My Genealogy New Year: or, Why I’m Abandoning my Genealogy Software

I’m kicking off the new year with the rather lofty goal of starting my personal family history research over, from scratch, follow the lead set by Thomas MacEntee, who is spearheading the very popular project which he’s calling a Genealogy Do-Over; you can read all about it here. Using his program as a guide I’m going to begin by:

1) Setting Previous Research Aside
2) Preparing to Research
3) Establishing Base Practises and Guidelines

Notable of course is the concept of NOT diving right in. If you’re anything like me, beginning research on a new ancestor is a lot like opening a big bag of your favorite candy. Despite every good intention of moderation and common sense, before you know it you’re feeling bloated and maybe even a little dizzy from the sugar rush, and nothing gets done the rest of the day because all you can do is nap. Needless to say, when, as a young teen, I embarked on this journey, I took a lot of naps. Thirty years later, there are family facts I feel certain are true, but proof is often precarious and the documentation to support my convictions is in many cases non-existent. Hence the allure of the Genealogy Do-Over!

Setting Previous Research Aside

Not as hard as you might have guessed because: firstly, I’m just moving my files to a virtual place known as HOLD EVERYTHING; and, secondly, it’s really a mess, a very unattractive, stress-inducing mess, kind of like that hall closet where I shove everything out of place within reach when an unexpected visitor rings the  door bell.

What I am not putting aside, are original records, scans of original records, and copies of vital records and paid research findings because to do so would be a waste of money and time. The difference this time will be the methodology I apply in analyzing and correlating the evidence found in those documents. The original records are filed by family name, and all of them are digitized and stored on my OneDrive for safe keeping and easy access from my laptop, tablet, smart phone, and any computer I happen to find in front of me that has internet access. Redundancy is EVERYTHING!

Preparing to research

For me, this involved determining which branches of my tree would be the focus of re-do. I’m over committed as usual, and can realistically, and in good conscience, dedicate only one day a week (and at this point it’s looking like Saturday) to this endeavor. I could have gone in any number of directions, but I’ve settled on three generations of my paternal grandfather’s forebears.

Ernest Napoleon Varrieur and his wife Elsie, the author’s paternal grandparents

It’s doable, my documentation appears to be only moderately disorganized, and there are a couple of tantalizing brick walls. Plus, I find the families interesting. Really interesting. There’s a painting I love by my dear friend and gifted artist, Frank Sullivan, called The Stories We Don’t Tell. As Frank so eloquently puts it,

We all have our stories – the ones we tell the people in our lives. The one that define us, the ones that everyone we know has heard at least once, the ones that we can’t wait to introduce to new people who come into our lives….They’ve shaped us, made us who we are and they help us to show others who we are. But there are other stories. The ones we don’t tell. The things we’ve done or that have been done to us that we don’t want anyone to know about. The stories that have scarred us or that reveal our dark side. The stories that we’ll take to our graves.

Our ancestors left us bread crumbs. If we’re lucky, those crumbs are more fact than fiction, but we can never really be sure of the motivations behind their actions and the veracity of the details they chose to share. Yes, they took a lot of stories to their graves, but if we dig deep enough and carefully enough, using patience, good organization, and The Genealogy Proof Standard, we can find clues they left behind for us, whether intentionally or inadvertently. I know I missed a lot in the infancy of my role as family historian, which is why I’m going to follow Thomas’s lead and take is slowly this time round.

Establishing Base Practises and Guidelines

So…about abandoning my genealogy software. I bought a new laptop a few weeks ago, a Surface Pro 2 which, by the way, is the best laptop I’ve ever had. Moving my software and files took a lot of time, and one thing I never got to was downloading Rootsmagic 7, my tried and trusted genealogy software for as long as I can remember. Last night, as a first step to my Do-Over, I installed the software and imported my personal Gedcom. My database contains around seven thousand ancestors (at least, I hope they’re mine, although the confidence that they are has waned exponentially with the honing of my research skills). It’s orderly, and easy to search and maneuver through, but, and it’s a big “but,” the structure of the database limits its use in getting an accurate picture of the thoroughness of the research on each family group, quickly highlighting brick walls, and determining the reliability of evidence for each person’s life facts. Family group sheets, while great for some purposes, are no where near as useful, at least for me, as narrative or compiled genealogies. The Board for Certification of Genealogists provides excellent samples of three different formats here. There are pros and cons to each format, and I’m not sure at this point which will work best for me. However, I am sure that the net positives of these written styles clearly out way the net positives of any reports produced by genealogy software.

This opinion has formed over a number of years, beginning in 2011 when I took Boston University’s genealogical research course. My long term clients will have noted an evolution in my research reports since then. I’m really happy with the research template I’m currently using. Essentially, it contains five parts:

  • A defined genealogical problem or question & all known facts and previous research of relevance.
  • A summary of key findings, followed by a detailed discussion of the research, and my written conclusions. Also, if appropriate to the problem or question, a formal genealogy of the research subject.
  • A research log, with bibliography and full source citations, including sources containing negative findings.
  • Recommended next steps
  • Scans of all documents referenced in the report.

Structuring the report as such allows me to quickly ascertain the status of the problem or question, what sources have already been searched, the structure of the family with proof summaries and arguments, with complete source citations, on which I’ve based my conclusions, and a plan for continuing the research. Having images of the documents referenced also refreshes my memory of the research when I next pick up the project, and allows me to further evaluate my findings and conclusions before moving forward. This approach works really well in my client research, so why would I not want this for myself????

One other base practise, which is so critical to good research, it deserves notice here, is to never work without a research plan at hand. Not even, or perhaps especially, when there’s just a few minutes to spare while dinner cooks. In the beginning, research took time, the pace often determined by the post office. The advent of the Internet, while wonderful, introduced speed to the hunt. The ease of accessing information online is mindblowing, and without a plan, you can head off in a dozen different directions in the blink of an eye. This willy-nilly approach, while seemingly productive, generally results in poor or non-existent source citations, and no real proof of anything. Research plans, while malleable, keep us on the straight and narrow. They give direction to our research, and create a work flow that we can refer back to later. I never tackle a client project without one so, here again, why handle my own research any differently??????

My plan then (and, for sure, one in written form!)…while I’m certainly not going to delete my Rootsmagic database, I will begin at the beginning with Word. And about that: my good friend and colleague, Brent Chadwick, over at Knox Trail Ances-Tree, has been hard at work on a Word template which is designed to automate the numbering of a compiled genealogy. I, happily, have been a bit of a guinea pig, and in the process have incorporated much of his automation into macros in my own research template. I generally use the Modified Register method of numbering my genealogies. Entering the numbers by hand is simple enough when one is working with a single lineage, or just two or three generations of a person’s ancestors or descendants; however, things can quickly become unmanageable as new research reveals additional children, or siblings, who need to be inserted in their proper place. Brent’s macros allows for easy insertion and adjusts the numbering automatically and effortlessly.

And, there you have it. I’ve filed away years of research and am armed at the ready with a blank Word template, eager to start afresh with focus, solid research methodology, and my already dog-eared copy of Mastering Genealogical Proof. I’d love to have you join me 🙂


My Genealogy New Year: or, Why I’m Abandoning my Genealogy Software — 6 Comments

  1. Pingback: Genealogy Do-Over Week 1 «

    • Hi Missy, sorry for the delay, I only just discovered your comment. Yes, I’m happy to share my research report format. If you send me an email with the request, see my contact info, I’ll send you the template.

  2. Hi Claire,
    I accidentally happened on your website while looking up something else. I am just getting started in genealogy work and know very little. I am guessing that a laptop computer will be preferable because I can take it with me into research locations and I saw that you liked the surface pro 2.
    what things to read would you recommend that would start me from zero. I know I need a computer – mine is so old it running on XP.
    Thanks for any advice you can give,
    Dave Walker

    • Hi Dave,

      I have a Surface Pro 3 and love it. It’s very lightweight and can easily be taken to a repository, although more often than not I just take a notebook with me and add notes to my Word document at night, once I’ve had a chance to review and organize the information I found that day. Many people use family tree software, but I am most at home with Word.

      There are myriad books on getting started in genealogy, but my favorite is Val Greenwood’s Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. It is organized by record type and reading it cover to cover will give you an excellent foundation on good methodology. Also look to see if there is a genealogy society in your area that might offer beginner classes. has an excellent WIKI that will help you learn about records in your geographical research area.

      Good luck!

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