Starting Your Family Tree, Part III

Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards finishes her three-part series giving tips how to start and maintain your family tree, focusing on digital preservation and online services. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England – and has documented and added more than 21,000 people to her family tree!

If you decide on doing a computer version of your family tree, you need to choose between software that will keep everything just on your computer, or get a subscription to one of the online sites that allows you to upload your tree and store it in their system (thus making it at least somewhat visible to other researchers). One of the cons for putting your family tree online is the privacy concern; be sure to read the service’s privacy policy before posting on their site.

A pro to using an online service is that it allows you access to what others who are related to you have found and placed on their family trees. A downside to this is you don’t know if they have research to back up what they have – or have they used other, undocumented information or people’s recollections/word-of-mouth which may have significant errors. I experienced this when I started; I used what other people had “discovered” only to find many places where their “research” wasn’t done properly, so grandsons were being listed as the parents of their grandparents, or women having children when they would have been a child or several years after they had died, and so on.

A friend, after examining the error-filled tree, advised me to start again and told me to “only add what information you can find documentation for from reliable sources.” This caused me to research what resources are used in genealogy, and whether they are primary – most reliable – or secondary. Now I only list on my tree what I can document (if I am stuck, I may look at other people’s trees to see if they might have a source I didn’t, or maybe had stumbled onto a missing first name, and then I go looking for supporting documentation on it before I add it to my tree).

Using the internet for your research, and keeping your family tree on either a local computer or posting it online with a subscription service, makes it easier to organize and keep track of your documentation – which is a huge plus in my book. To compare: my original notebooks had about 1500 names, and the pile of charts and documentation took up about four feet of shelf space. When I first started keeping my research and tree on my computer, it took up more than half of the memory I had at that time. Now that I use an online subscription service, I have space for more than 500,000 documents and more than 21,000 people! I also have more than 8,500 photos.

I also have almost 125,000 hints awaiting me to look at to see if they pertain to “my tree,” and these numbers grow each time I work on the tree. The subscription/membership sites can range from free (like FamilySearch) to expensive, so research carefully and see if you can have a free trial to test out the site.

I suggest taking your basic information in computer form and making what is called a “GEDCOM.” GEDCOM is an acronym standing for Genealogical Data Communication, and is a way to exchange genealogical data between different genealogy software that was developed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an aid to genealogical research. It allows you to upload the data you have without having to retype it all. It is identified by the file type “.ged”; upload it to each site to see if the site is easy to use, what bells and whistles each site offers, support it provides, etc., before purchasing and/or downloading it. Once you have chosen and added more information you can always make a newer version of the GEDCOM and try other sites, but eventually you will stick with just one site or keep a version of the GEDCOM on your computer as back up “just in case.”

My friend Debbie has chosen to have her tree on both her computer and in notebooks (she copies any documentation and files it as well as stores a copy on her computer), whereas my cousin Barbara keeps hers only on her computer (she doesn’t document her entries but adds to her tree every 10 or 20 years with the notes people write to her of births, marriages, deaths, etc., because it is a massive undertaking that she has to go through person by person).

If you do keep just a paper version of your family tree and supporting documentation, decide whom to leave the research to (be it relatives or a genealogy library or somewhere else) now so that it is your legacy to future generations. Personally, I still use both notebooks and an online subscription service, but I am slowly scanning documents and adding them to my online tree (which makes them accessible to others) and will slowly phase out the notebooks.

I have decided that this is the right thing for me to do, as I was not blessed with children of my own and my nieces are not interested (at least at this point in their lives) in who came before them, so I do not want all my work to be thrown out when I die (which is what happens many times). It is my legacy. This way others I may or may not know right now may benefit from all my hard work and possibly save them hours of recreating what I have already found, and thus might take the family tree even further. You need to decide what feels right for you.

If there is a question you would like to ask me or if you need help overcoming an obstacle, feel free to post in the comments section. Until then I wish you…

Happy hunting!

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