When disaster strikes do you have a backup?

dreamstimefree_1574304Early last month I wrote about my own backup strategy in my personal blog, little realising that I would soon be put to the test.

On Good Friday, less than 3 weeks after writing about my backups, my laptop would not start. At all. It being a public holiday I couldn’t get any technical support on the phone until the Wednesday, as Tuesday was the Anzac Day holiday. I was told it was the motherboard. I could pay $700 to extend my warranty so that someone would come and fix it in my house for “free”, or I could buy a new one. As the laptop is just on 3 years old, I didn’t see the point in throwing good money at it. It’s my third laptop and they just don’t last longer than 3 years.

And, of course, I had my backups.

I am currently using my netbook (or mini laptop/notebook) while waiting for my new laptop to arrive. I shopped around and eventually ordered a custom-built Dell which has a higher resolution screen than the standard off-the-shelf laptops. I usually only use my netbook for research trips and I regularly synchronise all the documents between it and my laptop, so recent versions of all my documents were already on it.

Backups

I use an online backup service called Mozy that backs up everything I use often without me having to remember to do it, including my Outlook mail file and my family tree databases. My mail file has 10 years of emails from family, friends and clients, and I would hate to lose them. Because my mail file is backed up to Mozy every night, I only lost a few hours worth of emails that had arrived on Good Friday after my backup ran the night before.

Mozy also backs up my family history databases, documents and photos every night, as insurance. I can easily download one or all of the files if I need to. I would hate to have to download 20GB of files at once, but it is very comforting to know they’re there, and to be able to download a single file that you deleted or corrupted by mistake.

I store absolutely critical files that I am constantly working on in Dropbox. Dropbox is a free service that allows you to store up to 2GB of data on the internet and automatically synchronise it with your other computers, or those of friends. I keep PowerPoint presentations and handouts for talks in Dropbox, as well as my thesis, so that there is a backup created automatically as soon as I finish editing and close the file.

I also use two separate external hard drives to back up absolutely everything – my family history research, my client files, my photos, music, and everything else.  I use synchronisation software called GoodSync to keep all these files up to date. I also use GoodSync to keep my netbook synchronised with my laptop.

So all my data is backed up.

What is missing from my netbook, though, is software.

Software

The version of Microsoft Office I use on my netbook does not include Outlook, so I can’t receive or send emails that way. I can receive all new emails by setting Gmail to pick them up for me, but I don’t have access to any of the previous ones. And I have to remember to copy any replies to my own email address, so that they will all be in Outlook when I eventually get it going. Emails are much easier to deal with if they are all in the one place so I can see the history of a conversation.

I have a backup of my accounting database but no software to run it on. I have the software on a CD somewhere but my laptop doesn’t have a CD drive, and even if I were to install it I can’t activate it without my registration key, which is in an old email in Outlook.

You see my problem? I am in limbo until I can run the software.

To make matters worse, I started using my husband’s laptop, which is only a few months old. I copied my email file to it from my backup and set up a new account in Outlook to pick up my emails. I was using Office 2007 and he is using Office 2010, so I had to be sure that I wasn’t going to be able to save my laptop before doing this, as once I was in Office 2010 there was no going back to 2007.

Unfortunately, after a day or two of using his laptop, it starting giving messages about the “imminent failure of the hard drive”. I copied my Outlook mail file back off it, now updated with recent emails, and we backed up everything else just in case. It has now gone off to have a new hard drive installed. It’s still under warranty, which is comforting, but we now have no full size laptop in the house.

So I’ve started playing with trial versions of software. Trial versions give you access to all of the features of the software for a limited time, such as a month or two. A month is long enough for my current crisis! I have downloaded a trial version of Office 2010 to my second netbook, which did not already have any version of Office on it, nearly 700MB. I didn’t want to overwrite the version of Office 2007 that was already on my “first” netbook.

A second netbook, you ask? It’s the original one, that I bought too early, before netbooks had evolved sufficiently to be really useful. It’s got a great high resolution screen and a metal case, but it’s slow because it runs Vista, it gets very hot and the battery only lasts an hour or so. I bought a new onelast early year when the prices had come down and the batteries lasted longer. The old one has been sitting in the cupboard waiting for me to decide what to do with it.

So now I have all my old emails accessible again. I’ve also downloaded a trial version of the latest Quickbooks, my accounting software. I can now see what clients have paid and create new invoices. This will mean that I will have to upgrade my software when I get my new laptop, as I will not be able to go back to the old version. More money!

I’m still struggling a bit with the smaller screen and keyboards on the netbooks but at least I am able to keep working.

Lessons learned

I can’t begin to imagine what a disaster the sudden death of my laptop would have been if I hadn’t had backups of all my data. In the past I had always replaced the old one before it was too late, enabling a controlled transition from the old one to the new one. Not this time!

Here are some lessons I have learned during this ordeal:

  1. If you buy Microsoft Office off the shelf instead of pre-loaded on your computer you can install it on a second, portable device such as a netbook. It’s more expensive but you get two for the price of one. I found this out the day AFTER I ordered my new laptop with Office pre-installed. You may not need Outlook on your netbook, and you will have a problem keeping them in sync if you use it on both computers at once, but it will be there as a backup if you need it.
  2. If you download and install a trial version of Office 2010 on a computer that already has Office 2007 that includes Outlook, it will NOT install Outlook 2010 and it won’t warn you. I learned this from experience on an old laptop that was too unstable to give away when I replaced it and has been sitting in the cupboard. That’s when I went to the old netbook.
  3. Don’t assume that all software you use keeps its files in a place that will be backed up. Some programs keep the data in the same folder as the program, under Program Files, which is not usually backed up automatically. The current version of The Master Genealogist, which I use for my family tree and those of clients, stores its files under My Documents by default, but older versions did not. I have lost my timesheet data because I didn’t check to see where the data was stored.
  4. Make sure you know how to set up your email accounts in a new program in case you can’t go back and look at the old version.
  5. Make sure you know your IDs and passwords to all the websites you use. Most web browsers will remember these for you on that computer, so if you need to start using a different computer you at least need to know your ID so you can ask for your password to be sent to you by email if you can’t remember it.

This blog is usually about research, but I think that backups are so very important that I wanted everyone to learn from my experience.

Backup your data, and have a plan for when you need to use the backups. Sooner or later, your hard drive or something else on your computer will fail.

 

140 Free Online Genealogy Research Courses

Here is part of an announcement from FamilySearch about their growing list of free online research courses, some of which are specifically about Australian records:

Maybe you’d like to learn more about how to do your family history research but don’t think you can afford to take a class. Thousands of individuals are now satisfying many of those needs through FamilySearch’s growing collection of free online genealogy courses.

In just one year, the number of free FamilySearch courses has grown to over 140—and new courses are added monthly. Most recently, over 25 courses were added for Australia, England, Germany, and the U.S. Additional courses were added that focus on basic tools and techniques for anyone just getting started in family history research, as well as courses for intermediate and advanced researchers.

“The goal of the initiative is to educate more people worldwide about how to find their ancestors. We do it by filming the experts teaching a particular class of interest and then offering free access to that presentation online—complete with the PowerPoint used and anyelectronic handouts that the user can download or print for future reference,” said Candace Turpan, FamilySearch instructional designer.

Turpan’s team films presentations made by its staff from the FamilySearch Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, as well as special guests (the library is frequented by accredited researchers from all over the world). They also travel to industry conferences or other venues where record and research specialists gather. There they film specialists’ presentations and make them available online.

FamilySearch uses viewing software that splits the viewing screen (sort of like the picture-in-picture features on some televisions) so the user can watch the video of the presenter while also seeing the PowerPoint presentation. Most courses are 30 minutes in length. You can also fast forward through the presentation or presentation slides or stop and pick up later where you left off—a luxury you don’t get in the live presentation.

I’ve used this software to view presentations and I’m very impressed. It works easily and looks great.

Highlights from the latest course additions:

Australia

  • Australia BDM Civil Registration Index
  • New South Wales Early Church Records 1788–1886
  • Using the New South Wales Birth, Death, Marriage Index

England

  • Getting the Most from the National Archives Website
  • Researching in the British Isles
  • What Is Britain?

Research Principles and Tools

  • Cemetery Art
  • Finding Your Way: Locating and Using Maps in Your Research
  • How to Find More at a Genealogy Library
  • If I’d Only Known: Beginner Genealogy Mistakes
  • Managing Your Family Records on the Internet
You can see the full list of courses at https://familysearch.org/learn/researchcourses

FamilySearch International is the largest genealogy organization in the world. FamilySearch is a nonprofit, volunteer–driven organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints. Millions of people use FamilySearch records, resources, and services to learn more about their family history. To help in this great pursuit, FamilySearch has been actively gathering, preserving, and sharing genealogical records worldwide for over 100 years. Patrons may access FamilySearch services and resources free online at FamilySearch.org or through over 4,600 family history centers in 132 countries, including the main Family History Library in SaltLake City, Utah.

Which is the best family tree program?

I am often asked this question, and it is a difficult one to answer. This is an expanded version of my most recent answer.

The answer depends on what you want to get out of the program. There are some things you need to think about:

  • Ease of use – is the layout easy to understand, and is it easy to work out what you are supposed to do to enter and change your data?
  • Output – what do you want to do with the data once you’ve entered it? Reports, charts, websites and screen display are all ways of seeing the data you have spent all that time entering, and if one is more important to you than others you should look for a program that offers more in this area
  • Flexibility – will you want to change it to suit your own requirements – how it looks, what types of data it can handle

Trees and clouds

All programs will do the basics – allow you to enter and change data, and give you basic reports and perhaps charts. I personally prefer the more fully featured programs that have many different options and are flexible enough to cater to whatever you want to do with it.

I also prefer programs that allow you to download a trial version for free. You never really know how a program will suit you until you try it out, and many programs allow you to do this. I have used Family Tree Maker in the past and found that it was limited in many ways, although it has changed a lot since then. It is NOT available to try out for free, although it is the most popular.

If I was buying a program today I would look at The Master Genealogist, Legacy, and Family Historian. All three are customisable and allows proper citing of sources, and have a long list of features.

There are some free programs around too – PAF and Brother’s Keeper are examples. If you’ve never used a program before try 2 or 3 of the free ones to see how you like them – whether they do what you want, and how easy they are to use. You may find that you are perfectly happy with these and don’t need to spend any money at all.

Then there are the internet programs that allow you to enter your data and share it with others, or not. Examples are MyHeritage, which has its own program that runs on your own computer, and TNG (The Next Generation).

There is a new Australian book out that goes into the subject in some detail, which gives a detailed description of many programs and compares them using comprehensive tables of features. The book was written by an Australian researcher and teacher, and is available here.

Most people who ask the question want to be told the name of a single program which they can confidently go out and buy. I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that because everyone is different, and has different needs. I can’t tell you which car to buy, or which breakfast cereal is best, or which cookbook you should buy. Family tree programs are the same.

Take a couple out for a test-drive and see what you think.

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