Saturday, May 2, 2020

I Don't Always Like It, But Genealogy Software Is Necessary

Every so often I get Wanderlust when it comes to where I am keeping my main family tree database. What else is out there that I haven't tried? Is there some method or medium that will once and for all break the grudging truce I've made with my genealogy software program? Is one of the current desktop genealogy software programs REALLY my best solution? After a recent attempt to break free, the answer was once more driven home to me: yes, I need to keep using my software. But why should I wish to break free, and what is the source of my angst? Read on.

I'm an academic who is used to writing research articles in Microsoft Word. I like the legroom it offers me, and that with it I can choose exactly how to craft sources with no extra windows or restraints. As I have become better at genealogy, I've become pickier about my citations. As this has happened, I've tussled increasingly with my genealogy software. The software wants me to use its fields and templates. I don't like fields and templates. As it stands, I have found a pretty good solution with my RootsMagic program - use the free form template exclusively via the workarounds Randy Seaver demonstrates in his excellent blog posts on the subject. (For these, start here.)

This is what I should keep doing. But recently I had the idea to do something else. What if I used my software strictly to have names, facts, and relationships in tree format, while doing the real research on written Word documents that I could update as necessary and attach (and re-attach) to the tree profiles? This initially seemed like a good idea that would combine the mapping features of the software I like so much with my desire to write everything out and cite sources in Microsoft Word.

It didn't work so well for me. In a nutshell, here's why: genealogy software has tagging and sorting capabilities for source citations that are extremely difficult and time-consuming to approximate satisfactorily in a Word document. While I was fussing over getting my citations right in RootsMagic, I didn't realize how much time and hassle the software was saving me. I simply took it all for granted. Sure, I had all kinds of citation and "write-it-out" legroom with my Word doc profiles. Those were about the best things I gained, while losing much else. Put another way, have you ever tried to figure out the best way to include 20 birth facts from 25 sources in narrative prose and footnotes? There are ways, but how much easier is it to simply craft a citation in RootsMagic and attach it to every fact/person named in the source as you go along? Much. Have you ever tried to use one citation/footnote multiple times in a Word doc? What do you do when one fact (or one sentence) accumulates dozens of footnotes after it? How do you stay consistent with the numerous kinds of formatting and organizational scenarios that arise with these and other issues I'm not even bothering to mention? And if you can eventually chart a stable path through all of this, how much actual research could you have been doing instead? Life is too short.

What I didn't fully appreciate is how much different my genealogy research is from my professional research in musicology. As Tamura Jones put it, you need the right tool for the job. Microsoft Word remains a great tool for writing traditional academic texts. For doing genealogy, I've found that it is not quite up to the task. And so, despite my frustrations with GEDCOM, messy transfers, stultifying windows/fields, inadequate DNA tools, and vendor lock-ins of various types and hues, I am back to working on my main file in RootsMagic, glad that it saves me so many headaches.

That all said, I think we're still in something of an impoverished era with regard to genealogy technology. How old is GEDCOM now? Why are we still relying upon it for family tree file transfers? How many new options do we really have for personal database software? How many products have been discontinued because it's difficult to make money off of them? One can see why this market doesn't seem to attract all that much programmer interest or investment. Still, I hold out hope that one day I will be able to buy something for my desktop like what WikiTree offers (the best genealogical marriage between prose and database that I have ever seen). Until then, I yield once more to the software I have...grateful, at least, that Microsoft Word is not the best we can do.


  1. Interesting read. I guess it depends on your background as to what your thoughts are regarding various programs. I too enjoy the options offered in Word. But, not as a genealogy tool for my tree. I have used FTM ( for 3 yrs when I first started research ) and have been using Legacy for 13 yrs. The ease with which we can create citations is wonderful. And the clipboard feature that allows me to create an Event and copy and paste it to as many people as I need to (modifying at each step, if need be) is priceless. As is the source clipboard. And the reports the program offers are diverse and useful.
    I am grateful every day for my Legacy program. P.S. I have tried RootsMagic, but prefer the user interface of Legacy. Isn’t is great that we have choices?

    1. Thanks for reading! I agree with much of what you say. One reason that I decided on RootsMagic is that it transfers GEDCOM info the cleanest of any program I've seen (if you use its free-form template, which also grants more freedom than using its other templates). Randy Seaver and others have talked at length about this. (For example, see here: I have a strong fear of vendor lock-in. I don't know how long any one program will be around and be supported. (Look at how many have been discontinued or bought out recently.) This is one reason I'm such an angsty genealogist when it comes to the technology I use.

  2. Ryan - I understand your frustration with using Word. I started compiling my maternal grandfather's genealogy (descendancy) in 2002 in Word. And, like you, I did not like the 25 sources in footnotes, etc.
    So I came up with a crazy method but it works for me. Each source receives a number, chronologically. So at the end of the person's information (e.g., b, m, d and anything else) there are a series of numbers of parentheses. These are the sources. A copy of each source goes in the person's folder and also into 3-ring binders in numerical order. So if I pull the folder I have all of the sources of information for that person. And if I am looking for a certain referenced source, I can quickly pull down the right 3-ring binder. It is not perfect but it cuts down on the space used by footnotes. The Book is 604 pages presently and may grow by two pages tomorrow.
    I bought my first version of LFT in 2005 because Geoff Rasmussen had the booth next to the host society's booth which I manned frequently.

    1. Now there's something I should consider! Thank you!

      The saga continues...

      (And thanks for reading!)