Choosing, and learning to use, a genealogy software program to organise and document my research was one of the first things I did when I began to seriously engage with my family history. These database programs are very powerful, and are excellent tools for recording names, dates, places and events. They encourage us to document the sources of our information; allow us to visualise our family trees and relationships with a variety of charts and reports; and often provide tools to map the locations our ancestors lived in, link images to ancestors and to organise our research efforts.
While most programs are excellent for capturing the conclusions of our research, they vary in their ability to support our active research and writing processes. This is where we need to consider other tools. Many of us would be familiar with note taking apps like OneNote and Evernote, whose web clipping function is a tremendous aid for capturing and organising online information gathered in the course of our research. Among other tools, spreadsheets are useful for creating research logs and timelines, and photo editing and organisation apps help us manage our growing libraries of digital images.
However, there are some less well-known apps which may also be worth considering:
Evidentia is a software program which you download to your computer (either Windows or Mac). Its focus is on the sources of information we have discovered, and is designed to (i) extract all the information from those sources and associate it with relevant people and events, and (ii) analyse the evidence and reach conclusions based on what we have found so far. It is particularly useful when the sources contain conflicting information or we are trying to break through a brick wall. The software allows us to produce proof reports as well as reports about the evidence we have analysed in relation to a particular person or research question. See https://evidentiasoftware.com for more information.
Most genealogy programs allow us to record and map locations where our ancestors lived, travelled or worked. However, these programs often limit what we can do with the maps. For example, while Family Tree Maker maps locations where our ancestors lived, it does not support annotating a map with information or images. Google has two products which allow genealogists to visualise and document our ancestors in relation to place.
Google My Maps is a web based tool which allows you to add images, text and other visual markers to a Google map. You need to have a Google account and the annotated map is stored on Google Drive. While you can share the map with others, they also need to have a Google account in order to view it and collaborate on it. Using this kind of tool can help you visualise the movements of your ancestors, the network of neighbours and other community associations in which your ancestors lived, and understand how distance and topography may have affected their lives (see https://mymaps.google.com/).
Arguably more powerful and flexible, Google Earth Pro is free software which you download to your computer or mobile device. This software allows you to document your ancestors’ lives in a multi-media fashion, as well as to share your family history with others. You can search for locations and addresses, use street view (where available), add place marks, text and images to the places where an ancestor lived, and add overlays (such as an image or an old map) over a current map. The layers feature includes a few hundred maps from David Rumsey’s Historical Map collection. Download the software from https://earth.google.com
Genealogy software programs also vary in the extent to which they allow us to analyse relationships between our family members and their friends, associates and neighbours (sometimes referred to as a FAN club). I have tried various ways in which to record these other relationships in my genealogy software, but have had limited success. However, sometimes it is by understanding these associations better that we can break down some brick wall that has impeded our research as well as produce a richer story of their lives.
Airtable is a web-based hybrid spreadsheet and database which has the potential to help us explore these relationships (and others such as DNA matches). It is easy to use especially if you have used any spreadsheet program (like Excel) and a free version is available. Nicole Dyer from https://familylocket.com has an excellent article about Airtable and its potential value for genealogists (see https://familylocket.com/airtable-research-logs/). Nicole has also created templates of Airtable bases to help with FAN club analysis and DNA Match analysis which are freely available for anyone to use. The tables also double as a spreadsheet for a research log and/or timeline for an ancestor’s life.