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!