Genealogy software can help amateur genealogists trace and organize their ancestry.
Credit: Ihnatovich Maryia , Shutterstock
Hand-drawn family trees are so last century. For the modern genealogist, tech is where it's at.
A number of companies offer genealogy software to help organize information about ancestors, create reports and ancestry books and share findings online. The deeper into genealogy you go, the more you might find these features useful.
But first: If you're a beginner thinking about getting started with genealogy, bookmark this article, switch off your computer screen and run directly to your oldest living family member. Before worrying about the best genealogy software, you need to start interviewing — while audio or video recording, if possible.
"We need to interview all of our oldest generation ancestors before it's too late," said CeCe Moore, an independent genetic genealogist in San Diego, Calif.
Once you've got your relatives' memories locked up, you'll need a way to organize the names and dates they've shared. That's where technology comes in handy.
"For beginners, you really need something that walks you through it and has an easy-to-use interface," Moore told Live Science.
Moore recommends starting online, with a site such as ancestry.com, which allows you to search some free records even without a subscription. To bring your genealogy research to your desktop, she recommends looking for a program that is simple and flexible. For example, some programs automatically assume that if two people have a child together, they're married. Obviously, that's not the case, so you'll want to be sure your program allows for multiple family structures.
"There is starting to be more recognition that there are different types of families," Moore said.
Most programs have enough features to grow with you, she said. The more advanced genealogist will want something with sophisticated search query possibilities (to look up everyone born in a certain place in a certain year, for example). The ability to sync your tree with an online site can be a huge boon, too, as it connects you to other people, including distant cousins who may have been investigating your ancestors, too.
"So many of us are writing blogs now where we're writing about our ancestors. We call it 'cousin-bait,'" Moore said. Even if you decide not to delve too deeply into your family tree, information you post online can help others. For example, someone once found a handwritten family tree in the bottom of a trunk that had the maiden name of an ancestor Moore and others had been researching for decades, without progress. The new name opened up all sorts of new knowledge.
"It was like a total genealogy happy dance for so many genealogists," Moore said.
If you'd like to join the happy dance and think software might help, Live Science's sister site Top Ten Reviews has genealogy software rankings to help you choose. Here are their top three picks.
#1 Legacy Family Tree
Legacy Family Tree gets a top rating from Top Ten Reviews for its flexible options, which can handle divorce, adoption and other complicated branching of the family tree. The program syncs with Ancestry.com to connect you to other genealogists.
One major downside of this software is that it is not Mac-compatible unless you have Windows for Mac installed.
Ease of use: Legacy is recommended as an easy-to-use option for beginners. Unique features such as a list of potential interview questions to ask family members may give first-timers more confidence and spark ideas. New features in Legacy Family Tree 8 include an "origins" chart for individuals to show what percent of their ancestry comes from various countries; a migration report and migration mapping; automatic duplicate information checking; and a feature that includes multiple family members in events such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and reunions.
Help and support: The software help section has quick answers about how to use the program, and Legacy's website includes a large support page with how-tos and frequently asked questions. The website also hosts contact information for user groups, and a tech support hotline is available during business hours.
#2 Family Tree Maker
Top Ten Reviews' No. 2 pick gets kudos from Moore, who recommends it as among the easiest programs to get started with. Family Tree Maker syncs with Ancestry.com and is available for Macs as well as PCs. It also allows searches through major genealogy sites RootsWeb and Genealogy.com, plus Google, Bing and Yahoo.
Ease of use: Top marks here. The program has a clean interface and automatically formats notes about sources into formal citations. One warning from Moore: Like any program, Family Tree Maker can run into problems when syncing online. It's always best to back everything up lest you lose work.
Help and support: The software comes with a built-in help center, and there are message boards on Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com as well as online tutorials to get you started.
Another Windows-compatible program, RootsMagic handles complex family trees well. Top Ten Reviews ranks it No. 3 more for a less-than-aesthetic interface than for any functionality problems. Features include auto-formatted sources, printable reports, wall charts and family history books. The company offers free Web-hosting so you can post your family tree online.
Ease of use: The RootsMagic program can be bought with an illustrated instruction manual and has templates and search functions that should satisfy even expert genealogists.
Help and support: The RootsMagic website hosts user groups, forums and webinars on how to use the program. People who buy the software have access to online support, and a phone line for tech support is open during business hours.