Fixing old photographs

Old family photos are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for family historians, but often when you find them they have been damaged over the years. I have been practising my photo-editing skills to overcome this problem.

I have used Paintshop Pro for years. I know it’s not the industry standard; when I was deciding between it and the similarly priced Photoshop Elements (the cut-price version of Adobe Photoshop, which is very expensive) I decided that Photoshop Elements was going to take too long to learn and I just didn’t have time.

That was years ago, and Photoshop Elements has come a long way. I have continued to upgrade Paintshop Pro until this last one, and I still like it for some things like lightening up the photos I’ve taken of archival documents. Last year I was persuaded to buy Photoshop Elements for fixing scratches in photos because it does it so well and so easily. They have really tried to make Elements easier for novices to use since my first trial all those years ago.

This is one I worked on the other night for a client using Photoshop Elements.

Unedited photo

Here is the photo after I had a go at it. The brickwork was particularly tricky!

Edited photo

I spent about an hour on this on my laptop while watching TV. When I got to the bottom left corner I just decided that there was too much woodwork anyway and cropped the bottom off. There’s still more I could do. I was a bit nervous about his eye but I think it works.

Photoshop Elements and Paintshop Pro are about $130, depending on where you live; less for an upgrade. Paintshop Pro has most of the same tools as Photoshop Elements but Elements has a very cool brush  that lets you paint along a scratch and it takes the image on either side and fills it in for you. It’s like magic!

Online software

I attended a Dear Myrtle webinar two years ago on free online photo editing software, and was introduced to PicMonkey. It is fully-featured photo editing software that runs online. You can start editing without even signing up, upload (or drag) the photo you want to edit, and the resulting photo is stored on your computer, not on the website. And it’s free! I was very impressed.

Have a look at PicMonkey. Save a copy of your photo, upload the copy, and see what you can do. You can always undo what you’ve done, or rub it out with the eraser, so don’t be afraid to experiment. And you have your original stored safely because you made a copy to edit. Always make a copy before editing.

I highly recommend Myrtle’s webinar for a demonstration of how easy it is if you’ve never played with photo editing before. She recorded it so it should still be available.

This post was originally published on my old blog Genealogy in NSW in September 2012. To update – I no longer use Paintshop Pro, and even though I now have access to the full Photoshop program I still use my old copy of Photoshop Elements 10.

LibraryThing for local and family history societies

LMDHS covers

I’ve been saying for a while now that I think LibraryThing is ideal for allowing small societies and libraries to maintain and display their library catalogues. Not only is the software practically free (US$25 one-off fee for unlimited books) but it is online, allowing members and potential members the ability to search their catalogues for free.

The Lake Macquarie and District Historical Society has been using LibraryThing to show off its catalogue since 2009. I admit that I didn’t know there was such an organisation, and I found it while seeing who else had a book I had just added to my catalogue.

LMDHS profile

If I was ever looking for books relevant to a geographical area the library of the local history society would be the best place to find them. Not every society has the funds or the means to create a library catalogue on their own website. LibraryThing allows them to do so for minimal cost. Accounts are free for up to 200 books. For a one-off fee of US$25 you can catalogue all the books you can  afford to buy, and then the ones that you would like to buy.

Here’s an example from the Lake Macquarie and District Historical Society’s library catalogue:

LMDHS catalog

Books can be catalogued manually by filling in the details yourself, or you can search for the book in any one of over 700 major libraries around the world, such as the US Library of Congress, the National Library of Australia, and the British Library. Bookstores such as Amazon and Amazon UK are also included. All data can then be imported directly into your own catalogue, with a book cover photo if there is one. You can use a barcode reader to read the ISBN from the book into the Add Book screen, making the cataloguing process even quicker and easier.

I’ve been using LibraryThing since 2007, and my ambition is to catalogue all of my books, not just the genealogy- and history-related ones. In the meantime, I can search the catalogues of libraries such as the Lake Macquarie and District Historical Society, and start a new wishlist!

Tumblr for Family History Societies and Libraries

I think Tumblr is a great platform for a blog. You can share enormous photos, links and news, and the format is large and easy to read. It’s perfect for a family historian who doesn’t want to do a lot of writing, or only occasionally.

Here is an example of a Tumblr blog (mine):

Tumblr blog It's Your World

If you click on the picture you will go to my Tumblr blog.

What does this have to do with family history?

Now this is a personal blog and it’s not just about genealogy, so I need you to use your imagination a bit. Imagine you can

  • share a few pictures of historic photos or documents
  • tell a few stories about what you have in your collection
  • tell stories about what other researchers have found to solve their research problems
  • explain what your society does
  • have a link over on the side to let people know where you are and how they can join

The way Tumblr works, and the reason it is so popular and easy to deal with, is that what you share takes centre stage. Pictures are not tiny little things that you have to click on to get a bigger image; it’s right there in all its glory.

You can also reblog the posts of other people, to create more interest, although I wouldn’t go overboard with this. There is someone on Tumblr called librarianista who shares magnificent photos of libraries (and cafes near libraries, such as the one above). There are historic photos and retro fashion photos, all of which can add interest to a family history society blog, to encourage people to think about the context of the ancestors’ lives.

The more popular blog sites are Blogger and WordPress, and these are the best if you want a lot of control over the layout of the words and smaller pictures within the text. This blog, for example, is written in WordPress.

The advantage of Tumblr is its ease of use and the fantastic way it displays images. They are BIG. Images are what get people in, no matter what the post, but if the blog is mostly images people will stay and look, and keep looking. And that’s what you want.

What, share all our photos for free???

I have heard the argument many times from family history societies – why would we give away our images for free on a blog? I am not proposing you put everything up there. Just a sample is enough. After all, you are not going to attract people to the society to see the photos you have if no one knows they are there.

Once you have a blog, you need to link it to your society website, and vice versa. The point of a blog for a society or library, in the end, is to get people interested enough to go to the website for more information, and perhaps to join.

This post was inspired by this post at Mashable about using Tumblr for non-profits. Whenever I see something about ‘non-profits’ I think ‘societies’. You can read the post at


After writing this post I came over all enthusiastic and created a new blog on Tumblr called Social Media and Genealogy to demonstrate a bit of what I am talking about. It’s more for family historians than societies, but it may give you a better idea of what such a blog could look like than the ones that are there now.

Which is the best family tree program?

I am often asked this question, and it is a difficult one to 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.

Top 10 Social Media Sites for Family Historians

I think that social media was made for family historians. We are different from other people – we actually enjoy finding distant relatives and keeping in touch with them! Social media helps us to find relatives and old friends in ways that were not possible in the days of mailing lists and message boards.

Here are 10 social media sites that are not directly related to family history (except one) but are nevertheless important for communicating, sharing and collaborating with other family historians, and family in general.

In alphabetic order:

Blogger is the best-known of the free blog hosting sites. Writing a blog about your family history and the discoveries you make is one of the best ways of getting young people interested. It’ is owned by Google so you can use your Google ID to log in and create as many blogs as you like.  The address of your blog will be You can choose from a large number of designs and options, and posting is quick and easy.

Delicious is a social bookmarking site. You can save bookmarks to sites as you find them and categorise them however you wish. You can also find sites that others have similarly categorised, which can save you a lot of time when researching a topic or place.

Facebook is a social networking site used by 500 million people around the world to connect with friends and family. It is easy to find people and for them to find you, if you want them to. As long as you change the privacy settings as soon as you join, and don’t click on anything you don’t understand, you will be safe from harm.

FamilySearch Wiki is a collection of over 40,000 articles on many aspects of genealogy research around the world. Articles can be added and changed by anyone, making it progressively more comprehensive.

Flickr is a photo and video sharing website. You can share as many photos as you like (within reason) with as many or as few people as you like. Photos of ancestors and places of historic value can be made public to attract others interested in the same people and places, and uploaded to the National Library of Australia’s Picture Australia.

Google Docs is a free office suite of applications that allows you to share documents and collaborate with others. Word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings and forms are all available. They are accessible to you anywhere as long as you can connect to the internet. You can keep them private or make them available to others to view or edit.

Google Reader is the most popular method of reading the blogs to which you have subscribed. You can open it in a full page in your web browser or in a small corner of your Google homepage, and quickly whip through a lot of posts from many different blogs in a short time.

Skype is a free program that allows you to make secure voice and video calls to other Skype users anywhere in the world over the internet. You just need an internet connection and a computer with a microphone and speaker such as a laptop, or an inexpensive headset. You can also buy a Skype phone to use like a regular phone, and make calls to regular phones, although they charge for this service.

Twitter is a ‘microblog’, where you can make short posts of 140 characters or less to give links to photos, websites, blog posts, or just ask questions and hold conversations. Twitter posts, or tweets, are searchable so you can find people interested in the same things as you. So many people and organisations use Twitter to let us know what they are doing that you can always learn something useful.

YouTube is a video sharing site that allows you to upload videos and share them with a few people or with everyone. You can search for videos on family history and other topics from archives, libraries, genealogy record companies and many other organisations.

I use most of these sites on a day-to-day basis. Many of them are now part of my daily life. I talk to my immediate family; share documents and photos; save bookmarks; read blogs and check Twitter on a regular basis. Although my own blogs are not hosted by Blogger, prefering to use my own hosting, I recommend it highly for first-time bloggers.

Try some of these out; do some searching, and see what you can find. You might be surprised. And hooked!

Useful software

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


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.

What will you do when your computer crashes?

The longer you work with and read about computers, the more horror stories you read about what went wrong. Whether there is a happy end to the story or not depends on whether the owner of the computer backs up their data and how regularly they do it.

Here’s my story. This happened late last week. My laptop is almost three years old, so it’s getting on for a laptop. Laptops are different from desktops, they are built to be small, not to last. This laptop pretty well contains my life – my business, my family history, my photos, my university notes, everything.

On Thursday night I had finished creating the handouts for a workshop I was giving the next day and I had printed them out so that I could check them and write notes on them. I hadn’t yet copied them to my flash drive because I wanted to check them first. I was answering an email in Outlook, using Word, when there was a sudden and subliminal blue screen of death and then the laptop restarted itself. That’s weird, I thought, and waited for the restart, which seems to be a lot slower these days than when the laptop was new.

The restart gave me a screen I’d never seen before. I don’t remember the exact words any more but it said something along the lines of “your computer failed. If the failure was not the result of new software do this, otherwise do that”. It also offered the Safe Mode option. Well, I hadn’t installed anything new lately so I chose the “go back to the last safe configuration” option.

It got stuck on a blue screen of death, which I imagine was the same one that flashed at me before the restart. My registry was corrupted or missing. Missing! How could it be missing?

I tried the whole process again with the “just start up as normal” option and got the same result. I tried the “old configuration” option again. How often do we do that – do the same thing again hoping for a different result? Well, I got what I should have expected.

When I tried the next time I went into Safe Mode. I’m not entirely sure what Safe Mode means but it sounded comforting. Everything worked fine and it started up fairly normally. The first thing I did was to copy my handouts for the next day on my flash drive. Then I printed them all out again in case I couldn’t print them at the Society from the flash drive and had to photocopy them.

I then went to look at Outlook. Outlook wouldn’t open – my mail file was gone. Missing. Disappeared. It was quite a large file, as you’ll know if you’ve had yours for a while and you’ve been able to find it. It had years and years of emails in there, from family, friends, clients, the lot. Gone.

I had a backup on the laptop hard drive that was at least a year old. No good.

This is where the happiness of the outcome of the story is dependent on whether I had a backup and how old it was. I’m happy to say that my last backup was that morning and I was able to get my mail file back.

I have struggled with the backup question for years. I’ve tried CDs and flash drives (too much hassle to remember to do it) and backing up over the wireless network to the desktop. We bought a portable hard drive when my laptop hard drive was running out of space a few months ago with all the photos and music it had on it, but it doesn’t get used regularly for backups.


I use an online backup service called Mozy, recommended by that prince among men, Dick Eastman on his blog. The backing up occurs at a schedule to suit me on the files and directories that I specify, without me having to do anything. That’s the crucial thing, for me. I don’t have to remember to do it and go looking for the media. It happens automatically. I’ve tested the restore part in the past when I stuffed up a database and it works just fine.

So I checked and sure enough, there was my Outlook mail file on the Mozy server, all 431MB of it. I clicked on restore and went to bed.

Unfortunately when I eagerly checked the next morning my mail file wasn’t restored – Mozy had lost the connection. It’s the internet, it happens. So I started the restore again, the message started counting down that it would take an hour and a half to restore, and I took my printed handouts and my flash drive and went to give my workshop.

When I got home, success!!! I had my mail file back, Outlook started up as though nothing had happened and started receiving emails. All in all I lost 12 hours worth of emails, from the last backup on the Thursday morning until the crash that evening.

Perhaps the loss of all your emails doesn’t sound that serious to you? We get too many emails as it is. Yes, I do get too many emails, but many of them are from clients telling me what they want and giving details of their ancestors, and many more are from relatives with information for me about my family. In some cases these emails are the sources of the data I have in my own family tree. I print these ones, yes, but I also keep them in Outlook so I can forward them to others and find them more readily in their family folders.

The potential loss of my email was a disaster for me and my business and my life. With only 12 hours worth lost I could email the people I knew I’d gotten emails from (yes, I had read them before they disappeared) to ask for the information again, and no harm was done to my professional relationships.

The moral of this story is obvious. We need a backup strategy that continues to work without us having to remember to do it. I use Mozy for the things that change constantly and the portable hard drive for things that don’t change much like my photo collection. There are other online backup services besides Mozy but it’s the one I like – it’s cheap and it works.

It’s free for up to 2GB of data and US$4.95 per month for unlimited data. It’s more expensive for business users. The security and peace-of-mind it gives is priceless.

Eventually all computers fail. Be ready when yours does.