Getting Organized - Family Tree Software

Author: Mark W. Swarthout
Published on: May 27, 2003

I have owned and used a computer of one type or another for almost twenty-five years. I surfed the web when it was simply text based information with little or no linking capabilities. So it was only natural that I should put my family information into a computerized format. When I first began, I simply picked up a program off the under $10 table at the local computer store. When it came time to upgrade, I switched to the program that my father-in-law was using to allow me to share files with him. And when my cousin printed out a really neat chart, with everyone's names listed on it, I upgraded to a newer version.

In the next few articles I'll discuss a variety of software programs available to you over the net or through your local software source.

Far from being a complete listing, these are a small sample of the software that is a available. I haven't tried to rank them, just provide some of the nice features and some of the shortcomings of the products. In each of these cases, the company provided a demonstration copy of their software and permission to quote from their literature and web sites.

Testing Information

The family tree I used while evaluating these packages was that of the residents of The Shire from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and consisted of 130 individuals, with numerous distant cousins marrying each other. I had to add a few second marriages, since that isn't something that happened in normal circumstances in The Shire! I ran the software on a Dell Pentium III running the Windows ME operating system.


GEDCOM stands for GEnealogical Data COMmunications, a File Format and Standard created by the Church of Later Day Saints that allows genealogists to share information regardless of what program they are using. If a program does not support the GEDCOM standard, you may regret using it when you want to switch programs or share information with others. There are a number of programs that will allow you to view GEDCOM files and even convert them to HTML files that can be easily shared on the internet. I would not recommend any program that does not have the ability to import and export the GEDCOM standard. Many of the sources for information will gladly share these types of files with you, which can save you a great deal of time typing in data you find.

GEDCOM Explorer is one such program and includes further information on the GEDCOM format.

Software Packages

Family Tree Maker

This is actually the software package that I currently use. I have found that it produces good reports and the functionality is excellent.

Major Pluses:

All-in-One Tree - This produces a complete diagram that you can set the options to show all of the family, including step-relationships and all siblings in every generation, not just the direct ancestors or descendants. Excellent for taking to the family reunion and plotting out on large sheets of paper. Like any program, it can be a real pain to piece together page after page. But it also provides a print function that puts things in a book format.

Privitize - This feature allows you to create a database with all the information on living relatives, other than their names, to be hidden from the reports or files you create. Great for sharing with others and not revealing information that may violate privacy laws and that living persons might object to.

Negatives: The reminders that you haven't connected to their databases recently to see if there are additional or new entries in their global database that may be related. And they want you to upload your data to their servers, were they will add them to other CDs that can be purchased by others, no compensation to you. And if you didn’t remember to privatize the file before uploading, lots of information on living relations go with the file!

In addition to the actual software, Family Tree Maker has dozens of CDs worth of information available for purchase. I have gone through a number of them and found some useful information. I have also spotted a great deal of information that is erroneous. The family tree CDs are of dubious value, I would caution anyone against relying on them. The source data is usually limited to which of the CDs the info came from, making it difficult to verify.

Family Tree Maker is available in a number of different 'levels' the primary difference is the number of the lookup CDs included with the main program. There are some program abilities that differ, so read the descriptions carefully before selecting one. You will have to determine whether you think the CDs are of use to you in your search. The fact files, derived and copied from records of such things as Military Files and Federal Census items can be quite helpful.

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Updated on 10/25/2005