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Digitizing your family tree

In the past couple of months, we have gathered information from various sources, good and bad. The information may be accurate and may be a little hazy. The amount of information is becoming hard to organize. The chart we drew up on the first day is getting filled with little notes and corrections. We might be losing control of the information we have gathered and we need to organize it and make it easier to focus on specific facts we want to investigate. Usually when we research, we are looking for one or two specific facts at a time. It is just easier to try to find one or two things instead of trying to find 20 at the same time and forget where you are.

So how should we organize all this work? Well, we need a place to put everything (charts, documents, photos, various source material) where it can be easily retrieved, stored, and reproduced. We also need a place to store it that has room to grow, because you want to add even more to your project. As you become better at knowing where to look, you will find so much material that you need a place to put it that will expand with you. That place is your computer.

There are a number of areas of the computer that you will need to learn if you are not familiar with them. Since you are reading this column on-line, I presume most of you know enough about computers to at least get to the wonderful Fra Noi web site to find me!

You will have documents and photos on paper, and you should organize those so you can find them if necessary. However, they can become bug and bulky after a while and you will not want to carry all of them with you wherever you go to do more research. So you should scan these into your computer. We will talk about scanning in a later column.

You also have the pedigree chart that we started with a few months ago, and you have probably written notes on it and, if you’re messy like me, you may have trouble keeping track of the little scribbles on it. No fear! We need a place on the computer to store the information that is written on the pedigree chart AND also include the sources you got that information from.

About 20 years ago, computer software companies began to develop “genealogy software”. There are a number of programs out there and they all do things a little differently, but they all basically work with the family unit. You have a husband, a wife, and possibly children. The husband and wife each have two parents. The main screen of nearly all genealogy software programs takes a magnifying glass and focuses only on a single family. You enter information about the people in that family. Then you can travel to the family of the parent of this couple, or to one of their children. You can now add more information to them, then travel somewhere else. You don’t need a GPS to do it either!

The main screen of genealogy software shows the husband/father, and his birth date, birthplace, death date and death place. If we do not have that information yet, it will be blank. Below the husband/father is the wife/mother. The same screen shows the same information for her. Below the wife is a place to enter the marriage date and marriage location. This one field applies to both people on this screen so you do not have to type it twice. Next to the husband’s name AND the wife’s name, there is usually a button to click which will take you to one of their parents. Below the marriage information, there is usually a place for the names of some of the children and a button to take you to each child’s information and THEIR family.

When you use a genealogy program for the first time, you should start with yourself. Not only do you have the most information about yourself, presumably accurate, but you also are telling the genealogy program that the main person in this entire file is YOU! Make sure to type your own name in the correct part of this screen, as either the father/husband or mother/wife. By typing your name in the husband/father part of the screen, you are telling the computer you are male. Type it in the mother/wife section to tell the computer you are female.

Each piece of information is referred to in the computer world as a “field”. The birth date is a field. The birthplace is another field. It just means a piece of information. The computer will store what you type in each field. You don’t have to press “Save” like you do when working on a spreadsheet or word processing document. You can type your birth date in the field marked “Birth date”, and your birthplace in that field. I HOPE you don’t have to type your own death date!! Leave it blank. You can’t die yet. You have a lot of work to do!

Each field has a place to enter the information about the source you used to confirm that item. There is a button to take you to the sources, which is a completely different screen. We will talk about sources in another column because each program is different in how the screens look. In most cases, you add a new source, let’s say your birth certificate. You add a new source, name it “Dan Niemiec’s Birth Certificate”. You then type a little description of where you found that document and if it has a tracking number on it. Now that you have created that source, you can use that source for multiple pieces of information that were all learned from it. This way you do not have to keep adding the same source over and over again.

So you have added sources for your birth date and birthplace and now you want to work on someone else. Do you want to add your spouse? Do you want to add your parents? Right now, you have a genealogy file with only you in it. You need to add more people and their information. If you want to work on your spouse’s information, you can type it on the same screen as you were already on. If you want to work on your parents, you need to click the button to start with your father. Your data will “disappear” from the screen because now you are working on a different family, that of your father and mother. Now you type your father’s name, birth date, birthplace, and death date and death place if necessary. Then type the same information for your mother. Then enter the sources for each piece of data. Yes, you need to even enter a source for the name. The birth certificate for your father may spell the name a little differently, or include a middle name that he rarely used, or a more formal version of “Ronny”. Even if everyone called your dad “Ronny”, his birth certificate may say “Ronald Allen” and you need to enter the birth certificate as the source.

Basically, for each person you wrote on your pedigree chart, you need to link to that person and enter their information and sources. It is important to link to each person from a person you have already entered. This tells the computer that the person is indeed your father. Each person in a genealogy program is linked to a set of parents and a spouse if necessary. These links are how the program prints a chart that looks like your hand-written pedigree chart. If you just add random people into the program, you and your parents won’t be linked to each other and when you print the chart, it will only include you. You can link people to each other later but that’s the hard way of connecting everyone together.

Before you jump ahead, I’ll quickly address the subject of the “extended family”. The first genealogy programs from 20 years ago were limited, but today they have to handle all the combinations of the modern family. People can have multiple spouses, with children born to both. They can have children with an unmarried partner. The software is not judgmental. It will allow you to enter half-siblings, stepsiblings, or whatever you need to enter. The important thing for you to do is to enter each person as a child of a set of birth parents. (You can even connect a child to more than one set of parents, if that child was adopted.) Without getting into all the complex family structures, suffice to say that the genealogy software can handle them all, but you need to enter the natural birth parents first, and then link to another set of parents using the software to indicate that the child was adopted by his stepfather or whatever happened. You can later print charts based on whichever family line you want to print.

Next month, I will get into more detail on how these programs work and what they can produce for you. The best part of entering this into the computer is that you can print a current copy whenever you like, bring it to a relative’s house, and they can start helping you make corrections and even learn a thing or two!

Write to Dan at italianroots@comcast.net and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject line.

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.