How Do YOU Use Your Genealogy Software?

How Do YOU Use Your Genealogy Software?

by Kerry Scott on 8 February 2011

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Here’s something I’ve struggled with for a while:

I only want to put good stuff in my database.  Everything that’s in my new RootsMagic database has source citations.  If I’m not sure about a connection, I don’t put it in.  That’s my policy.

This leaves me with a small but high-quality database…but it also leaves me stuck when I’m working on a new family and I’m not sure where everyone fits.  For that, I’ve started using private trees on Ancestry.  I put in people I’m working on using census records or other low-hanging-fruit sources.  It allows me to see where I am and what I’m doing without cluttering up my “real” database with a bunch of crap that turns out to be wrong.  It also provides a bit of cousin-bait; anyone who finds those people in my private databases can contact me for more info.  For the lines where I want to collaborate, that’s valuable.  Because the trees are private, though, no one can take my half-done work and add it to their tree, which is good because I don’t want to inadvertently contribute to all of the junk trees out there.  I also like the fact that I can add photos to the people on my Ancestry trees.  I like seeing the people I’m working on.  It’s hugely motivating for me.  Once I’ve seen a picture of someone, I’ll keep plugging away no matter how distantly related they may be.

Essentially, RootsMagic holds my research, and private Ancestry trees are my whiteboards.  I stole this process from Amy Coffin at We Tree.  I’ve been using it for about a month, and it’s not perfect, but it’s working pretty well for me.

What’s your system?  How do you keep your early work-in-progress lines from cluttering up your more mature research?

NOTE:  The Ancestry link above is an affiliate link.  You can read more about what that means here.

Photo by koalazmonkey

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan February 8, 2011 at 10:12 am

Pretty much exactly what I do – though my energies are pointed to getting that master file into better shape. Even pruned it still ain’t small and needs lots of tlc (tackling lost citations). I’m not thrilled with the process of getting data from the Ancestry trees into my master file, but it’s the best system I’ve found to date.


Linda McCauley February 8, 2011 at 10:51 am

I put everyone in my Legacy database BUT I don’t attach them to my main tree. All of those little research branches are separate trees within the same database so everything is in one place. In the Research Notes for my ancestor I add info identifying the research people who might be related to them. When/if I prove the connection then all I have to do is link them where they belong in my main tree and add the source(s) that proved the relationship (other sources were added as the research went along). I use a tag to identify these research people so that they don’t get exported to my website.


Susan Tiner February 8, 2011 at 3:39 pm

I didn’t realize there were junk trees, but I’m not surprised. I’ve probably contributed. I love your idea of cousin bait.


C.T. Kruger February 8, 2011 at 4:34 pm

I can’t say enough about Bob Steen’s shareware program Brother’s Keeper. I tripped into Brother’s Keeper back in the bad ol’ MS-DOS days and loved it because I could link photos, stories and notes I kept as separate objects in my computer and combine everything into different reports to print or save as .rtf files. If I obtain a GEDCOM file, I can open it and save it as a separate database to play with. Steed has done an excellent job of keeping Brother’s Keeper current through the Windows operating system evolution (sorry about Vista, Bob…) and adding new features.


Dee February 8, 2011 at 8:44 pm

I use the note field extensively in my software…and if the person is deceased, the notes show on the uploaded tree. People can – and do – leave me notes on individual records commenting on my notes, and if I have gotten off the track.

If I am not sure someone connects to a branch, I don’t connect them, but I continue to do my research trying to rule them in or out. The unconnected people don’t bother me, because if they are not related to me, they may be related to someone who stumbles onto my tree online.

Everyone’s a keeper, they’re just not all connected into “my” family and collateral relatives.


Greta Koehl February 8, 2011 at 9:29 pm

I use separate files for families with uncertain connections to mine, including one for which we have DNA confirmation connecting it to my father’s paternal line, but for which we do not know the common ancestor. I have been working on public trees at Ancestry to use as cousin bait and to make sure that I have included everything that shows up on Ancestry – they do not have everything that I have on Reunion. The branch for which I have done the most original research (maternal grandfather’s family) is private, so people cannot appropriate the information with the click of a key – they’ll have to find that information on my blog and copy it from there.


Michelle Goodrum February 8, 2011 at 11:31 pm

I have been keeping everything in The Master Genealogist (continually working on cleaning up citations). Once I am fairly certain I am on the right track with a particular ancestor, I go ahead and begin adding information, notes, etc. If I later discover I was wrong, I can “cut ‘em loose”. This data base serves as a record of my journey of discovery. I include the various clues I encounter as I go.

I am beginning to use Roots Magic for my super clean, perfectly cited data base that I am willing to share with relatives. I was prompted to do this when my first cousin asked me for our tree back to our great grandparents. There was way too much extra source info in that tree that just isn’t necessary anymore now that I have original, primary source information. I just started so we will see how it goes.


Caron February 9, 2011 at 7:41 am

I have also been using Ancestry trees for research and “iffy” connections. I keep all the trees private but one. I have one unique surname that I collect “likely suspects” in Ancestry for connecting and put them in one tree. I have managed to connect some in this way before putting them into TMG as my real database. I have never been too happy with the citations in TMG, seem too convoluted to set up to me. I think it would be easier to set up my own.


Aylarja February 9, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Kerry, interesting suggestion to keep a separate tree for “in-progress” research. To my mind, though, this whole question raises my pet bugaboo over the state of genealogy software today: by and large, these programs are designed simply for recording results, and are very ineffective as research tools. There is no technological reason that it should not be possible to link two individuals with a variety of relationship types (not just parent-child or spouse), and to indicate a confidence level for the relationship.

For instance, if I am researching John Barr in the 1880 US Federal Census, and find that on the same census page is also listed another Barr family I had not known about, it is to my advantage not only to record that family in my genealogy program, but to note the nature of the relationship. I want to establish some nature of connection between my primary research target and the freshly found possible relatives. That way, my research efforts are furthered by not having to arbitrarily create a potentially false relationship to maintain some linkage, but also by preserving the fact that some type of connection (neighbors with the same surname) does factually exist.

Although I am not attending RootsTech this week, my hope is that this convergence of genealogy researchers and techies will begin the process of transforming the current generation of genealogy software from limited, result-focused databases to research tools that actually aid the process of serious genealogy research.


Cheryll Holley February 9, 2011 at 5:59 pm

I use basically the same system as you. I use FTM (only because I’ve used it for years) and I never, ever attach anyone to any tree in that program unless I’m convinced its the right person. I have private trees on that I use to test relationships or when I’m just not sure about the connection.


Nikki LaRue February 13, 2011 at 8:09 am

This is pretty much what I do as well. Actually, I’m surprised to hear that others use this method too since the Ancestry trees are such a slippery slope to evil :) I started using the Ancestry trees a couple years ago before I had any knowledge of ancestry programs (other than the original FTM which I hated) and by the time I started looking into Legacy and TMG, and others, I already had a great deal of info up on Ancestry that I didn’t want to separate from. It works great as a running tab to point to places where I need to do work and holes that need to be filled, as well as being a great cousin finder, as you alluded to. Yay! I’m not alone with my method of madness! Woohoo!


Sharon Lunsford March 6, 2011 at 9:20 pm

I’ve been doing something similar. I’ve kept my Ancestry tree private because I sometimes try out connections and make leaps of faith hoping to find the proof later, and I don’t want anyone relying on my tree to a dangerous extent. I’ve found some distant cousins this way, also!

After several years of finding as much information and as many records as possible (but not other people’s trees) from Ancestry, Footnote, Find A Grave and FamilySearch (mostly Texas death certs), I found myself getting way ahead of what was in the Master Genealogist database where I had entered lots of people along with miscellaneous family notes. I also had a batch of Word docs with Rootsweb and Genforum links and text copies, from 15 years of online research. I had also gotten way ahead of myself on TMG as far as sources were concerned. (As in, enter now, save the link, cite later.) I used Ancestry Image Downloader to catch up my record copies, started merging the resulting trees and then promptly proceeded to pull in hundreds more records on Ancestry to exchange research on a certain branch with a distant cousin. I was going in too many directions and not looking forward to synching everything up.

In the meantime I had also started using a Macbook as my little dashboard to the world, and I’ve been going back and forth to Windows (via Bootcamp) to run TMG for a couple of years. Now I’m working on a family tree website because some of my cousins and I want to combine information from personal documents. So I’ve been trying out TNG (The Next Generation…) and getting to see how GEDCOM exports & imports work & don’t work. After much back-and-forth I’m trying out Mac genealogy software for my ultimate correctly sourced database. I tried Mac Family Tree and am experimenting with Reunion.

I’m starting at the beginning with separate trees for mom & dad’s side because I didn’t find any package with an easy way to split trees, and I’m starting very slowly and carefully with facts and sources. The thought of doing all this from the beginning (I have 3,000+ people in Ancestry and probably 2,200 or so in TMG) is daunting, but I can’t stand the lengthy sources Ancestry assigns to their images so I would be cleaning those up anyway. I will probably end up doing a bit of a merge after I get the first several generations in the system the hard way and come to terms with how I want my sources to look. I’ve always meant to get all this information together “someday” — so “someday” is here!


Gina Gualco March 9, 2011 at 11:28 pm

I put everyone in my TMG database, but I don’t enter relationships if I’m not sure one exists. I just join my relation and the unrelated person with a custom, shared fact and put the possible relationship in the memo field. So, for example, if I’m looking at the record for Stephen Billyew, I can see on his list of facts/events “Martin Bilyeu possible brother.” Double-clicking on Martin’s name brings up Martin’s record and the data I’ve collected on him. If I discover Martin is, in fact, Stephen’s brother, it will only take a couple of clicks to make their relationship “real.”


Michelle Goodrum March 10, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Gina, I really like your approach. I never would have thought of doing anything like that.


Jim March 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm

RootsMagic has the capability of having multiple databases open at the same time. When I’m researching my Martin family, I have my main database open and my Martin database. If a person doesn’t fit on the main tree, I add it to the Martin database. If I ever find it does fit, I can always drag and drop it into the main database and the sources go with it.


Comeka August 21, 2011 at 6:25 am

Ahhhh . . . I should have read this post before I emailed you my question the other day!

Thanks so much for not only answering a newbie question, but for answering it well. I know that some folks would have either ignored it or sent a terse reply stating that the subject had already been covered in a blog post and that I should do my research before asking stupid questions.


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