Alt banner image

Choosing the right family history software :: Our expert guide

Some of these sites also have access to records which can be linked directly to an individual with the click of a button. Others take the form of a single tree so users can collaborate, reducing errors and duplication of information and allowing you time to concentrate on other branches. Saving time is always a significant benefit.

Many recent converts to the hobby of family history start out using a popular online service for building their tree, such as Ancestry and MyHeritage, as they are so easy and convenient to use. But as your research deepens there are disadvantages to storing all your research online. It is important to consider a number of factors, such as how reliable your internet connection is, and whether you would be happy only being able to see and work on your tree online. Perhaps more importantly, you should also consider what happens to your tree if the company ceases to exist or if you can no longer afford the subscription.

By sharing information on more than one site I am maximising my chances of finding others interested in my research

To me the ideal solution is to use more than one web-based service as an essential additional tool to the data that I control using software on my computer. By sharing information on more than one site I am maximising my chances of finding others interested in my research. Ideally the software you choose will include a seamless updating or syncing process to the web.

Family Tree Maker syncs with Ancestry, while Legacy and RootsMagic sync with FamilySearch. If you have a preference for either of these top data content provider sites, using a program which synchronises with their online service will save a significant amount of time and would have to be a plus in choosing one program over another.

Whichever program you choose, do make sure you can export the data as a GEDCOM file (the universal standard for sharing genealogy information), so you can share your data more easily with other sites and individuals. It’s hard to believe, but some of the lesser-known programs do not have this functionality.

Something to consider before you start is: where do you store and how do you maintain this precious database you have created? Adopt the 3, 2, 1 backup rule: make three copies, use two different media and one off-site storage location. With that in mind, consider:

  • Those of us using Windows 8.1 and Macintosh operating systems can make sure the file version storage processes are set up to make regular version copies. This is best done to an external drive if possible.
  • Having the functionality to save a backup copy at the end of every session is an essential feature of all the major programs. If the file name doesn’t include the date you are saving the backup file then remember to insert the date at the end of the file name in the format YYYY MM DD. RootsMagic does a lovely job of this, even asking you where you wish to store this backup file, including cloud storage options.
  • To fulfil the off-site and other media component of the backup rule, why not save the backup in the folder on your computer connected to a cloud storage facility? While you are at it, why not store the working file in a folder connected to a cloud storage service, such as Dropbox or OneDrive? I use these two as I prefer their terms of service to the other popular cloud storage sites.

All the major genealogy software providers offer user help and support for beginners, but for most of us nothing beats seeing others use the software. The best way to do this is to join your local family history or genealogy society. Some even have user groups which meet regularly to discuss and learn more about using software.

The support you can receive from fellow researchers can be invaluable. Find your nearest family history society in Australia or New Zealand.

If you can’t make it to a session with others, or just can’t wait until their next meeting, you can get a feel for how each program works via the many videos available on YouTube. The following are the channels hosted by the software creators:

So what do I use? Well, way back in 1999, I settled on something called Generations. It is no longer being developed for the Windows environment, and is now known as Reunion for Macintosh. So as a DOS/Windows user from 1989 I finally bought a Mac desktop so I could use a database program that reads my existing files and includes all the modern improvements. Legacy is my preferred Windows-based program as it is easy to use and has great tech support, plus the free webinars are great for those of us who can’t get together with others. But, that said, if I was starting out today with an Ancestry account, FamilyTreeMaker would be hard to go past.

All three major programs, be it for Mac or Windows, are easy to use and do most things family historians need them to do. Which you will most enjoy using is very much a case of how your mind works and how the visual presentation of the software gels. After all, this is meant to be an enjoyable pastime (or should I say addiction!) and not a chore.

So if you are one of the many who have yet to store your research in a database program, or are not enjoying the program you are currently using, I hope this has helped enthuse you to take that next step.

This issue originally appeared in issue 24 of Inside History magazine. Click here to read more

Join our mailing list