Notes from the past…


Leave a comment

My electronic “must-haves” for genealogical research

I admit it. I get most of my “family-historying” done with a computer and an Internet connection. Maybe someday when I retire and have time to write letters, make phone calls and visit court houses, then my work will be more pen-and-paper, more of physically hunting through dusty old records in equally dusty old buildings.

But for now, my mouse makes a great research assistant!

My mouse and a few other essential items, that is.

The following is a list of what I use routinely to help fill in the blanks of my family story. When possible, I prefer to use open-source software that can be downloaded and used at no charge. Genealogy can be a very expensive past time, but in this day and time, gotta pinch those pennies!

Obviously the first item one needs to do online research is a computer. Personally, I prefer a laptop. I don’t like being tied to my desk. If I want to sit on the couch or at a table at the library (yes, I do occasionally make it out of my living room to do research :) ), nothing better than having all my records with me. I also prefer to have the smallest-sized laptop that I can get, as long as it still has lots of memory and does what I want. Easier to tote around. I recently purchased a new 10” netbook, since my last laptop was not long for this world. Incidentally, the netbook has 3 times the memory and a much faster processor than my old laptop, with a price tag of $325 compared to $1200. And built-in wireless is a must!

What good is a computer without Internet access? I have DSL that adds $10/month to my landline phone bill. For years, I had dial-up, but to be able to browse online census images or Civil War pension files, dial-up is just too slow. $10/mo dial-up = $10/mo DSL. ‘Nuff said.

One also needs some type of genealogy program, some place to put all those names, dates and places. I use RootsMagic 4. Over the years, I have tried almost every commercial genealogy program and I just prefer RootsMagic. Use what you like, whatever you are comfortable with it. One open-source program that I recently played with is GRAMPS. I was pleased with it, but since I had already spent money on RootsMagic, I’ll stay with it. If not, I think I would probably use GRAMPS.

A digital camera is also a must-have. Quality brand-name cameras are available for under $100. Your digital camera will also work pretty well as a scanner/copier in a pinch.

The other item that will actually cost $$$ is a printer/scanner/copier. Good ones are available for $70-80 from Walmart or BestBuy.

Ok, so far I have spent about $500. But all of these gadgets are expected to last for many years. I often use my laptop for several hours per day, and the camera and printer don’t collect much dust, either. Good investments.

An image manipulation program is invaluable. Cropping, resizing, sharpening, editing- the more images that you find and download to your hard drive, the more you will need an image manipulation program. I use Paint Shop Pro, vs7, from Jasc Software. Some years ago Jasc was acquired by PhotoShop, so I don’t believe Paint Shop Pro is still available. But I have used PSP7 for years and am very comfortable with it. A simple Google search will produce lots of hits for excellent open-source or freeware products, and many programs are available to use online at no charge. An excellent open-source program, frequently compared to PhotoShop, is GIMP.

Other free or open-source software that I find extremely useful, even mandatory:

  • Notepad- one of those programs that comes with all new Windows computers
  • TiddlyWiki- my electronic research notebook. Denise Olsen from Family Matters has created an excellent TiddlyWiki tutorial
  • Clipboard Recorder- fantastic for all of that copying/pasting of sources and other info
  • PixelRuler- this nifty little freeware program is super when you need a straight line to read across a census page!
  • OpenOffice- the open-source alternative to Microsoft’s expensive office tools. Totally compatible back-and-forth with Microsoft products
  • Transcript- another wonderful little gem, fantastic for transcribing old documents
  • PDF-XChange Viewer- to save a .pdf document as a .jpg. Handy when downloading .pdf newspaper clippings from GenealogyBank. A .pdf document can’t be added as a media file to most genealogy programs, but a .jpg image can… :)

And of course, never forget to back-up your records!!! I can’t emphasize this too much. You have all of your genealogy research on your computer, years and years of notes, documents, photos. One day, your house is broken into, there is a tornado or a flood, or your hard drive decides to take a mental health day. In an instant, everything you have collected, all your research, EVERYTHING… is gone! It happens every day, folks. Don’t push your luck or one day you will be very, very sorry.

USB drives are cheaper than ever these days, and depending on the size of your database, you may be able to save everything on a USB drive. For larger databases, an external hard drive will do the trick. One important point, keep your backup in a separate location. A family member or trusted neighbor’s house, at your work, maybe even a bank security box. There are also online storage sites, many free or very reasonably priced. I use both an external hard drive and an online storage site. ADrive offers 50GB of storage for free. More than enough for most genealogy databases!

(FYI: these are my opinions only. I am not being compensated by anyone!)