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Amatuer genealogists get help drawing family trees from CD-ROMS and Web sites

Friday, April 03, 1998

By Mitch Gitman, Special to the Post-Gazette

There could hardly be a more fitting marriage of past and present than computer genealogy. Today the computer has become such a pervasive tool for family historians, it's hard to imagine how they ever managed without it. Amateur genealogists use the personal computer in two ways: 1) researching their roots, on the Internet or on CD-ROMs they purchase, then 2) recording and documenting what they find with specialized genealogy software.

Larry Thompson, a Pittsburgh native now living near Wilkes-Barre, explains the usefulness of such software: "When I got started with genealogy, my brother sent me a copy of information my mother put together before she passed away. Trying to tie the material together was starting to tax my brain. I picked up my first computer program associated with genealogy and started inputting data. In no time it all started to make sense. I could have done the same thing with pen and paper but the work would have probably caused me to lose interest real quick."

In March, the genealogy software market took in a new entry, Generations Deluxe from Sierra On-Line. And this month, Palladium Interactive is releasing a new version of its Ultimate Family Tree, along with a new product, Family Tree Companion.

Still, the most popular consumer genealogy package, especially among enthusiasts with origins in Western Pennsylvania, continues to be Family Tree Maker. The program, published by Broderbund Software, has become such a staple, you'll often see it referred to on the Internet simply by its initials, FTM.

FAMILY TREE MAKER: The same night as the Oscars, FTM won a "Codie" award from the Software Publishers Association for the best genealogy software.

Joan Pipich of the North Hills gives FTM her prize: "I find that the printouts of family histories are superior to those that others have sent me using other software." She likes its numerous formats and layouts for printing charts.

The latest, top-of-the-line FTM, Deluxe Edition III, carries the program on two CDs, the official Social Security Death Index on two CDs, plus five World Family Tree CDs. A lower-priced Standard Edition III comes with everything but those five discs.

For the World Family Tree, users of FTM or other genealogy software send their family files to Broderbund, which indexes them, privatizes the living information, and publishes them.

"I bought the Family Tree Maker Deluxe Edition III about a month ago," writes one Del Gardner in an e-mail. "After trying some of the others that were just totally a pain, I am kicking myself for not spending the money and getting this one first. It is by far the best and easiest program I have tried to date and allows for so much information that I am finally enjoying doing my family history."

ULTIMATE FAMILY TREE: Patti Garcia of Tucson, Ariz., who traces much of her family back to Allegheny and Armstrong counties, has tried FTM but prefers Ultimate Family Tree. Family Tree Maker is much easier to navigate, but the fields don't transfer readily to other programs, she finds.

With Ultimate Family Tree, "The fields were very clearly defined. If you want to enter an event, you click on a line and a menu of events pops up. . . . Events are pretty complete - religious events range from Roman Catholic baptisms to bar mitzvahs; there are military events, 'residing at' events, etcetera. [And] when your text version comes out, the sentences make more sense - '(person) resided at (address) in (year)' with the facts linking up better."

Garcia also appreciates Ultimate's "evidence" button, which brings you to a screen where you can choose a source for each field.

A new Premier version of Ultimate Family Tree and a new product, Family Tree Companion, were due for release April 1. The Companion is intended to complement competing genealogy software, like FTM. It contains multimedia tutorials, multilingual tools, U.S. Gazetteers and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy" on CD-ROM.

GENERATIONS DELUXE: This newcomer does the same basic things as its competition. It has three CDs of federal public records, and it creates family tree charts.

Sierra On-Line boasts that Generations Deluxe makes it easier to make more personalized charts. You can edit by dragging items across the screen, and you can choose how much information and how many documents to display for each family member.

Yes, there's an ample choice of genealogy software. But compare that to the wealth of genealogy information on the Internet. Thankfully, a few sites and services stand out.

ANCESTRY.COM: Among the free searches is the Social Security Death Index, currently containing about 54 million names. New databases are always being added. Among the recent additions are Pennsylvania Foreign Oaths of Allegiance, volumes 1 and 2, from 1777-1789.

USGENWEB: This effort is not a single Web site but actually a multitude of sites, each independently maintained by a volunteer. Each site in the USGenWeb Project covers a state or county of the United States. Starting on the USGenWeb home page, you would click on a map of the United States, then click on Pennsylvania, and then you get a list of links to a site for each of the commonwealth's counties.

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