10 Things Genealogy Software Should Do

Sunday, 6 Apr 2008 | by Mark Tucker

On March 13, 2008 I presented at the 2008 BYU Family History Technology Workshop and my topic was: 10 Things Genealogy Software Should Do

Here are links regarding the presentation:

Would you like to see these 10 ideas implemented in the genealogy software that you use?  How can these ideas be improved upon?  I encourage you to respond.


  1. This is one of the best genealogy blog entries I’ve seen. Ever. I have wished for just about every point you make, but seriously doubt we’ll ever see it come to fruition. I believe that for something like this to come along it will have to be from some company that does not currently publish genealogy software. While I dearly love my Legacy 6.0 and eagerly await 7.0 they are only touching the tip of the iceberg, from what I hear, of being next-gen genealogy software. Every publisher out there, from Millenium to the Generations Network to FamilySearch, has their hand in their own little cookie jar with their hands grasped around a pile of cookies and no way to remove their hand from the jar without letting go. It seems like every time a major version of genealogy software is released there are one, maybe two, truly great things to separate them from the competition. No one wants to go all the way and give us something truly useful and unique because it is a) too far beyond the scope of what they already do and b) the majority of “genealogists” are nothing more than name collectors who would have neither use of nor interest of utilizing “advanced” software capabilities.

    If someone does see possibilities with utilizing even some of the ideas you posit it will have to come from a different source than we currently see on the market. Even then I’m afraid it will wind up being a niche product marketed to professional genealogists with a steep price tag.

    Comment by Greg Matthews — 7 Apr 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  2. Mark, nice video!
    Which tool did you use to create it?

    Comment by Bob Coret — 7 Apr 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  3. I used a trial version of Camtasia Studio to make the video. Very easy to use, but on the pricey side. Still trying to decide if I will buy it. Let’s see if I find the time to make some more videos before the trial expires ;-)

    Comment by Mark Tucker — 7 Apr 2008 @ 4:36 pm

  4. Good Lowered!

    How can I get hold of one of THOSE?! Niche product or not, I want it!

    Happy Dae.

    Comment by Happy Dae — 7 Apr 2008 @ 5:21 pm

  5. [...] A few days ago I created and posted to the internet my first genealogy video entitled: 10 Things Genealogy Software Should Do [...]

    Pingback by First Video Featured on Roots Television | ThinkGenealogy — 8 Apr 2008 @ 6:49 am

  6. There seems to be too much stressing of formality in your article, and an excess of technological answers but a paucity of requirements analysis.

    About learning, I can only speak from personal experience, and I didn’t learn from my software. I learned from encountering problems. For example, learning about new -style/old-style dates the first time I found an infant recorded as dying before it was born. For example, learning about keeping sources when I can’t remember where I got that date which now seems so obviously wrong. Now I understand the payoff for the work involved and I do it gladly. The software could do all those things the day I took it out of the box, but I didn’t even know enough to look for those features. So I think your fundamental thesis is a little flawed.

    I haven’t read the Elizabeth Shown Mills book, so I obviously missed its election as a Bible, but I do know that schools teach MLA, not Elizabeth Shown Mills. A little explanation of why it is necessary to invent a new standard would be useful. I would volunteer that MLA doesn’t strike me as a very machine-parseable format, but I don’t recall that being mentioned as a criteria in your article.

    To castigate software for their handling of sources is not fair. First, I cannot tell what you consider a good citation beyond that it adheres to Elizabeth Shown Mills. So some requirements would be nice. It is my feeling that the bottom line is that a citation should ensure that another person, or even myself, can find the source for a fact at a later date and verify it. Most software I have seen does collect source information adequately for that purpose, and yet sources are still not documented even to this extent. Or sources are input religiously for every data item and all of them merely point to (Which one of the thousands of contributed family trees do you think that person stumbled across first?) While a software company is certainly going to provide source management tools in order to remain competitive, they probably don’t feel like enforcing the proper use of these tools, if it means risking the loss of some percentage of their potential customers who don’t want to be bothered.

    Rather than quibbling about citation formats, it would be far more productive to ask that we get more sources online. Much of the nation is now far remote from the location of the original documents since their families have migrated across the seas or across the country. For example, wouldn’t it be nice if local governments publish on the Internet vital records and probate records they hold that are over 100 years old. If this was standardized enough, one could imagine that software could automate the searching of these repositories and ranking of the resulting matches, which would be great. Then yes, suck in the data automatically along with a computer readable citation, presumably in XML as you suggest, but that is such a small part of this particular challenge and very far down the path.

    Your layering idea is a nice way of keeping history. My personal preference would be to have the software never delete anything, just overlay old facts with a new version of a fact and keep the old one with its documentation as history, so you fully document the thought process that got you to the current state of your data, as the addition of more evidence may change your “conclusion”. Unlike what is suggested by your GPS (which seems more like a process than a standard of proof), in real life there is no final conclusion to the search. “I have never seen / A finished genealogy”.

    Regarding some of your comments about merging and layering GEDCOMs, you might find some of the discussions on about merging, uploading GEDCOMs useful. It is much closer to an actual requirements analysis, and I think it has a broader view in that people will not want to suck everything to their local system so much as use remote sources as a virtual part of their local database. This does merge nicely with your layering idea, but there are difficult issues matching two or more arbitrary family trees when one or both may have errors, different spellings, missing facts, etc., or once you do figure out a match, to save the reference information from the external database so you can automate bump the two databases again in the future to quickly spot changes.

    Speaking of, the biggest impetus towards better genealogy will be the need to collaborate. The payoff will be higher quality data for you, the cost will be the need to conform to a certain standard. But the number of websites that truly provide for collaboration is very small. I think could get there. However, most websites just blindly accept submitted trees and keep them all in sterile isolation, so the website doesn’t annoy users by enforcing standards or suggesting somebody’s data is wrong. Once such a truly collaborative website achieves some general acceptance, software packages will then modify their workings accordingly.

    Source Provenance is sort of a snooty issue and I am not sure it is even all that important. I can’t imagine the computer ever doing a good job of supplanting the user as the final arbiter. I am not George E. Bowman jealously guarding the designation of Mayflower Descendant, and even then source provenance is often overridden by a preponderance of evidence. If somebody provides a good-faith transcription or abstract, and tells me where it comes from so I can verify if I find contradictory evidence, I will have nearly as much confidence as if I had a copy of the original. In a collaborative environment, this would be even more true, as there is a very good chance somebody will have the opportunity, and take the time, to confirm the transcription/abstract.

    Comment by John Richardson — 11 Apr 2008 @ 10:20 am

  7. John, thanks for the comments. Now we are starting to get discussion on the topic.

    - Mark

    Comment by Mark Tucker — 11 Apr 2008 @ 3:57 pm

  8. Mark, You have some great ideas! I hope the software developers are listening. I am waiting for my copy of Legacy 7 and the source models from EE.

    Comment by Angela McGhie — 16 Apr 2008 @ 11:30 am

  9. John, _Evidence Explained_ does not “invent a new standard.” It exists to provide what the standard guides (CMOS, APA, MLA, AP, Turabian, etc.) do not provide. Using MLA, for example, how would you cite a gravestone? A tax roll? A local court case? A census record? A military pension file? A church baptismal certificate? A family artifact?

    All the standard guides do a fine job of citing published sources–that being the principal type of material used by those college students who, as you note, are taught to use MLA or CMOS (the latter being preferred over MLA in many academic fields such as my own, history). MLA and CMOS also provide an example or two for citing original documents of the type most academics use–those in university archives–but those models do not fit most resources used by genealogists or academics who mine local records.

    Commendably, a significant number of academic historians, historical demographers, and practitioners of related fields *are* now using the grassroots-level original documents that have long been considered the “domain” of genealogists and amateur historians. These academic researchers, too, are discovering a need for guidance in the use and citation of those records. That is why, at the website for _Evidence Explained_, one sees endorsements of EE volunteered by two major historians. That is why academic reviewers for _Choice_, _Library Journal_, and _Booklist_ recommend EE for all academic libraries and upper-level/grad-level students. And, that is why Library Journal just awarded EE its “Best Reference Work 2007″ designation.

    I do disagree with you as to the need and value of consulting original records, even when no conflict is known to exist. After all, if everyone working on a problem keeps using the same wrong abstract or database, everyone will “agree” but they’ll all be wrong.

    (I won’t catalog, here, all the other reasons why it is important to consult those originals. I’ve done that elsewhere and all over.)

    I am, however, puzzled as to how “source provenance is often overridden by a preponderance of evidence.” Provenance, meaning “origins,” speaks to the authenticity of a *single record.* “Preponderance of the evidence,” which is no longer used in genealogy because it ill-fits our field, is (like GPS) a conclusion based upon a *whole body of evidence.* Would you help us see your reasoning for this statement?

    Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG

    Comment by Elizabeth Shown Mills — 16 Apr 2008 @ 8:01 pm

  10. The study of source provenance implies that some sources are more reliable and carry more authority than others, which is undeniable. It is one criteria that may be used in favoring one source over a conflicting one. I have some regard for source provenance in this sense, and suspect that some groups may need to fall back on this when forced to make binding decisions based on ambiguous or incomplete genealogical evidence. There is some obvious common sense to it, though being a slave to it seems clearly wrong.

    There are examples where town clerks clearly made mistakes recording births, such as attributing a child to a now-dead first wife, etc. Many such records could be based on hearsay to start with. Then, too there are the confusing terms whose usage has changed over time slightly, such as cousin and nephew that make such documents ambiguous, and of course, the ever popular phonetic spelling that was so common in colonial America. On top of this, handwriting styles have changed and documents get stained or torn. All this means that even original documents must be interpreted with circumspection and criticality, and which means evidence must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, not by some formulaic ranking of sources.

    I am sure that paid genealogists get reimbursed for their expenses, and their deliverable will gain authority by citing sources higher up on the provenance scale. For the vast majority of people using genealogy software (non-professionals), is it worthwhile to get a copy of an original document if somebody gives you a transcript over the Internet? If it is no trouble, why not? If you doubt its veracity because of other evidence, sure! But, each generation triples the number of people you are investigating in your family tree and probably the effort is better spent on somebody else if none of those cases apply.

    Personally, in prioritizing my research, I would rather find additional, independent evidence confirming my existing evidence than to have move my existing evidence up the scale of provenance a step or two. Hence my use of the phrase preponderance of evidence. Perhaps I am out-of-step with others in this, but it seems that the most common errors involve applying evidence to the wrong person, rather than getting the data wrong, and it is just as easy to apply an original document to the wrong person as it is a copy..

    Comment by John Richardson — 19 Apr 2008 @ 7:45 am

  11. Are you kidding me? Clooz as an example? It completely messed up my Legacy installation!
    The makers of Clooz need to get a clue…

    Comment by Fiona Ledbetter — 22 Apr 2008 @ 6:45 am

  12. You make good points…. however. The maroons who write software such as FTM (my current software) and Master Genealogist (trial version) all need to give their product much more thought. Wonder if it ever occurred to them to solicit advice from people who use the end product? Probably not because that would imply that someone else might have better ideas than the so-called expert engineers. Another MAJOR issue is the total lack of technical support. To FTM they are only in business to sell a product, once you buy it, good luck and GOOD-BYE. People who actually live and breath genealogy should write software.

    Comment by Rick Dillman — 4 May 2008 @ 7:00 pm

  13. The Brightcove site is down. Is there an alternative way to get the video.

    Comment by Tom Fort — 17 Jan 2009 @ 5:29 pm

  14. Brightcove stopped supporting personal accounts. Here is a link to the same presentation on Roots Television:

    Comment by Mark Tucker — 17 Jan 2009 @ 11:46 pm

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