For newcomers to family history, there is now a bewildering variety of resources to assist in the process of building and maintaining a family tree. The correct choice will vary according to personal requirements and preferences. Before a choice is made, careful consideration is required as to whether you want to build your tree offline or online and, if the latter, the extent to which you want to share information with others. We strongly recommend, however, that offline trees are backed up online and vice versa to guard against the possibilities of local records being destroyed by accident or natural disaster and online information being compromised by bankruptcy or other corporate failure.
Offline tree building
There are two alternatives: use of a standalone software package or use of a package linked to a website hosting online trees. The dividing line is somewhat blurred as many packages include a facility to upload all or part of your family tree to your own website or free web space if your ISP provides it. There is a useful Wikipedia page entitled Comparison of genealogy software
. This summarizes the main features of a range of offline (or client-based) packages. Just click on the name of a product for further details.
For many years, we used Personal Ancestral File (PAF) from the LDS Church to maintain the master copy of our tree. It was a FREE download, but is no longer available as the LDS Church has ceased supporting this product.
Three other FREE genealogy software packages are worth a look. All three are recommended by the LDS Church as alternatives to Personal Ancestral File. They are not "time limited" trial versions:-
Legacy Family Tree Standard Edition
has a wide range of features and can be upgraded to the paid version with even more features for $29.95. Version 8 was released in November 2013. Legacy has the added benefit of being certified for sharing and collaboration with FamilySearch Family Tree.
is the FREE version containing many of the core features of RootsMagic Family Tree software. The full version of Roots Magic V7 Basic is £18.40 to download. Roots Magic has the added benefit of being certified for sharing and collaboration with FamilySearch Family Tree. In February 2016, a partnership was announced under which Roots Magic will have access to Ancestry as an alternative to Family Tree Maker - see below.
Ancestral Quest Basics
is the FREE version of Ancestral Quest (AQ) which is very similar to Personal Ancestral File (PAF), but has more features. Both FREE and paid versions can access PAF databases through the tools menu. The full version is $29.95 to download. Ancestral Quest is certified for sharing and collaboration with FamilySearch Family Tree. The custom reporting module is almost identical to that included in PAF. For this reason, we now use AQ to maintain the master copy of our tree and are using it to synchronize our trees with FamilySearch Family Tree
Ancestral Quest 15 was launched in December 2016. New features include "Memories Manager" which assists in synchronizing images and documents with Familysearch Family Tree and "Tree Tips" which displays hints generated by My Heritage, FamilySearch and findmypast.
We have also made some use of Family Tree Maker
(FTM) from Ancestry. It can be used as a standalone software package, but if you are an Ancestry subscriber and wish to have your tree online, FTM has a facility to synchronize your offline tree with your online tree so that any change to one tree is automatically made to the other. In December 2015, however, Ancestry announced that they would no longer sell FTM. The software and the TreeSynch feature will be supported until 1 January 2017. In February 2016, Ancestry announced that Software MacKiev
will take on support and development of Family Tree Maker. It was also announced that Roots Magic will allow users to save trees on Ancestry - see above.
Most packages provide the facility to export GEDCOM
files for backup purposes, but a good alternative is the use of a "cloud service" to hold online copies of local files. We use Livedrive
to ensure that all of our family history files including family trees, photos and documents are copied online every time a change is made. It is not a free service, but has served us without problems for some time.
Online tree building
Several major genealogy websites offer the facility to build a tree online. If your are starting from scratch, this simply involves entering all family relationships and related information as it becomes available. If you already have an offline tree, it is necessary to upload a GEDCOM
file. New information can then be entered online. These sites offer varying features as discussed below:-
offers the facility to build trees online
or to upload GEDCOM files. Trees can be made public or kept private and can be downloaded to your computer as a GEDCOM file at any time. Whilst it is possible to upload further GEDCOM files containing amended data, this will result in the deletion of photos and other items attached to records in the Ancestry tree.
If you display your tree on Ancestry, the site automatically generates "Hints" linking individuals to records in the Ancestry database or individuals in trees displayed by other members.
allows trees to be built online, uploaded as GEDCOM files or built offline using Family Tree Builder and published as described above. FTB 8.0, released in February 2016, allows trees held offline in FTB and online on MyHeritage in much the same way as FTM and Ancestry.
My Heritage also offers "Record Matching" as an add-on to the site's SuperSearch facility. Record matching performs background searches of a wide range of data sources and matches them to individuals in your published tree.
offers the facility to build trees online or to upload GEDCOM files. Trees are private unless opened to other subscribers on an individual basis. They can be downloaded to your computer as a GEDCOM file at any time. If your master tree is held offline, new versions can be uploaded as GEDCOM files at any time.
The GenesReunited "Keepsafe" facility allows members to store photos and documents, attach them to individuals in published trees and share them with other members.
allows family trees to be created online. They can be either private or public. It is possible to upload GEDCOM files, but it is not clear whether trees can be downloaded as yet.
is the family history website of the LDS Church. It allows family trees to be built online either by entering data or uploading GEDCOM files. Approved software packages such as Ancestral Quest 15 and Roots Magic 7 can also be used to sychronize records with the LDS Family Tree
. We are currently using Ancestral Quest to build our tree on Family Tree. The software facilitates searches for matching individuals. Duplicate records can be merged and new records created without leaving Ancestral Quest. The history of all changes is preserved on Family Tree and the watch facility allows you to be notified of any changes made relating to individuals of interest.
Public or private?
The discussion of online tree building above has highlighted the distinction between private and publicly available trees.
The main advantage of publishing family trees - as we do on this website and on Ancestry.co.uk - is to maximize the possibility of making contact with distant relatives or others researching the same families. This can result in the sharing of information and greatly assist in growing your tree. The downside is that some researchers publish information which has not been properly verified and others will take chunks of your tree and add it to theirs without acknowledging the source.
If trees are kept private, it can be difficult or impossible to make contact with other researchers with common interests. A possible alternative is GenesReunited which holds a copy of your tree - either entered online or uploaded as GEDCOM file - which is searchable by other users. When contacted, you have the choice of whether to allow them to view the tree, but need to be a subscribing member.
Another way of establishing contact with other researchers is Lost Cousins
. This site allows you to enter details of your relatives from census returns and matches them with entries made by others. The site is FREE to use but a £10 membership is required if you wish to contact other users.
The term GEDCOM is used extensively on this page. It is an acronym for Genealogical Data COMmunication and was developed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) to provide a flexible, uniform format for exchanging computerized genealogical data. Most family tree software will export and import a GEDCOM file, although some do it better than others. Whilst it is generally possible to exchange basic data without difficulty, implementations of GEDCOM vary between packages and difficulties can arise where your tree uses features which are not supported by the destination software or not exported by the original software.
If you wish to maximize the possibility of ensuring the integrity of your data when moving it between packages, you may wish to consider The Complete Genealogy Builder from Nigel Bufton Software
. This takes account of the differences in GEDCOM implementation in the major software packages in order to avoid data loss and preserve formatting e.g. the order of children within families. See our Reporting & Publishing
page for details of Nigel's companion product The Complete Genealogy Reporter.