Must-Have Tech Tools for Genealogy

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena talks about some of the tech tools available today to help genealogists with their family history research.

I’m grateful to be living in a time when family historians have so many options for doing their genealogy work. Technology gives us opportunities to organize, research, share and store our precious family history work in so many ways not available to previous generations. Are you taking advantage of today’s genealogy technology? If you’re not, you might want to reconsider. Here are some ideas of what you need and why it’s important to your research now.

photo of a woman holding up a sign that reads "must-have tech tools for genealogy"

Scanners

When I was young, my family would visit my maternal grandmother every summer. One year, my dad “copied” images from her photo albums by using his camera and tripod. In the days before digital cameras, he could only hope that those precious images of past generations he duplicated would come out clear and usable. It wasn’t until after we arrived home and he had the film developed that we were able to see the results. Years later when copy machines could be found everywhere, some family historians chose to use these to duplicate vintage images. Unfortunately those paper copies resulted in muddy, fuzzy images that are not ideal for long-term viewing, sharing, or storing.

Boy, has life changed since those days. Today, I can visit a relative or attend a family reunion, digitize their images, and instantly see whether the image I have copied is what I want. With the use of portable scanners and yes, even digital cameras or a mobile device, I can “copy” images and immediately store or send them via email or cloud storage websites.

So what do you need to scan at home or on the go? Various devices exist for your scanning needs, including scanning apps for your smartphone/mobile device or mobile scanners. One popular option that I also use is the Flip-Pal mobile scanner. You might have seen this scanner demonstrated at a genealogy conference; one nice feature is that you can remove the lid of this compact scanner to scan three dimensional objects like quilts, military medals or other heirlooms. The Flip-Pal includes a small window that allows you to see the finished scan, and a removable disk that allows you to take the images and transfer them to your computer. Scanning a large document or photo? No problem! Take several scans and then “stitch” them together with the software provided with the scanner. It’s a great tool for scanning at a repository or a family reunion.

Are there other mobile scanners available for genealogists? Absolutely! One that I found recently is the Zcan + mouse scanner. Available as a wireless or wired mouse, it is a great way to easily scan documents or photos and it automatically stitches images together as you scan. It even saves documents as Word files or PDFs. See the Zcan video below for more information about this nifty new gadget.

If you decide to use your smartphone or mobile device’s camera as a scanner, check your device’s app store for scanner apps that have the features you want. Also, consider purchasing a tripod made especially for these devices. Tripods ensure that your device is still and gets the best image possible.

Mobile Devices

Oh, the good old days of making a trip to a library or archive. I remember how excited I was to have my first laptop. Typing out notes was made so much easier by having a computer that I could take everywhere. But, boy was it heavy! By the time I gathered that, my notes, pens, copy machine change and maybe even a lock to secure the computer to the table, I was hauling around a wheeled suitcase that made using my “portable” laptop not as easy as I had initially thought.

Fast forward to today and I rarely take a laptop computer with me to do my genealogy research. Occasionally I may take my notebook computer that can easily fit in a small bag and weighs a fraction of what my first laptop computer did. Otherwise I bring only my mini iPad and portable keyboard that I carry in my purse. Mobile devices come from numerous manufacturers, in all ranges of size and price. I highly recommend trying them out at a local retailer and deciding which one is best for you.

Features to look for? A built-in camera is a must. Forward- and backward-facing cameras allow you to not only take photos but to also utilize services like Skype or Google Hangouts. While you may think those are features you don’t need, you may one day decide that having the ability to make a video call for free via Skype, or participating in an online genealogy meeting via Google Hangouts, is well worth it.

Other features that are must-haves for me include the ability to switch to a data plan when accessing WiFi is impossible. Plenty of memory and storage is important since you will most likely be storing your ancestry research and images on your device.

Why am I a big fan of a tablet? I use my Apple iPad at libraries and archives to research, take photos of documents and book pages, “scan” family photos, share my research with family and write articles. I even watch webinars and read books all using this one device.

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Backup Storage

It’s a tragedy that I’ve been a part of one too many times. It stems from the wishful thinking that it can never happen to you. And then one day it does. It’s the tragic story of the fabled blue screen of death that takes with it your functioning computer and every single one of your files. Yes, the inevitable computer crash.

That’s why experts have recommended backing up your files since the dawn of the personal computer. But like dentists warning us to floss our teeth, we don’t always listen. Start today and make a pact to start backing up your files to an external device at least once a month (feel free to also back up to a cloud storage website as well).

Numerous options exist when choosing an external device, from thumb/flash drives to CDs to portable devices and external hard drives. Your decision about what to use will depend upon the amount of space you need as well as what works best for you (where will you store the device, does it need to be portable, do you want to have several of the same copy so that they can be stored offsite or with a friend). To get a sense of what’s available, take a look at CNET’s Storage Buying Guide.

As a family historian, do you need tech? Yes, your genealogy will benefit from it. Take some time to think about what you are doing with your research, such as traveling to libraries or archives, making copies at a courthouse, or visiting the family member with all the photos, and plan now to utilize the tech that will help you with your family history research.

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How to Scan, Save & Share Your Family Photographs Online

The digital age is a new world for genealogists. We need to have not only research skills but the ability to scan and digitally preserve the many documents and photographs that we use daily.

This gives us the 21st century opportunity to add the actual genealogical documents and even photographs of our deceased relatives to our family tree software on our personal computers, or on an online family tree.

This online sharing of genealogy work enables anyone—be it family members or other researchers—to easily see your family history findings and the supporting documentation instantly.

Yes—it is a great day for genealogy!

Scanning to Digitize Your Family Photos

Scanning is easy and a home scanner can be purchased for a nominal cost at most stores. Copy centers and even drug stores routinely offer scanning services often for just $1 per image.

You are scanning and preserving your family’s past so you’ll want to make sure you do it correctly. Start by reading Geoff Rasmussen’s book Digital Imaging Essentials (Middleton, Idaho: Author, 2013). 150 pages.

cover of book "Digital Imaging Essentials" by Geoff Rasmussen

This easy-to-read instructional book tells you everything you need to do to prepare and follow through on digitizing and preserving your family’s documentation. To buy a copy visit the Legacy Family Tree Book store.

Scanning is as simple as putting the old photograph or document on your scanner and pushing the start button.

screenshot of a scanner in operation

Within seconds the image is scanned and sent to your photo image processing software.

I use Google’s Picasa. It is free and has all of the features I need to crop, trim, sharpen and enhance my scanned document or photograph. Within a few minutes I have a digital copy of the item ready to be attached to my genealogical files.

Backup & Storage of Family Files

I keep three copies of my genealogical files.

This redundancy builds in an ongoing backup of my research in three locations, and helps to ensure that my latest research will be easily discoverable by any of my cousins 24/7.

I store my genealogy information—along with the digital copies of my photographs and documents—online on FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com. In addition, I keep a copy on my laptop using Legacy Family Tree genealogy software. I have an external hard drive to back up my laptop and I also use the online cloud storage service Carbonite. There are many options for cloud storage available to ensure that your family history records stay safe even if something ever happens to your local hardware.

Upload and Share Your Family Photos & Records Online

It is easy to put your family pictures and records online. Here is how you do it on FamilySearch.

First you open the personal page of any relative.

screenshot of the ad photo feature on FamilySearch

Credit: FamilySearch

Click on the Photos tab and you will see the green add symbol. Click on it to add a photograph for this person.

screenshot of the attach photos feature on FamilySearch

Credit: FamilySearch

Simply drag and drop the family photo you scanned to this plus sign and the application will grab it and attach it.

Take a moment to edit your family photograph by identifying each person.

You can add the date and place the photo was taken and any commentary associated with that event.

screenshot of the edit photos feature on FamilySearch

Credit: FamilySearch

That’s it—you’re done.

screenshot of FamilySearch page for Tuan Dieu Ly

Credit: FamilySearch

It’s that simple to preserve your family photos and make them easy to share online with family members and other genealogists.

It is important that genealogists preserve their family information online. By putting their genealogy research and supporting documentation online, genealogists are able to share it with all researchers.

Begin preserving your family’s past by digitizing your research and putting it online today.