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A Genealogist’s Toy Box


I can’t imagine doing any kind of research, especially genealogy research, without a computer and Internet access—DSL access at that. If you’re new to genealogy and don’t have a computer, it’s time to get one. Buy a new one with the latest, hottest processor, lots of memory, big hard drives, a huge monitor, a souped-up graphics card—the works. That is, if money is no object.

If you don’t have a computer and are on a limited budget, ask among family members if anyone has an older model stuffed in a closet somewhere. Windows XP works just fine if you get a used computer.

Look for a notebook computer if you’re planning to take it along on research trips and especially if you’re going to use high-speed Internet at your local library. Be sure your notebook has a wireless network card installed, or buy an inexpensive adapter for that purpose. Again, you don't need the latest model out there--your niece, the corporate executive, probably has an old notebook computer she'd give you just for asking.

An iPad or tablet computer works great to lighten the load. You can carry all your ancestors around with you in a small, compact device. Ask Santa for one.

You can store your genealogy information in the "cloud," that is, on online sites, but you'll need wireless or Internet access to get to it.

Internet Service

DSL Internet service is available in nearly every part of the planet. Whether wireless, cable, satellite or some other source, get yourself connected.

You must have virus protection if you access the Internet. It’s not an option, it’s essential. And you must keep the virus definitions up to date. Learn what a “firewall” is and keep it turned on.


Computer printers fall into two categories: inkjet and laser. Inkjet printers are cheaper on the front end but ink cartridge refills are expensive. Laser printers cost more initially but your actual cost-per-page is much less. Color laser printers are falling in price. Your printer choice depends upon how much you plan to use it and what you intend to print.

If you plan to print photos, you’ll find uploading the files to an online photo lab is the cheapest option. Then either pick them up on an errand-run to town or have them sent to your mailbox.

Before you print a document, ask yourself if you really need to print it. If it has lasting value and you plan to keep it, then print it. Think about printing it two-up (see the option in the print dialogue box: “sheets per page”) if the type won’t be too small to read.

Or print that document to a file on your computer’s hard drive. To do that you need a PDF printer driver. There are several choices—a free one is PDF995 found at www.software995.com. You download and install PDF995 according to directions, then when you chose the “print” option in any software program on your computer, a new choice (PDF995) will be listed with the installed printers. Select it and your document is printed to a .pdf (portable document format) file—you name the file and select a folder for it. You can then e-mail that document as an attachment or connect it as a “media” file in Family Tree Maker.


Scanners are wonderful tools for genealogists. They come in a variety of sizes and styles (and prices). They’re easy to set up and you can turn photos and documents into digital files. Scan photos at a minimum of 300 dots per inch (dpi). It the photo is small and has a lot of detail, choose 600 dpi. For the kind of file to save, choose .tif (tagged image file)—they don’t lose quality like .jpgs when they’re opened and re-saved. Even when scanning black-and-white photos, leave the scanner set on the color setting—you’ll get better results. Files will be large, but you can always e-mail a smaller version.

Save your original scans without alteration. Play with contrast, color, cropping and other modifications, then use the “save-as” function in your photo editing program and save the file with a different name.

Digital Cameras

Treat yourself to a very good digital camera. Go beyond the pocket-size camera you use for family snapshots. Look at a Nikon or Canon single-lens-reflex (SLR) digital camera. Every year, digital SLRs are more and more wonderful.

Besides taking photos of your relatives, you can photograph documents and old photos. In a courthouse, if policies allow it, you can photograph records. When we used to use film cameras, there was a practical limit to the number of photos we could take—film and processing costs added up. With a digital camera and several memory cards, the number of shots is virtually unlimited. A digital Nikon SLR can take several hundred photos, even with flash, on one battery charge.

If you’re on a research trip, consider uploading your photo sessions to an online storage site, or e-mail them to yourself.

External Hard Drives

Back up your files! After you’ve spent time and energy entering data into your genealogy software program, you sure don’t want to lose it. All mechanical devices eventually fail. Besides supplying room for backups on a separate machine, you can also increase the total storage space on your computer with an external hard drive.

Online Backup Services

Not only do you need to make backups of the files on your computer’s hard drive, you need to get those backups out of your house. One easy way to do that is with an online backup service that copies the files you designate onto a server in cyberspace. Google "online backup services" to explore your options. It's important to get those files out of your house and setting the process to do it without you having to think about it is the best way.

Archival Media

Remember eight-track tapes? And cassettes? CDs and DVDs are joining that list. We used to store data on "floppy discs." No more. There's too much data to store. If you do have aging storage media still hanging around, it's time to copy it to a new home. Data migration (moving files from old media to new technology) is something you need to keep up with.

The hitch to data migration is that you must have software as well as hardware that will read those electronic files you’re saving. If you want to be cautious,

  • Save text files as document files (.doc) , but also use the “save as” function and save the files as text (.txt) files.
  • Save photos as .jpg or .tif files
  • Save scanned images of documents as .jpg or .tif files
  • Save genealogy files as gedcom (.ged) files.
  • Save e-mail files (the ones with lasting value) as text (.txt) files with the “save as” function in your e-mail software.

And back all those files up!

Consider paper as a back-up storage media, too. Print important documents and store them in a temperature-controlled, insect- and critter-free, dry, safe environment.

USB Flash Drives

These little gizmos are known by a variety of names—they’re all small USB devices with flash memory. They hold up to 64 gigs or more of data and are inexpensive. They’re ideal to make quick backups and transport files. But they should never hold your only copy of anything.

Here’s a tip: create a text file (in Windows Notepad) that contains your contact information. Save the file as “_return to me if lost.txt” (start it with an underscore character and it’ll always show up at the top of any list of files on the device). If you leave your device sticking in a library computer, perhaps it’ll find its way home.

Digital Voice Recorder

“Tape” recorders are beginning to be a thing of the past. New voice recorders capture the spoken word in digital files instead of on magnetic tape. That means you can record Great Uncle Curt telling the story about stealing the neighbor’s chickens and attach it to his record in Family Tree Maker 2013 in the “media pane.”

Discarded Toys

When it’s time to get rid of your computer, be sure the data is wiped off the hard drive. Deleting the files doesn’t get rid of them, they’re still in the recycle bin. Emptying that doesn’t get rid of the files; they’re still on the disc in fragments waiting to be overwritten. Even if your hard drive crashes, the files are still there. The absolutely secure solution to this problem is to open the computer case, pull out the hard drive and take a big hammer to it. More elegant, but less certain, is to have a computer-savvy person run disc-wiping software on the drive.

If there’s a disaster of some kind and your homeowner’s insurance company requires you to turn in your smoke- or water-damaged computer, pull out that hard drive before you turn it in.

Don’t rely on passwords to keep people out of your computer. It’s a simple matter to work around a Windows password on a user account. And it’s equally simple to disable a password set at the BIOS level (one that comes up before Windows ever loads).

Your Toys After You’re Gone

You’ve been told you can’t take it with you when you die. Sure, you can. You can take your computer passwords with you. A genealogist I knew maintained a website for his favorite cemetery—it was one of my favorites, too. He’d posted photos and information and created a really useful site. Then he died and took his passwords to heaven with him. No one could get into the site, his e-mail was password-protected, his bank accounts for automatic billing were closed, his ISP didn’t get paid, the site went to never-never-land. [Thank goodness, for the Way Back Machine (http://archive.org/web/web.php). If you saved the URL for some website that's gone to never-never-land, you have a shot at seeing it again.]

Bottom line: make a list of your accounts and their passwords and clip it to your will. Update it on your birthday every year if you’re still alive.


[Get Started] [Is Family History For You?] [Home and Family Sources] [Organizing Your Family Records] [Beginning Your Research] [Federal Census Records] [Courthouse Research] [Military Records] [Ethnic Genealogy] [A Broad View] [Correspondence] [Sharing Your Heritage] [A Genealogist's Toy Box] [Glossary]

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