A Genealogist’s Toy Box
I can’t imagine doing any kind of
research, especially genealogy research, without a computer and Internet
access—DSL access at that. If you’re new to genealogy and don’t have a computer,
it’s time to get one. Buy a new one with the latest, hottest processor, lots of
memory, big hard drives, a huge monitor, a souped-up graphics card—the works.
That is, if money is no object.
If you don’t have a computer and are on
a limited budget, ask among family members if anyone has an older model stuffed
in a closet somewhere. While there are other, older operating systems out there,
Windows XP is what you’re looking for on a used computer.
Look for a notebook computer if you’re
planning to take it along on research trips and especially if you’re going to
use high-speed Internet at your local library. Be sure your notebook has a
wireless network card installed, or buy an inexpensive adapter for that purpose.
Again, you don't need the latest model out there--your niece, the corporate
executive, probably has an old notebook computer she'd give you just for
If you’re on dial-up Internet service,
it’s time to upgrade if you’re going to get serious about your genealogy
research. See if DSL is available on your telephone line or if your cable
television company offers Internet service. Some computer firms offer wireless
Internet service for folks out of DSL range. Talk with your neighbors who are
computer users and ask for reviews of their service providers. Satellite service is
possible, but it’s the most expensive option and often not as reliable or
telephone or cable high-speed Internet. If dial-up is your only option, plan on
making regular trips with your notebook computer to the nearest library with
wireless Internet access for patrons.
You must have virus protection if you
access the Internet. It’s not an option, it’s essential. And you must keep the
virus definitions up to date. Learn what a “firewall” is and keep it turned on.
There are free programs out there or use Symantec (Norton) products, the industry leader.
Computer printers fall into two
categories: inkjet and laser. Inkjet printers are cheaper on the front end but
ink cartridge refills are expensive. Laser printers cost more initially but your
actual cost-per-page is much less. Color laser printers are falling in price.
Your printer choice depends upon how much you plan to use it and what you intend
If you plan to print photos, you’ll find uploading the files to an online photo lab is the cheapest option. Then either pick them up on an errand-run to town or have them sent to your mailbox.
Before you print a document, ask yourself if you really need to print it. If it has lasting value and you plan to
keep it, then print it. Think about printing it two-up (see the option in the
print dialogue box: “sheets per page”) if the type won’t be too small to read.
Or print that document to a file on your computer’s hard drive. To do that you need a PDF printer driver. There are
several choices—a free one is PDF995 found at
www.software995.com. You download and install PDF995 according to directions, then when you chose the “print” option in any
software program on your computer, a new choice (PDF995) will be listed with the
installed printers. Select it and your document is printed to a .pdf (portable
document format) file—you name the file and select a folder for it. You can then
e-mail that document as an attachment or connect it as a “media” file in Family
Buy a flat-bed scanner. They’re easy to
set up and you can turn photos and documents into digital files. Scan photos at
a minimum of 300 dots per inch (dpi). It the photo is small and has a lot of
detail, choose 600 dpi. For the kind of file to save, choose .tif (tagged image
file)—they don’t lose quality like .jpgs when they’re opened and re-saved. Even
when scanning black-and-white photos, leave the scanner set on the color
setting—you’ll get better results. Files will be large, but you can always
e-mail a smaller version.
Save your original scans without alteration. Play with contrast, color, cropping and other modifications,
the “save-as” function in your photo editing program and save the file with a
If desk space is tight, look at printer/scanner/fax multi-function machines.
Treat yourself to a very good digital
camera. Go beyond the pocket-size camera you use for family snapshots. Look at a
Nikon or Canon single-lens-reflex (SLR) digital camera. No, they don’t do videos, they
aren’t compact, and they don’t have a “live-capture” preview screen, but the
quality of your photographs is so much better!
Besides taking photos of your relatives, you can photograph documents and
old photos. In a courthouse, if policies allow it, you can photograph
records. When we used to use film cameras, there was a practical limit to
the number of photos we could take—film and processing costs added up. With
a digital camera and several memory cards, the number of shots is virtually
unlimited. A digital Nikon SLR can take several hundred photos, even
with flash, on one battery charge.
If you’re on a research trip, consider
uploading your photo sessions to an online storage site, or e-mail them to
External Hard Drives
Back up your files! After you’ve spent
time and energy entering data into your genealogy software program, you sure
don’t want to lose it. All mechanical devices eventually fail. Besides supplying
room for backups on a separate machine, you can also increase the total storage
space on your computer with an external hard drive.
Online Backup Services
Not only do you need to make backups of
the files on your computer’s hard drive, you need to get those backups out of
your house. One easy way to do that is with an online backup service that copies
the files you designate onto a server in cyberspace. You need a fast Internet
connection for this to be an efficient way to back up files. Also, it shouldn’t
backup of your files.
Archival CD Media
All CD media aren’t created equal. For
long-term storage of digital files, buy archival CDs. See
MAM-A.com and learn more than you ever wanted to know about how CDs are created. You don’t need these CDs for all your files—just
the ones with lasting value. Archival DVDs are available, too, but your safe bet
so far as reading the files in ten years is to stay with CDs because there are
still format issues with DVD file storage.
Where you store CDs has a lot to do with how long they’ll last. Heat, light, and air
pollution are their enemies. Store them upright in cases so they aren’t pressed
together. Keep them in a place where you’re comfortable—where the temperature
doesn’t change a great deal.
One thing for certain about whatever media
you select for storage—it’ll be out-of-date in a few years. Something newer,
smaller, faster, and less expensive will replace all our storage devices. Does
anyone remember floppy disks? New computers don’t even have drives for floppies.
If you have a drawer full of those, it’s time to copy the files to something
else: CDs, external hard drives, or online storage sites. In a few years, you’ll
be doing this all over again and moving your files to something that hasn’t been
invented yet. This process is called “data migration.”
The hitch to data migration is that you
must have software as well as hardware that will read those electronic files you’re saving. If you
want to be cautious,
- Save text files
as document files (.doc) , but also use the “save as” function and save the
files as text (.txt) files.
- Save photos as
.jpg or .tif files
- Save scanned
images of documents as .jpg or .tif files
- Save genealogy
files as gedcom (.ged) files.
- Save e-mail files
(the ones with lasting value) as text (.txt) files with the “save as” function
in your e-mail software.
And back all those files up!
Consider paper as a back-up storage media, too. Print
important documents and store them in a temperature-controlled, insect- and
critter-free, dry, safe environment.
USB Flash Drives
These little gizmos are known by a
variety of names—they’re all small USB devices with flash memory. They hold up
to 16 gigs or more of data and are inexpensive. They’re ideal to make quick
backups and transport files. But they should never hold your only copy of
Here’s a tip: create a text file (in
Windows Notepad) that contains your contact information. Save the file as
“_return to me if lost.txt” (start it with an underscore character and it’ll
always show up at the top of any list of files on the device). If you leave your
device sticking in a library computer, perhaps it’ll find its way home.
Digital Voice Recorder
“Tape” recorders are beginning to be a
thing of the past. New voice recorders capture the spoken word in digital files
instead of on magnetic tape. That means you can record Great Uncle Curt telling
the story about stealing the neighbor’s chickens and attach it to his record in
Family Tree Maker 2009 in the “media pane.”
When it’s time to get rid of your
computer, be sure the data is wiped off the hard drive. Deleting the files
doesn’t get rid of them, they’re still in the Recycle Bin. Emptying that doesn’t
get rid of the files; they’re still on the disc in fragments waiting to be
overwritten. Even if your hard drive crashes, the files are still there. The
absolutely secure solution to this problem is to open the computer case, pull
out the hard drive and take a big hammer to it. More elegant, but less certain,
is to have a computer-savvy person run disc-wiping software on the drive.
If there’s a disaster of some kind and
your homeowner’s insurance company requires you to turn in your smoke- or
water-damaged computer, pull out that hard drive before you turn it in.
Don’t rely on passwords to keep people
out of your computer. It’s a simple matter to work around a Windows password on
a user account. And it’s equally simple to disable a password set at the BIOS
level (one that comes up before Windows ever loads). If you do need reliable computer security, look into software called “Pretty
Your Toys After You’re Gone
You’ve been told you can’t take it with
you when you die. Sure, you can. You can take your computer passwords with you.
A genealogist I knew maintained a website for his favorite cemetery—it was one
of my favorites, too. He’d posted photos and information and created a really
useful site. Then he died and took his passwords to heaven with him. No one
could get into the site, his e-mail was password-protected, his bank accounts
for automatic billing were closed, his ISP didn’t get paid, the site went to
Bottom line: make a list of your
accounts and their passwords and clip it to your will. Update it on your
birthday every year if you’re still alive.
[Get Started] [Is Family History For You?] [Home and Family Sources] [Organizing Your Family Records] [Beginning Your Research] [Federal Census Records] [Courthouse Research] [Military Records] [Ethnic Genealogy] [A Broad View] [Correspondence] [Sharing Your Heritage] [A Genealogist's Toy Box] [Glossary]