Your PC's ability to gather, store and process information makes it a perfect tool for genealogical research, and this time of year -- with family connections at their strongest -- is the ideal time to make a start on that family tree you've been meaning to compile. It can be an absorbing and rewarding pastime and who knows where it might lead? You might discover royal ancestry, a hereditary title and coat of arms, a forgotten legacy or even an infamous mass murderer in the family… The point is you'll be creating a unique and valuable resource to share with the whole family and a fascinating insight into your own life and times for future generations.

A computer makes the task so much easier by creating a dynamic database and archive that can be easily updated as family members arrive and depart, but the real advantage lies in the ways different types of information can be collated and presented. The traditional hand-drawn family tree usually only has room for names and key dates; a PC family tree can incorporate so much more, including almost unlimited amounts of background notes, stories or anecdotes, photographs, drawings, scans of old newspapers, even sound and video clips. The PC has another equally important role to play, as a finder of information. The Internet is brim-full of genealogical sites, family home pages and e-mail provides a fast and efficient means of communication for family members, wherever they may be.

So where do you start? You will of course need a PC but this kind of application isn't particularly demanding and any reasonably recent multimedia model (Pentium 90 or faster) will suffice. An Internet connection is vital and since you will be handling photographs and documents, a scanner is invaluable. Again, you won't need a particularly elaborate model indeed any of the current sub £100 models should be more than adequate.  

The right software is important too. It is possible to create a basic graphical tree with standard Windows applications like a word processor. Better still would be a spreadsheet program, such as Excel. Cells can contain a mixture of information and the tabular presentation is well suited to the tree layout. However, to do the job properly and make maximum use of your PC's processing power it's a good idea to get hold of a purpose-designed family tree program. There are plenty to choose from, including some excellent freeware and shareware titles that can be downloaded from the Internet (see contacts).

Programs to look out for include Broderbund Family Tree Maker, GSP Family Tree, Cumberland Family Tree, Family Origins and Generations, most of which sell for between £20 to £40.

In addition to displaying the tree in a visually attractive format, and making it easier to access or update the archive, most family tree programs will allow you create detailed printouts or even help compile an illustrated book for wider distribution. Many family tree programs use a common file format, called Gedcom (extension *.gft), which will allow you to exchange data with other researchers, using other types of software.

It can be a lot of hard work so before you begin ask around to see if any of the initial research has already been done. Most families have at least one amateur historian -- past or present -- whose records may be able to get you off to a good start. Older family members can give you first person access to recent family history, though remember to exercise some tact and always be sensitive to any skeletons and scandals that you may uncover. Illegitimacy and extra marital affairs were just as common 100 years ago as they are today, our forebears were just more adept at keeping them secret…

Official documents such as old birth, marriage and death certificates are an invaluable source of raw data and family photo albums can provide a wealth of information. Don't dismiss the apparently mundane; postcards and letters often contain useful historical snippets and even obscure photographs of places or buildings can provide additional avenues for exploration.

Back to the PC. Start with an Internet search of your family name on search engines like Altavista, Yahoo and Lycos; don't forget to try some of the more obvious alternative spellings. You may well come across a family home page a link to long-lost relations or overseas branches of the family. In the UK genealogists are well served by our long history of bureaucracy and record keeping by Government agencies. The Public Records Office Web site (see contacts) has some excellent information and advice for novice family historians. Try also the Office for National Statistics and Family Record Centre and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, all of whom host informative web sites. You will also come across numerous historical societies, research agencies and magazines that specialise in genealogical research.

Be realistic in your research and set yourself achievable goals. At first it is highly unlikely you will be able to trace your ancestry back more than a few generations, so aim to complete a tree for the past 200 years and take it from there. Most researchers begin with the paternal or family name but from a genetic perspective the maternal line is equally valid and in some societies it is considered more important, though it may involve considerably more effort.

Next Week -- formatting and partitioning




Shareware programs that are free to use, but the author retains control and copyright over the original programming code


Internet sites that seek out information, by topic, keyword or name. Good places to start are:


Software programs that you can try, before you buy. If you decide to use it you are obliged to send a payment to the author or publisher. Some programs are automatically disabled when the trial period has expired



Family Tree programs to download

Genealogical advice and surname finder

UK Public Records Office

Office for National Statistics & Family Record Centre

Commonwealth War Graves Commission




Send To is one of the most useful facilities in Windows Explorer. By right clicking on a file, the Send To option will instantly copy the file to another folder, a floppy disc or the clipboard, but it can do many more things besides. You can add any application or drive destination to the Send To list and save yourself a lot of time moving files and opening applications.

Go to the Start menu then Programs and open Windows Explorer. Scroll down the list to the Windows folder, open it, locate and double click on Send To. Now go up to File on the menu bar, select New, then Shortcut and use Browse to find the application you are interested in. Open the folder and look for the relevant *.exe file, single click to highlight and select Open. You will be asked to give the program a name -- if you don't want to use the default -- then click Next and Finish and the item is added to the Send To list.  

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