Why It Doesn’t Matter Which Genealogy Software You Use

Why It Doesn’t Matter Which Genealogy Software You Use

by Kerry Scott on 7 February 2011

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Here’s a bit of pre-RootsTech sacrilege:

I’m starting to think it doesn’t matter much what genealogy software I use.

Crazy, right?

See, I used Family Tree Maker for years.  I’d bought it in the mid-1990s, and I stuck with it.  Then I switched to The Master Genealogist…but I never really mastered it.  Then I more or less stopped doing research for 10 years or so (a decade during which my genealogy database became hopelessly corrupted in one of my computer moves, although I didn’t find out until it was far too late to fix it).  Then I came back to my research, and flailed around a bit trying to find a software program I liked.  I tried the latest version of The Master Genealogist.  Then I tried the latest version of Family Tree Maker.  Then I tried RootsMagic.

So I’ve been around the block, software-wise.  I felt like Goldilocks.  Each program had stuff I liked and stuff I didn’t.  Like most serious researchers, I especially struggled with how citations were handled.  In fact, I think what I was really looking for is something to do citations for me.  I have this fantasy that I’ll just tell the computer where I found something and it will turn it into a citation that will make me look smart…and then I’d print the whole thing out, and it would produce this gorgeous finished product that would make me the toast of the genealogy world.  I didn’t feel like I could really get going until I found just the right software to build my database.

You know what though?  That’s not going to happen…and if such a software program DID exist, it would suck.  Because the whole point of genealogy is doing it yourself.  Otherwise you’re not a genealogist.  You’re a data entry clerk.

I realized I was thinking of my genealogy database as the end product.  That’s wrong.  The database is just a storage tool—like my big black metal file cabinets.  It’s up to me to create the end product.  That happens in Microsoft Word, not in an automated printout.  There’s no shortcut.

There’s no shortcut on the source citation thing, either.  I’m going to have to do them myself.  I’ve seen umpteen blog posts and Llistserv emails on how to get your citations to fit into a database, and the fact is they don’t fit.  Citations are part of the job.  There’s no point in whining about it.

So now I’m sort of a software agnostic.  I see people who are evangelical for their program of choice, and that’s fine.  I’m over that though.  I really like RootMagic, and I’m going to stick with it (and incidentally, I got it to work perfectly on my new MacBook Air by installing a relatively cheap, lightweight program called Crossover, which I cannot recommend highly enough).  If I had to use something else, I’d live through it.  In fact, I’d be just fine.

I feel so much freer now that I see my database as a tool rather than an end in itself.  I no longer spend so much energy on the software; I can work on research instead.  It’s a subtle shift, but it’s made all the difference in the world for me.

NOTE: I have no connection to any of these companies except for Ancestry, who puts out Family Tree Maker.  I’m an Ancestry affiliate, and you can find out more about what that means here.  I’m sure they’re thrilled to hear that I recommend RootsMagic instead.

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{ 48 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristin February 7, 2011 at 3:52 pm

I’m so glad you said that because that’s how I’ve viewed my genealogy software – as a tool to help organize my information.


Thomas MacEntee February 7, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Now all you need to do is map each genealogy software program to its representative belief/ideology (as in the Ideology and Religion Sh*t List – http://www.thejaywalker.com/pages/shit_happens.html


Kerry Scott February 7, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Tempting. I’m trying to be good before RootsTech so that people won’t run away when they see me though.


Thomas MacEntee February 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Well I think the Salt Lake City sheriff has been notified of my arrival and I am still welcome in Provo. For now. But Ogden is a no; however, the sheriff there still sends me a Christmas card each year.


Kerry Scott February 8, 2011 at 7:42 am

I think by the time RootsTech is done, some members of our community will be household names in SLC.


Judy February 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm

What is this? Tough love. I’m good with doing the research myself, in fact I love it, but there must be source magic somewhere.


Kerry Scott February 8, 2011 at 7:44 am

I would like the source magic fairy to do my sources, and then paint my toenails, melt all the snow, and potty train my kid.


Jasia February 7, 2011 at 6:55 pm

Ditto. I’ve been on a similar route (FTM>Brother’s Keeper>PAF>Legacy Family Tree>Roots Magic) but ended up with the same conclusion. I’ve settled on Legacy. Yes, there are differences in the software but you still have to do all the research, data entry, and source citation yourself, regardless. I’m still looking for the software to help me write my family history though. Right now I’m playing with Scrivener and may just buy it when they come out with the non-beta version for Windows. If only there was a way to import info from one program to the other… that just might get me going on that family history ;-)


Kerry Scott February 8, 2011 at 7:46 am

I’m actually finding that I sort of like doing it in Word (or sometimes just in an email, when I’m writing to a new cousin). I thought it would be awful, but it’s actually kind of freeing. Who knew?


Greta Koehl February 7, 2011 at 7:23 pm

I started with Reunion and will stick with it. I won’t proselytize about it, but it’s good enough for me – and that’s all I need, good enough. It’s easy to navigate, has a bunch of data fields, you can add more data fields, and the important thing is that there is the “Note” area where I can put everything else, including “this source says this but that source says that” and all of the other inconsistencies and niggling doubts I have, plus transcriptions. For sources, I use the “Free form” for everything except censuses. I stick as much information as I can think of in the source citation area, but it ain’t pretty. If I need to clean up the citation for an article or something, I pull out the Shown-Mills or Chicago Style Manual. So yes, I treat my genealogy program as a tool – and I like the fact that I can “underutilize” it and don’t feel compelled to use every last bell and whistle.


Kerry Scott February 8, 2011 at 7:48 am

I am beginning to think that putting your sources in the Free Form is the way to go for a variety of reasons. I think I’m using those templates as a crutch to a far greater degree than I realized.


Susan Tiner February 7, 2011 at 10:05 pm

Your work is an art. Software developers can only hope to help you record your awesomeness in an intelligent way that let’s you work more efficiently while preserving all of the important details.


Kerry Scott February 8, 2011 at 7:49 am

I think all genealogy (the telling of it, anyway) is a bit of an art. You want the story to flow and be compelling, and no software can do that for you. I think that’s one thing genealogy blogging helps you see more clearly…the need for plain old writing.


Brenda February 7, 2011 at 11:35 pm

THANK YOU for saying this. The research, the citations, the writing … it’s DIY.


Randy Seaver February 7, 2011 at 11:51 pm

Jeez, now you tell me this?

I agree with your conclusion. The challenge is finding the tool that works best for you.

FWIW, I’ve concluded that for osurces you should use free-form sources (hopefully using EE or some other citation guide as a model) so they won’t get mangled in GEDCOM translation.


Kerry Scott February 8, 2011 at 7:51 am

I’ve been following your series on this, and that’s part of what prompted the post. It’s not just the GEDCOM issue (although that’s another big reason to go free-form). New versions, changing packages…stuff gets mangled all kinds of ways. We spend so much time and energy on being slaves to making the software fit, and we could be spending it writing or doing research. Your recent posts really drive that home.


Rachel February 8, 2011 at 6:55 am

What is the difference between freestanding software and having an Ancestry account?


Kerry Scott February 8, 2011 at 7:54 am

Ancestry is essentially a database for research; you use it to look up records. It does have a feature that allows you to build trees and tie some sources to them, but it’s not robust at all. It’s nice to use as “cousin-bait” (i.e. putting a tree out there so that others who are researching the same line will see it and contact you). It’s nice as a quick visual to use to show your non-genealogist relatives (in fact, their new iPhone/iPad app is fantastic). But it’s missing too many basic features to be your primary database if you’re a serious genealogist.

(Actually, you just inspired a post on this–stay tuned!)


Harold Henderson February 8, 2011 at 7:54 am

Well said. I will add that some of the best genealogists in the world don’t use a database at all. And some of the rest of us have barely touched our favorite “good-enough” DB since we started doing client work. There is just no substitute for a well-written, documented story of a family.


Kathleen Moore February 8, 2011 at 8:10 am

Oh yes, I stopped using the “templates” awhile ago. I’m currently using Family Tree Maker but only because I’ve been using it the longest and it’s what I’m used to. Once I stopped trying to use the templates, it really didn’t matter to me whether I was using Roots Magic or Family Tree Maker. So I’m using both, with FTM being the main program. I like the visual aspect of FTM better but Roots Magic feels like a better fit, I just haven’t gotten used to using it yet.

My brother, the computer programmer, listened to me harp on about what I didn’t like about my software and his response, “Just build your own. Then it will do whatever you want.” Easy for him to say! It was about there that I realized that my complaining about it wasn’t getting me anywhere and I took a more relaxed stance on it. By relaxed I mean I stopped trying to conform to the templates!


Dianne A February 16, 2011 at 3:23 pm

So, tell me how it works to use two DBs – Roots Magic & Family Tree Maker. I’ve been a FTM user for many years (back to DOS days) and now I’ve had Legacy for several years and like some things about it better. But, I’ve gotten really hung up on trying to figure out which one is the primary one to use. Trying to keep two different files current is pretty difficult – must be my aging brain??


Kerry Scott February 17, 2011 at 7:51 am

No, I couldn’t do that either. At some point I think I’d have to put them into one database (as painful as that would be).


Lynn Palermo February 8, 2011 at 8:45 am

I refuse to be a slave to a database software program as well as my husband and children. No database can write your family history, organize it yes, but far too often we do nothing but organize and organize and never get to the writing. They advertise these programs like they were gifts from God…you soon learn nothing will replace the work. Thanks for expressing what we were all thinking.


Linda Gartz February 8, 2011 at 10:19 am

What good fortune! This post came as I have been pondering what family tree software to use to organize all my info. My brother started using PAF about 20 years ago. He says he can transfer to any other program with Gedcom, but sounds like plenty of problems there. We’ve learned a lot since he started his, but I hate to reinvent the wheel. I started with My Heritage about a month ago, but have just some basics and could easily switch. I’ve mentioned in my posts that I have so much primary documentation (in letters, diaries and other documents rather than courthouse or library) it’s more a matter of putting it into an easy-to-follow format than digging up new stuff. So it sounds like the more free-form documentation may be best (but if I can get one to paint my toenails, that would be cool too.) Sounds like you like Roots Magic, Kerry. Given I possess most of the documentation I need (we have a tiny family), any recommendations?
Writing about family is my ultimate goal, but I want a simple-to-follow chart to refer to and document a lot of findings.


Kerry Scott February 8, 2011 at 10:56 am

I’m not familiar with either MyHeritage or PAF, but I think if you’re comfortable with what you’re using, there’s no reason to change. As long as you’re documenting your sources in a way that makes it easy for you (and other people) to find the documents again, that’s all that really matters.

I do think there’s some merit in storing your data in the cloud. I’m trying to do more and more of that (not just with my genealogy stuff, but everything). It’s just so much easier than relying on a single piece of hardware that lives in your home and is certain to break at some point.


Yvonne February 8, 2011 at 10:28 am

I TOTALLY agree with you! I bought Roots Magic because it was CHEAP. Why did I need to spend all that other money, unless that program could vacuum, do laundry and mop for me? Totally useless.


Linda Gartz February 8, 2011 at 11:51 am

PAF is from the Mormons. They just revised the program and based on user comments everyone HATES it. So I’d rather not get into that. I’m just getting to know My Heritage so not comfortable with it yet–therefore open. Big question: Will Gedcom make a mess of what he did in another program so that I’d just be better off re-entering? I don’t think he was citing sources–he’s not a genealogist–just interested in our family history. I’ll look at all people mention here. What do you like about Rootsmagic?


Kerry Scott February 8, 2011 at 2:38 pm

I haven’t used GEDCOMs in many years, so I am no expert there…but check out Randy Seaver’s blog (there’s a link on his comment above) for tons and tons of info on how various components fare in different software packages.

As for RootsMagic, I like the interface. It feels feature-rich without being overwhelming. It feels like the people who made it were genealogists (or talked to genealogists) rather than computer geeks. It’s not ugly or cluttered. I also think the people who run the company seem to be genuinely nice people (not that the others aren’t…but I like when I see that the owner of a company attends conferences and talks to users and stuff).

One nice thing about genealogy software is that most of them have free trials, so you have an opportunity to see what works for you. It’s like picking out jeans; you have to try them on, and what fits somebody else may or may not fit you. Fool around a bit in a few different programs and see what you like.


Linda Gartz February 11, 2011 at 4:30 pm

A little late with a Thanks! Enjoying your twitters from RootsTech. Others find RootsMagic easy and useful too. Will check it out. But I hear your basic premise-whatever works for you!


Mavis February 14, 2011 at 12:40 am

Good Post. I had been thinking about switching to Roots Magic even though I’ve yet to fully use / master Family Tree Maker. I still might switch but something tells me I should quit being lazy and learn Family Tree Maker first. And like you stated, no software is going to automatically put my citations in for me.


Bill Buchanan February 14, 2011 at 7:47 pm

There seems to be some confusion regarding PAF. It has not been changed. It is the same free, easy to use software that it has been for many years. I use it every day, and it has generated my online genealogy databases for the last 12 years. The frustration you are hearing about may be with the new web 2.0 graphical online database called new.familysearch.org or FamilySearch Family Tree. A huge SHARED genealogy database always has the potential for disagreements. Some users make mistakes that upset other users. (Learning to share can always be difficult.) But the potential for collaborative work is wonderful. And it is wonderful to be able to add information or correct an error and realize that the website is updated for everyone.


Denise Bachand April 19, 2011 at 1:27 pm

What I am looking for is a program that finds inconsistencies in the data. Years ago I had a program that would alert me to problems (married to son, person is 140 years old, etc). I am currently using Heritage Family Tree (2002) and would like to update. Any input would be appreciated.


Kerry Scott April 21, 2011 at 7:24 am

I think actually most of them do that now, but I’m hoping people can chime in with insight from their own software experiences.


Kathleen Moore April 21, 2011 at 9:29 am

I use Family Tree Maker 2010 and it gives those warnings unless you turn them off.


kristin April 21, 2011 at 7:52 am

Mine does. I use Reunion 8.


Valerie April 21, 2011 at 1:52 pm

If you are running a Mac, Reunion has a Date Feasibility function that will alert you to any data that seems questionable.


P Kristine Hurd April 25, 2011 at 1:11 pm

I started with Family Tree Maker 2.0 or something like that ~laughs~ I have tried Master Genealogist, it was just to hard to learn and I would rather spend time researching. Upgraded Family Tree Maker many times, including just last year, I really tried because it was suppose to work so well with Ancestry Family Trees online, just didn’t get that one either.
I started Legacy Family Tree way back when they first started. I loved it right away and it was so easy to navigate, but I still have not learned all the bells and whistles. Every time I have tried other software, I always end up back with Legacy Family Tree. Just seems to be very easy to navigate and I guess I am just use to it now. I always check out to see if there is something better out there, but I have finally decided that I love it and it works for me and to stop spending money on other software.
Legacy Family Tree offers free updates and when there is a major update the prices is usually about $30.00 and the updates are major and do not occur that often. Just my two cents, but basically you want to find the software that you enjoy and does what you want most of the time. And no, Legacy Family Tree so not have a Source Fairy either and does not do nails. . . ~smiles~


Laura May 13, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Thank you for answering my Googled question so well, although I’m sad that there’s no way (perhaps yet?) of just being done with the family history data and printing it out nicely. : (


Pat July 1, 2011 at 9:19 am

It’s kind of funny that I read your blog. I have only been researching for a year, but I found PAF at the Familysearch site early on and downloaded it free until I figured out which software was right for me. For the first 8 or 9 months I obsessed with what software was right. I read reviews, articles, blogs and posts to compare them. Somewhere along the line, I slowly morphed to your opinion. I will probably end up with some other software eventually because Familysearch said they are no longer supporting PAF (i.e. no updates), but for now it does everything I need it to. Thanks for the article, and the validation. :)


Shelley August 10, 2011 at 5:27 am

When I first read this six months ago it convinced me to stick with what I was using. Now, on re-reading, it’s convinced me to change. Either way, thanks for helping me to think my options through. :-)


Denise Levenick January 7, 2012 at 12:54 pm

What ever happened to Reunion? Does it ever get updated? I’m beginning to think it is an orphan.


Kaila Schwartz January 7, 2012 at 4:52 pm

Reunion is still under development. See http://www.leisterpro.com/index.php for details on the latest version (9), as well as the app for iPhone and iPad. I am not affiliated with Reunion, just a happy user.


footnoteMaven January 8, 2012 at 1:14 pm

I am the brains, software is the brawn. I use Reunion, but it isn’t the be-all-end-all, none are. It suits my purpose. I don’t always use the template as Reunion intended. My suggestion (works for me); I have created a file that explains my deviant behavior so that those who come after can figure out what I’ve done, what I intended. Now about that Source Fairy; look for her/him with Tooth, Santa and Easter Bunny. And we all know who they are. -fM


Kathleen May 16, 2012 at 11:00 am

I’m coming to this conversation a bit late, but wanted to add my perspective on the software debate. I think all genealogy software puts the cart before the horse, and focuses on the results of research (the “family tree”), leaving the user no place to record information gathered in the process of proving an assertion. I use Reunion, but have pretty much stopped doing so in favor of a series of templates I’ve designed using Filemaker’s Bento database software. My system focuses on the sources first, allowing me to identify the various pieces of evidence contained in each one, and — most importantly — allows me to objectively evaluate the quality of that evidence according to the Genealogical Proof Standard. Now, by querying my database, I know precise details about the status of my research. Once I feel comfortable that I have proved an assertion, I will import that data into Reunion.

My only hope is that commercial genealogical software developers will incorporate a research module into their programs…. it really isn’t too hard to do, and would have a huge impact on the quality of work being done by your average researcher. Elizabeth Shown Mills has written that people tend to learn their research skills from the software that they use. I am sure she is right, and I believe we need to pressure the software companies to make adjustments accordingly.


Michael Giallella September 4, 2013 at 5:54 pm

I just read this blog post two and a half years after you wrote it – the power of the internet.

Thank you for ending my 4 month long struggle to find “the perfect” genealogy software. I Googled, read blogs, bought the full versions of Legacy, Family Tree Masker and RootsMagic, compared, and spent a lot of time NOT doing family research.

You appear to be absolutely correct – the software packages are similar to file cabinets – one black, one green and the third blue. Same function, different color. Thank You!


Magda October 3, 2013 at 5:04 pm

I am reading this one two years later too, Michael. I love the comparison to colored file cabinets.
After a frustrating day with source templates, I googled ” SOURCE FAIRY” I held my breathe in anticipation thinking , there really is a source fairy!and this was top of this list ! Great sharing………..


Matthew Ervin November 8, 2013 at 7:16 pm

Has anyone tried Endnote for managing bibliography? It’s the standard in academia these days.



Peter June 2, 2014 at 2:34 am

I’ve gotten way behind in data entry. I HATE data entry because it’s so tedious going from data box to data box to put in names, dates, place etc. (All those complicated Danish names… Hjoslev, Rybjerggaard, Galgebakke (Gallows Hill) Kirstine, Kierstine, Kjerstine)

It’s 2014 so I don’t see why there are no genealogy programs that allow me to scan typed documents and have the data entered automatically. A program/device called NEAT does it for business contact data so why not genealogy data?


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