Useful software

dreamstimefree_7966554_320x240Not directly related to genealogy, perhaps, but you might be surprised by how useful these programs can be.

Mindmapping

Mindmapping is a way of organising information or ideas. It is fantastic when when you are at the planning stage of a project for getting all your ideas down and organised. It’s very helpful for making decisions – you can get all the information you need down, all the fors and againsts, and everything becomes clearer. I don’t know why it works better than writing straight lists, but it does. I used to use it at university to plan essays. In those days I used pencil on a large drawing pad, or A3 paper. These days I use computer software, which allows changes and rearrangement more readily than pencil on paper.

There are a lot of different packages around, and after trying out a few I decided on Mindmeister. It is web-based, allowing collaboration with others, and it can also run off-line, which is quicker. The basic version is free to use and has limitations such as the number of mindmaps you can have at any one time. The premium version is a reasonable yearly fee that works out to something like $4 per month and allows unlimited mindmaps and offline access. Another free mindmap application, not web-based, is Freemind.

Photo albums

There are a lot of picture-hosting sites around that allow you to upload albums of photos to share with others. I use Picasa, one of the growing Google family of applications. I’ve mentioned Picasa before. It allows public sharing, which means anyone can see it, or private sharing, which involves a long key in the filename which you give to people you want to share it with.

This is a great way to share photos with relatives. You upload the album once, add photos as you wish, and send the link to your relatives. When you find a new cousin you can just send the link instead of sending photos as attachments. They can download the photos, and even though they may not be the same quality at least they have them and they can never be lost completely. Picasa is completely free.

Time tracking

Another web-based application I use is Harvest, to track my time and account for it. I create projects and tasks and start the timer when I am working on them. It also has an invoicing option. Although I started using it primarily for client work I also track my own genealogy research and general time-wasting. It is a very interesting exercise to do this for a week or two and find out exactly how much time you spend. Harvest has a number of monthly pricing packages.

A slightly different form of time-tracking that I’ve been experimenting with is RescueTime. This tracks exactly what you are doing on your computer – websites and applications – and gives you a list with time against each one. You can categorise them however you want; for example, I have MS Outlook and Gmail categorised as “email” and it is quite startling to see how long I spend in these applications every day. I can also set goals with warnings, so I can get a warning after I spent more than my allocated hour on email. I can also give each category a priority, from which my daily productivity is calculated. RescueTime is free.

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.

Five essential websites for NSW genealogy

Today I want to discuss websites that I find to be essential for researching family history in New South Wales. Genealogy has come a very long way in the last few years, with so many government repositories and others putting indexes, and even images of the actual records, online. Here are the websites that I use most often.

1. NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages Historical Index Search is a necessary first step for anyone starting on their family history. Starting with the people you know – your parents and their parents, you can then start putting the meat on the bones – the hard evidence of birth, death, and marriage registrations. The index allows searching for births from 1788 to 1906 by name and/or parents’ names; deaths from 1788 to 1976 by name or parents’ names; and marriages from 1788 to 1956 by either or both parties’ names. The upper search limit increases each year by one year. Once an entry is found the certificate can be ordered and paid for online. Current cost for a certificate is $25.00.

2. NSW State Records was previously names the Archives Office of NSW. Their indexes online has many useful indexes including some censuses; Colonial Secretary Correspondence; Convicts; Court, Police and Prison records such as civil and criminal cases, divorces, gaol photographs, police service records, and some early probate records; Deceased Estate files of the Stamp Duties Office; Education and Child Welfare; Immigration and Shipping; Indigenous Australians; Insolvencies; Land records and Naturalization. Additional records and series are added to as indexing progresses. The Convict and Immigration indexes are essential resources for finding out how your ancestor arrived in Australia. Some indexes are held on the websites of other organisations.

3. Society of Australian Genealogists is based in Sydney and is a marvelous resource for Australian research and NSW research in particular. Their research guides are enormously helpful – factual and very informative. Online databases include Convicts’ Tickets of Leave, Electoral districts for Sydney Streets, Soldiers and Marines from 1787 to 1830, and NSW Ships Musters 1816-1825. The catalogue shows what resources are available when you visit the library and is being added to all the time.

4. State Library of NSW has many resources that are also available in other repositories such as State Records NSW. I always check their catalogue to see if it is worthwhile to visit for records on microfilm or microfiche, both Australian and from the UK. They also have some records for other states. Mitchell Library and the William Dixson Library in particular specialise in Australian and New Zealand books and manuscripts. The State Library also has a vast collection of maps and plans, pictures, photographs and newspapers.

5. NSW Department of Lands is not an immediately obvious source for family history, and it does allow some limited property searches here. What I use it for most often is its Historical Parish Maps, which can be viewed in small sections from here. It may be useful before doing a map search to find the correct parish using the search at the Geographical Names Board. All the existing parish maps that have been superceded by more recent versions have been digitised and put online. Towns are included to the street level, and portions of land have the names of the original purchaser. Hours can be spent looking at these maps. CDs of the maps are also available from the Department.

6. I know I said there would be five websites, but I think the State Records NSW website must be mentioned again apart from its online indexes. This is the place to find out whether the records you want actually exist and have been archived. As the progressive indexing of their holding continues more and more records can be found by searching in Archives Investigator, their catalogue search facility. For example, probate files can be found by searching for the name and the word “death” as keywords (and using “All Words” not “Exact Phrase”). Their Archives in Brief series are very useful guides to the records they hold and are available online or in hardcopy in State Records Reading Rooms.

These are the NSW sites that I use most often in my research for myself and others. I would be very interested to hear from others if they disagree with anything on my list, or have others they would like to share.