Endangered Species?

Are genealogy software programs “going the way of the dodo”?

This comes by way of a recent item in the San Francisco Chronicle’s technology q&a column. The question concerned which genealogy software to use. The answer failed to make an important distinction: Research aid or research repository?

Ancestry.com is a classic research aid. You can mine acres of information there: census results, Social Security numbers, city-directory entries, military enlistment records, and on and on.

Once you have your data, you need to put it somewhere — in a notebook, or, of course, on a computer. Genealogy programs are classic repositories. On the most basic level, they give you a family tree to fill in. You could also store family photographs, fill in reference notes and make detailed biographical notes about your ancestors, to name a few examples.

Can you do this stuff on Ancestry.com, too?

Yep. Ancestry.com provides an interface to record and share the results you get from their databases, as well as from other, non-Ancestry sources. On the upside, it’s quite elegant to have everything in one place. When you find a nugget of information on Ancestry’s databases, it’s a snap to save it to your online family tree. And if your laptop goes sour on you, your research is safely stored online.

Should you do this at Ancestry? Um, maybe. There are certain downsides, as others besides myself have pointed out.

1. Your research will be pasted into other people’s trees without attribution. It just will. Not everyone does this! Just lots of everyone. You have to decide how you feel about it. Some believe passionately that genealogy research is useless if not shared, and are willing to trade exclusivity for a chance to connect with distant cousins who might see a public, online tree. Others feel less charitable when those cheery, wiggly Ancestry-leaf “hints” show up on their trees and link back to their own (uncredited) research.

2. Worse: Your research MISTAKES  will be picked up and perpetuated. That’s why I took my public tree private — I realized some stuff I had parked there to “hold” while I evaluated it was being passed along uncritically. Now a couple of key “facts” that are actually “wrong”  keep recirculating like Sunday pot-roast leftovers that refuse to be eaten. Yes, I was naive. I don’t treat online trees like primary sources, so I didn’t realize anyone would think of my tree that way.  Well, duhhh, as my 9-year-old says.

3. What if you can’t afford your Ancestry subscription any more? The good news: Your tree doesn’t disappear on you. You can still view and edit it as a guest. You can also export it or invite others to view it, as well as add or delete photos, stories, audio or videos. However, without an Ancestry.com subscription, you can’t view the subscription-only database records attached to it, so your online tree’s functionality is somewhat diminished.

4. Ancestry. Is. Not. Cheap. Honestly, the cost is so often mentioned in passing, as if a couple hundred bucks a year is a minor inconvenience. Some might forgo this in favor of a one-time investment for genealogy notation software, and access Ancestry at the library.

At the moment, the core of my family history research is contained in my Reunion 9.0 program on my Mac laptop. This is not my be-all and end-all solution. I dislike the vulnerability. I’ve lost a hard drive unexpectedly. I didn’t lose years of research because I back up, but the charms of an online compilation are obvious.

But the charms of an Ancestry.com compilation are not necessarily as obvious. The whole question is rather more thorny and nuanced than declaring genealogy software dead and calling it a day.

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One Comment on “Endangered Species?”

  1. Judy Curbow says:

    This is my constant delima – I started on ancestry.com – I copied indiscriminately every hint and every family tree before I knew better. I put my tree on private when I realized people were copying MY mistakes. Now I use ancestry.com as a repository of sorts. I also use Family Tree Maker – where I have the “real stuff.” I have been reseraching the “Next Generation” of genealogy site building software – I want to set up a website and link it to my blog. But quite frankly – I’ve been putting it off because I don’t have the energy to re-input 5,000+ photos – not to mention stories and other things. What’s a girl to do?!


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