Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 130 / JUNE 1991 / PAGE 102

Roots. (using genealogical software)
by Gregg Keizer

Try a little archaeology. Summer is the perfect time to root around your family tree. You've got time on your hands and a PC in front of you, and summer is the time for family reunions. You've always wanted to pull together the threads that tie you to your relatives, by blood and by marriage. If you're like millions of Americans, you can't help wondering where your family has been, what it has done and where you fit in.

These are natural questions. We're all fascinated by tales of courage, accomplishment, and tragedy. Most families have their share of these kinds of stories. All it takes is a little detective work to uncover them.

Your home computer may not be able to help you with the footwork, but it can make sense of the inter-twining of your lineage. Three PC software packages take different tacks to help you in your genealogical quest. Depending on your level of interest, patience, and budget, you'll find one of these three suitable for sifting through the dust of ages.

Fun for the Family Tree Maker

For a quick genealogy payoff, you won't find anything better than Family Tree Maker from Banner Blue. This PC program uses a card file interface to cushion you from the rigors of the database. Entering information is fast and painless, primarily because of the program's limited ambitions. It's when you've got your family safely saved to disk that Family Tree really takes root. The name hints at its forte--printing family trees. You won't find any that are more attractive, especially when you use a laser printer. Family Tree is the best choice for the dabbler in genealogy or the beginner eager to see some results. It's also the easiest to use of the three programs reviewed here.

You can start with anyone in your family, a plus when your notes are disorganized. Each family unit--husband, wife, and children--fills one of the onscreen family cards. Here you record such basic information as the date and place of birth, marriage, and death for the parents and the name, sex, and birth date of each child, if any. List a child, and Family Tree automatically creates a new family card with that person as husband or wife.

Family Tree publishes professional-looking ancestor and descedant trees and funky photo family tree with blanks you fill by pasting in pictures. It's easy to create just the right tree, since you decide how many generations to include and who serves as the trunk. A selection of borders and box styles lets you customize charts even more.

Family Tree is not for the serious genealogist; its database just isn't rugged enough. But for most of us, the program's simplicity and excellent tree making fit our recreational interest in family history just fine.

Awkward at the Family Reunion

If you are serious about researching your family, have the patience of Job, and don't have a lot to spend, Family Reunion may fit the bill. This is a real database, with enough fields (the blanks you fill in) to overwhelm even the most meticulous researcher. You can record over 100 different pieces of information about each person listed in your Family Reunion files. But the program is unnecessarily hard to set up and even harder to use. The database has the flavor of the early 1980s, when computer users were hackers and had the time and expertise to get the software to do precisely what they wanted it to do. In fact, the documentation includes a glossary of database terminology. Current programs should do more for us; they shouldn't require much specialized knowledge. The program would be easier to use if its documentation concentrated more on the actual operation of the program and less on secondary matters such as terminology.

Still, Family Reunion has its winning graces. Its price is right, and it can store over 1500 ancestor records on one 5 1/4-inch disk. You can define many of the database fileds to suit your own needs, and some of the charts and work sheets are impressive. Family Reunion's six-generation ancestor chart isn't fancy--no boxes or borders here--but it's clear and easy to follow. You'll also like the family work sheets, which contain all the basic information about one family, complete with enough room for up to 20 children. You can even print blank work sheets for recordkeeping to take with you on your research trips.

Professional Roots

The Lotus 1-2-3 of genealogy, Roots III is impressive even before you install it on your hard disk. The sheer heft of its manual indicates that it's serious productivity software. It's not empty weight either, for the program is documented from start to finish. Roots III isn't software you'll pick up in an afternoon and be pushing to its limits by nightfall. But it packs the power that top genealogists (and wannabes) require. Everything's here--a nearly up-to-date interface, a powerful database that specializes in lightning-fast searches, a tremendous printing and reporting capability, and enough extras to please a professional.

You can enter detailed footnotes, customize several vital fields individually for each entry (not database-wide, an important difference), and quickly update individual records. All kinds of data find a home in Roots. Know the date and place an ancestor was put on a ship's passenger list? Roots has a spot for it. Stumble across a mention of your great-grandfather's bar mitzvah? You can record the date and location in Roots.

Once you've got people in the database, Roots III makes it easy to study their connections. You can display the immediate family of anyone with a key combination, then step through the generation quickly. Or you can trace the pedigree of an individual or ask Roots III to calculate the kinship of any two people in the database. Roots III prints 14 types of charts and reports, including the scholarly Register and Record Plan formats, three different pedigree charts, a family group chart, and a marriage record report. Roots III can also help you publish your genealogy data in book form.

The power doesn't come cheap. Roots III is by far the most expensive program highlighted here. And though you could certainly grow into its impressive list of features, be sure of your commitment to the hobby of genealogy before steering for Roots.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

It's hard to see how genealogy once got along without computerization. And with baby boomers getting older, expect computer-assigned genealogy to grow even stronger.

Boomers are reaching that age when one begins to think a bit more of family and mortality--two interests that converge productively in genealogy, the study of the passing of individuals and the permanence of families. Conveniently, these are the same people who propelled the PC into everyday use at work and at home. It's a safe bet that genealogy software and online research will become easier and more popular in the years ahead.

Computers make the perfect tools for personal archaelogy. Hand me that trowel, please, and my work boots. I've got some digging to do in the late eighteenth century.