couldn't do genealogy. But once you begin to face the computer head-on, I think you will find that all the excuses were not saving you time or making it easier for you to research.

Mastering your genealogy program will save time in the end.

I Don't Have Enough Time to Learn It

Ah yes, the old adage about how there isn't enough time to learn how to use your genealogy program. Whenever I get a new program, genealogical or other, I offer the same excuse: I simply don't have time to learn how to use the program. Of course, this begs the question then of why I bought the software in the first place. If I am not going to bother to learn how to use the program, why did I spend my hard-earned money on it and allow it to take up valuable hard disk space on my computer?

Oh sure, you can sit there and tell me that you know all you need to know about your genealogy software. You can enter the names, dates, and places as you find them and you can print the reports you want. If this is all you are doing with your program, then you might as well go back to using pre-printed forms. Genealogy programs should save you time by simplifying steps and making it possible to not only manage the ancestors you have found but also to help you prepare for future research. So many researchers I know use their genealogy program to enter the information they found at the library, while using pre-printed forms. In essence they are duplicating their efforts.

While some duplication is to be expected, if you are using a desktop computer, upon returning home from a research trip, I see too many researchers duplicating their preparation for the research trip as well. If they knew the different reports that can be created, beyond the standard pedigree chart and family group sheet, and if they took advantage of the task list or the research journal feature, they would spend less time getting the list of individuals they needed to take with them on the research trip.

Even if you feel comfortable with your software, you may be overlooking some short cuts or you may be assuming that you must work with the research journal a certain way to be able to use it. For instance, many people think that the only way to access the Research Journal in Family Tree to add a new to-do item is through the FamilyFinder Center or by opening the Research Journal report under the View menu, where it is part of the FamilyFinder sub-menu. However, as you are working in the Family Page or the More About views, you can also launch the New To-Do item dialog box by using the Ctrl+T keyboard shortcut or by accessing the Create a New To Do Item as found in the Edit menu.

Online Help

I don't know of any program that doesn't have a help file full of information on how to use the program in question. Of course, most people complain that they can't follow the help files because these files are not written for genealogists, but for those who know all about computers.

While this is true to a point, as the help files are usually written by those who wrote the program, the steps are usually accurate. The problem lies sometimes in finding the correct term used by the programmers in the help file for something you want to do. This communication gap is sometimes what causes the most problems when genealogists are trying to use the help files included in the program.

I find that using the Index or Find options in the Help section will usually supply me with more possibilities than using the Contents tab, which is more similar to a table of contents. Using the Index or the Find options offers a flexibility in searching for possible help items. One thing that I have found when using some Help files is that they sometimes assume you are in one screen or view before doing the steps listed. The Help files also assume that you are familiar with the terms used in the program for different windows, views, reports, or fields. If you aren't familiar with these terms, then the Help files can be frustrating.

Books, Mailing Lists, and Classes

Whenever I get a new program, I often check out what books have been published about using the program. I may not get the chance to read the book right away, but I know that if I have it handy when I am working in the program, I can always pull it off the shelf when I have a question. I often look for those books geared toward beginners to the program. This helps me to familiarize myself with the terms used in the program, which in turn helps me to use the Help files in the program more effectively or to migrate from the beginner book to the online help files.

One of the best avenues to learn more about a given genealogy program is mailing lists and bulletin boards. I recommend these because they are read by other genealogists who are using the same program as you. They may have figured out how to add a new to-do item without leaving the Family Page, or they may understand what you are talking about when you say you want to create a list of individuals in your database that includes their names and dates of birth and death. Another genealogist may realize exactly what you want and how to do that in your program.

Hands on classes, online classes, or presentations about how to use the program may also be valuable in learning the best way to use the program in your research. Hands on classes often cost some money to cover the expense of hardware and software, and perhaps also a teacher. Online classes sometimes cost money, depending on who is offering the class and why people might be taking the class. Presentations may take place at local genealogical society meetings or at national conferences. Many times if a local genealogical society hasn't done such a program, it is only because those deciding on the programs to be presented didn't realize there was interest.

In Conclusion

Taking some time to get to know the many features of your genealogy program will save you time in the end. I know of people who, because they hadn't learned the program, were wasting time almost fighting with the program and perhaps even making extra work to cite a source or try to get a list of individuals or a set format to a report. Help avoid some of that frustration by learning what the program can do.

See Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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