Computer tools for genealogists

This looks as though it will be a useful research tool for those who have British ancestry: Connected Histories: Sources for Building British History, 1500-1900 | Institute of Historical Research:

the project will create a search facility that adapts to each resource (depending on whether and how the data is tagged, and on the text structure) to allow searching across the full range of chosen sources for names, places, and dates, as well as keywords and phrases. Background information about the search results will be delivered to the end user, and a facility to save and export search results for further analysis will also be provided. An online collaborative workspace will allow users to document connections between sources. The search facility will be expandable as new digital resources become available.

Software for family historians, biographers and others

Dennis Allsopp

Dennis Allsopp (Author of Genota and Genota Forms) was visiting Johannesburg, so I dropped in to see him and we had an interesting chat.

We chatted about software for genealogists and family historians, and three topics in particular:

  1. The need for an event-based database program for genealogists, historians, biographers etc.
  2. Dennis’s own genealogy research programs, Genota and Genota Forms
  3. Old utility programs for which there are no modern equivalents.

As a result, I’ve uploaded a few of the old utilities to the website of the genealogy software forum, in the hope that they may inspire some enterprising hackers to reverse engineer them for modern hardware and software.

There were programs called Nameview and Namedrop that scanned BBS messages for things like surnames of interest, and manipulated those messages to collect them. They worked with Fido Technology Networks, but no one seems to have written an equivalent that works with mailing lists, newsgroups, or web forums.

There were also utility programs that took data from genealogy programs (mainly PAF 2.x) and printed family grtoup sheets on 3×5 or 4×6 cards.

That is FAR more useful than the stupid trick of software developers who tried to make a computer screen look like a card index, which had all the disadvantages and none of the advantages of the cards themselves.

But those utilities were written in DOS, and modern printers don’t work with DOS. So the utilities need to be rewritten to use modern programs and modern hardware.

There was the Tiny Tafel Generator — which not only developed but matched Tiny Tafels. Trouble is, it was written in Turbo Pascal, which doesn’t work on fast machines. You need a slow processor for it to run, under 500 Mhz, I think.

There are a few more there — back in the old days we may have had less than we do now, but very often we could do more with the less we had. So I’m hoping some hackers will have a look at them, and see if they can reverse engineer them to produce new versions.

But the main thing we chatted about was the need for an event-based program to be used as a research tool, not only for genealogists and family historians, but also for general historians, biographers and others. It would differ from lineage-linked genealogy programs in that it would not only include people that were relatives, but friends and acquaintaces, work colleagues, and even enemies. It would be a useful tool for a biographer trying to keep track of  the events in the life of their subject, or for someone writing general history.

The basic outline of the program would look something like this:

Outline for an event-tracking program

Dennis introduced me to a rather nice mind-mapping and concept-mapping program called VUE (Visual Understanding Environment) which drew the above diagram (he has a far better drawing of it), and shows how the various parts of the program would relate to each other.

The main part of the database would be a chronological list of events, and people and organisations assocated with this events. The organisations could be both formal and informal groups — a political party, church, club, school, hospital, business firm, trade union, family or any other human group.

The “people” part would not only be for family members, as one finds in lineage-linked genealogy programs, but for non-related people, like friends, work colleagues, teachers, pupils, godparents, acquaintances and so on. Perhaps it could also be useful in testing theories of six degrees of relationship — that we are only six degrees of relationshop away from knowing everyone else on earth, and that my wife’s boss’s godmother’s cousin’s penfriend’s vet knows me.

One reason for posting this is to try to find out if there are any others who think that and event-tracking and chronology program would be useful, and if so, what you would like it to be able to do.

New search engine

A couple of months ago I wrote about the limitations of Google as a search engine for family history and genealogy. and noted that for some searches Altavista produced far more relevant results.

Now there is a new search engine, called Cuil, and after a quick look it seems quite good, and worth trying if you are researching genealogy and family history.

One of the problems with Google is that their search algorithm is based on the number of links, and so they show you the most popular sites first, rather than the most relevant to what you are looking for. So the site with the information you need may be several pages down the list.

Cuil, on the other hand, promises to concentrate on relevance, and after a couple of test searches they seem to deliver what they promise. One problem I did find, though, is that Cuil doesn’t like too many keywords, so you need to choose your keywords with care.

Anyway, it’s definitely worth a try, and should be a useful addition to your search tools.

Using search engines for genealogy and family history

Over the last ten years or so Google has become the most popular web search engine — to much so that “to google” has become synonymous with searching the web. It’s become a generic term.

When Jackie Seaman announced her Growden reunion, I thought I’d do a web search for Growden, and started with Google because Firefox puts it so conveniently in the toolbar. Growden (or Growdon) is one of the less common surnames I’m researching, and we have a web page just for Growdon family researchers. But Google didn’t find it — at least not in the first 17 mages of results.

I tried another search engine, Altavista, and our Growdon page came up on the first page of results.

I tried another search engine, Dogpile, which is an aggregator of results from several different search engines, and our Growdon page was also on the first page of results, but further down.

It seems that Google is definitely not the best search engine for genealogical and family history research. Altavista ( was better by a long way, and its first page of results was far more relevant to genealogy researchers.

The first page of results on Google produced a bunch of generic surname search sites, many of them commercial. This means that they show up on search results for anyone looking for any surname at all. If you try some of them you might find they have no information at all on Growdon (or whatever surname you are looking for), but then invite you to look for other surnames. And quite often, if they do have information, they ask you to pay upfront before you can see it.

Dogpile also came up with quite few of those generic surname sites, but did have more relevant sites on the first page of search results as well.

But Altavista came up with “real” Growdon/Growden sites first — people who were actually interested in Growden family history, and had information or were looking for information, rather than generic surname search sites.

So if you are looking for family history information on the web, don’t just “google” for it — try other search engines as well. You may be pleasantly surprised.