Label those photographs!

Amy Sarah and MargaretWe are always being reminded to label all our old photographs so that future generations know who is in them, and this is good advice. How many photos have we seen of our parents, grandparents, and further back if we are lucky, and we do not know who is in them and neither does any one else? A simple label on the back would have been so helpful! So yes, we should write on the back of the photos, with a soft pencil, at least a 2B or 3B, and include as much information as we have or can find out – names, relationships, place, and date or an approximation.

Digital photos

What about the photos we are taking now? I have been using a digital camera for over five years now and I rarely, if ever, make prints from them, so there is no opportunity to write on the back. Perhaps you are the same. I file the photos under a folder structure that tells me what the photos are related to but I rarely rename them from that awful img000001.jpg name given by the camera, relying on thumbnails once they are on my laptop to show me who is in the photo, and the file date to tell me when it was taken.

This is an adequate strategy for me right now, but will it help my family and our descendants in a few years time? If I get hit by a courier van tomorrow will they know what they are? If an interested niece is looking over them in 30 years time will she even recognise the other people in the photos that she appears in as a child? Leaving aside the issue of whether digital files will be accessible in a few years time unless we continually back them up onto the latest media, we need to identify our digital photos as completely as the printed ones. Who is in them, where was it taken, and by whom, and at what date, and what was the occasion.

Scanned photos

If you have borrowed photos from relatives or friends and scanned them. What have you named the files? If they are just called img0001.jpg and you don’t change the name you may remember in 20 or 50 years who is in it but your children may not. The old Agfa scanner made me think up a name then and there before it did the scan so I would try to name the people and include an estimated year in the name. My nice new Canon scanner names the files Scan10001.tif and so on, which makes the scanning process much quicker, and I have to go through them later and give them real names.

How can your computer help?

File Properties - Summary TabYour software may allow you to add more information. I use Windows XP and so I cannot speak for other operating systems. In Windows Explorer when I right-click on the file name and then select Properties I get a General tab which displays the name of file, type of file, the program to display the file, location, file size, dates and times of creation, modification and access, and whether the file is read-only or hidden.

I also see a Summary tab, which allows me to enter Title, Subject, Author, Category, Keywords and Comments. These fields can be very useful to add more information than you can reasonably include in the file name, such as the names of every person in a wedding group or family gathering photo, where you got the photo from, and the original photographer. The information you enter should be carried over when you change programs and operating systems, although there is no guarantee.

PicasaOther photo-organising software allows similar information to be included. I use Picasa to organise photos because it loads thumbnails quickly so I can see all the photos in a folder at once; I can organise photos into an appropriate order instead of just by file name or date; I can create albums of photos taken from any folders organised as I wish and upload the albums to the web for public or private viewing; and I can do basic enhancement of photos such as cropping, contrast adjustment and red-eye removal while saving the original in a separate folder. I can also add captions to each photo. The size of the thumbnails can be controlled – larger to recognise individuals, as in the photo; smaller to see what’s in the folder at a glance. Picasa is one of the Google family of tools and is well-designed and reliable. I like software that plays nice together with others, but there are alternatives.

FastStone Image ViewerI also use FastStone Image Viewer, which allows me to do bulk renames, resizes and conversions of photos, as well as the standard viewing and organising. Thumbnails are, again, very quick to load. It has a long list of features that I have not even begun to explore in depth, including the ability to crop, adjust contrast and colour, change resolution and add text or watermarks, all in batch mode, and all at once if you prefer, so you can whip through a whole folder at once. I use FastStone for preparing images for the web and for my family tree software.

Both tools can be downloaded for free. Of course, if you rely on these programs to include extra information on your photos there is no guarantee that it will be available to future generations.

Another possibility, although more limited, is to use the features of your family tree program. I use The Master Genealogist which allows the inclusion of exhibits – photos,scanned images of documents, audio, video, etc, and extra information can be stored about the exhibit concerned. The drawbacks to relying on family tree software are – 1. the possibility of changing software in the future; and 2. not all the photos you take will be included. If you take 30 photos at your grandchild’s birthday party you might include one as an exhibit, or perhaps two.

It’s a difficult issue to come to terms with, and I wish I could say that I have been diligent in recording information on my own photos, but no. Other than using the name of the file to identify the people, date and place of the photo, I have not, as yet, been systematic in recording information about the photos I scan, and even less in the photos I take now, but I have been inspired to continue. Possibly the File Properties solution is the best so far, especially if I could find a batch method of updating it.

I would love to know what your solution is.

Which family tree software is best?

This is a big question. The Society of Australian Genealogists attempted to help find an answer for 25 or so budding genealogists earlier this month in a day-long seminar showing demonstrations of 6 different family tree programs – Family Tree Maker, Legacy, Personal Ancestral File, Reunion, something else, and The Master Genealogist.

The answer is different for everybody. I find that TMG is best for me, after doing some thorough research (as a good genealogist does!) on the features of each program a few years ago. So far I haven’t seen anything to change my mind about this, although I’ve seen programs that do some things better and have nice little features that I like, none of them have enough of these to make me want to change programs.

The question, then, is – which family tree software program is best for you? You have to work out what is important to you. Any program you use should have the basics, and I would be very surprised to find any on the market, or free on the internet, that don’t. The first one I ever used that my uncle, an amateur programmer, wrote, and although he was a good programmer he was not much of a genealogist. For example, the program didn’t have a place to put death dates. This is what I mean by basics – any program you find will have places to put basic information – birth, christening, marriage, death and burial dates and places, links to spouses and children, the sources for all of this, and some way to get the information out again – reports and charts.

After the basics everything else really are just extras that you may or may not decide you need. So you need to see how easy it is to use, and understand. There are different layouts, some that look like a family group sheet on the screen with parents at the top and children in a list underneath, and others that look like Windows Explorer with folders that open other folders.

Before you go out and buy a program, try one of the many free ones. Cora Web has an excellent page on family history programs here that I won’t try to copy. Or have a look at the Genealogical Software Report Card at for a comprehensive comparison of all of the popular programs.

Computers in Genealogy

How on earth did we get by before we had computers? It’s hard to remember now how much longer everything took and how much harder we had to work! I’ve been thinking lately about all the ways computers help make genealogy more enjoyable and my list keeps getting longer and longer. Perhaps you can think of other ways as well – let me know!

We have email! Remember what life was like before email? We had to read about other researchers in books or journals and write them letters, and then wait for a reply. Correspondence took days, weeks, even months. With email it can be almost instantaneous, although of course it often isn’t. We can also send family history societies details of our brick walls and get replies back much quicker than we used to.

Family history software has replaced, for many of us, the index cards and files of paper we used to use. It was hard to keep track of what we had and where it had come from. Now, we can see all the facts we have about an ancestor at once, in one place. We can redraw charts in a very few minutes and print them out. We can even include photos on them.

Even if we don’t use a family history program we almost all use a word processing program, and perhaps even spreadsheet and database programs. Word processors allow us to write letters, reports, family histories and all sorts of things by typing and printing rather than hand-writing or using an old typewriter and white-out. We can easily correct our typing mistakes and edit what we’ve written as we go.

We can scan those precious old photographs and documents and distribute them to other family members. We can borrow and quickly scan those of our distant relatives and just as quickly return them.

We can print out reports and photographs quite easily. Most of us have black and white printers, if not colour photo printers, and can arrange them on the page the way we want, and even add text so we can see who is in the photo. We can print out reports from our family history program for family members without computers.

We have CD or DVD burners to back up the data we’ve spent so long acquiring. We can create copies of our family tree for family members.

We can put our family tree up on the web to help others to find us and share information. Storing a copy on the internet also backs it up in case of disaster on our own computer, or a worse catastrophe like a house fire.

We can buy data issued on CD to look at at our leisure. Parish register transcripts, census images, governement gazettes, encyclopedias, all sorts of rare old books are now available to us for the price of a CD.

We now have more indexes to births, deaths, marriages, censuses, wills, ship passenger lists – the list is growing every day. You used to have to find the index, if there was one, perhaps on microfiche, and then find the actual record. If there was no index you might have had to order a microfilm if your local society didn’t have it, then pore through the film, one frame at a time, looking for an entry that may or may not have been there. Not any more! Jump on the computer and have a look on the web!

Once we’ve found the entry we want in a index, we can now very often download an image of the actual record. Digitisation of the actual records has made many of them available on the internet, for free or for a relatively low fee. Then we can print them, store them, back them up (yes, I keep mentioning the backing up part).

To find documents or other resources that are not so easily accessible, we can check the catalogues, directions and opening of the repositories where they can be found before we leave home.

We can shop at home for the books, CDs and software that we need to continue our research.

Many of us now take our computers out with us when we go researching – laptops or even PDAs. PDAs are a topic in themselves, which I might cover another time.

Computers are marvellous resources, and get better all the time. I know there are family historians out there who do not take advantage of all of these wonders, and I guess they are not likely to be reading this!

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