Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Do I Still Need a Desktop Genealogy Program or is Family Tree Enough?

If you're a family history consultant then you have probably came across this question. "Why do we need a desktop program?  Can't we just use the FamilySearch Family Tree instead?" At RootsTech 2013 I attended an Unconferencing session hosted by Gordon Clarke, FamilySearch API Program Manager. This same question was asked of the Tree Share Panelists: Bruce Buzbee (RootsMagic), Luc Comeau (Legacy Family Tree), Gaylon Findlay (Ancestral Quest), and Dovy Pukstys (RealTime Collaboration/AncestorSync)

I am going to try and recap their thoughts and my own as to why we still need a desktop program.

1. In theory it would be lovely to work only on the web, but Family Tree does not have the power that a desktop program can give you. The same features in a desktop program would be too costly to recreate on the web. 

2. People want to keep some things private, especially if it can be embarrassing or hurtful to other family members. They don't want to share certain things until they are ready to do so. Information that is private can be vital in how you come to conclusions in your research. There is more security having your database under your total control on the desktop than the web will ever be. The Family Tree is also not intended as a place to record information on living individuals. Being able to have both the living and the dead in one family database seems to eliminate a potential hassle and security concerns.

3. Custom reporting is a big reason for maintaining your own database with a desktop program. Analytical reporting and queries on the desktop would be very expensive in a web application. The bandwidth needed would be very costly. Online applications will not have the processing power that is available on a PC. They just cannot compete with your computer resources. The reports from a desktop program look more professional than the website versions. You can also save reports made on the desktop as RTF files and massage them exactly the way you want in Word. This gives you a lot of control and a great advantage.

4. In a desktop program you can have more than one database. You can have a database with proven research and another with those that are not. In the research process you can come across individuals that may be part of a family. In the desktop program you can continue to do more research and prove your conclusions before you add them to the Family Tree. If instead you added your assumptions to Family Tree while building your case, others that have access could change your findings. It's also easier to sift, sort and compare electronically people in your database than online.

5. The web vs. the desktop has two different purposes and usually two different audiences. The web is used to attract people to genealogy, to share with others and get them interested. When people really start researching their family history you will find they start using a desktop. They have to because the web is a box and doesn't fit everyone and doesn't have all the power as the desktop computer. The desktop is where the real success and real concrete evidence is finalized for a real researcher.

6. There are a lot of people that still are not online. When you put your family history online you can only share it with family members that are online. There is a need to be able to share in other ways. You could create Shareable CDs or books with your family history to share with others. These types of options will not be available with online applications. 

7. Desktop programs allow you to organize and analyze your data in a particular way. You can create special groups of people based on specific search criteria.  For example: finding everyone living during the 1940 US Federal Census. Then you can focus your research efforts on those individuals for that data set. 

8. Life gets busy; people tend to work on their family history in little pockets of time. Desktop programs have To-Do Lists and Research Logs that help you manage and track your research efforts. They help you keep records on your thought process and what records you have searched. You can record which records you want to look at in the future as the impressions come to you. These are great tools in breaking down brick walls and furthering your research.  You're not spinning your wheels trying to remember where you left off each time you get back to your family history.  In the long run this makes a person much more productive with the little time they do have to devote on their genealogy.

9. With a desktop program you can get very comfortable knowing its not changing on you. With a website the company can change things really quickly and you have no control over that. Everyone that uses the website is forced to change.  With a desktop program you can stay with an older version if desired and not be forced to change. The desktop programs interface between New FamilySearch and Family Tree is likely to stay very similar to each other. If you were only using the websites you suddenly experienced a whole new learning curve.

10. One great customizing tool in the desktop program is color-coding. You can select a specific person and color his ancestors. If your 2nd cousin color-coded it would be different lines. A community environment doesn't give you that customization. 

11. The desktop program have internal record numbers (RINs). People get used to memorizing people in their file by record numbers. On the web that would be very hard to wrap your head around the numbering systems. 

12. From a web developer KISS is the entire world. Keep it Simple... the most successful websites are the simplest ones. Desktop can go as complex and customizable as desired. The web treats everyone as one person. It's hard to give that customization. The web mimics what the desktop has already done. People will continue to use desktop programs because the developers innovate in the way genealogist care about. Web guys innovate in ways that will bring more users, but not necessarily better research. 

13. If you have your data in a desktop program and something happens to you it's still on your computer and someone can find it. If all your data is sitting up on a company's website and that website disappears you don't have your data. Your data is actually safer in your possession because you can make sure you've got backups.  You make sure that as media type's change you take your data and migrate it and use different formats. So if one of them happens to go down or disappears you still got the data in a format. To keep your data on a website or in a single cloud it's at your own risk. 

14. How many people that only used New FamilySearch have now lost data, with the migration to Family Tree? Not everything has been transferred over. What do they have as a reference to make sure the records are now correct?  Do they need to manually retype all the changes in again? Each time you retype data you add the element of human error while doing so.  In a desktop program you can compare your data with what is on the Family Tree. Then send an exact copy of what is in your database if changes are needed. Are you confident that Family Tree will not be replaced in the future with something else?

15. As a genealogist I have experienced where I needed to go back several years of research to an old backup to see what it was at that period in time. You can't get that picture in a website, because it is always changing. By making backups routinely you have a historical snapshot of what the state was at that point in time. 

16. If you only keep your family history on Family Tree you are missing out on finding potential researchers working on your lines. The more places you share your research on the web the greater potential you have of finding other family members. Desktop programs allow you to create GEDCOMs to share your data on other websites. You can upload your database to, WorldConnect, Geni, and MyHeritage, to name a few. You can also create your own websites with desktops programs and host them yourself. These in turn can be searchable in Google where other researchers can find you.

17. Maintaining your own database is the only way you can be sure your data or some portion of it has not been lost, corrupted mechanically or merged improperly.  Some temple ordinances have been lost or have choked in the pipeline.  If you have your own records on what has been done previously you can help FamilySearch find the missing ordinances and restore them.  If you are dependent on FamilySearch maintaining those records you have nothing to fall back on.

18. When you use a desktop program to interface with Family Tree you will stay connected as long as you don't close the program. On the Family Tree you will be periodically logged out if you are inactive for even a short period of time.  Anyone that does research will need to step away for a few minutes to consult other resources, their research logs, or just analysis their findings.  Having to continually log back into Family Tree is very time consuming and frustrating and doesn't make for a good experience.

19. In a Desktop program you can choose colors, fonts, display styles for names, dates and places. You can set up your database to show in the way that will best assist you in your tasks.  An online application does not have that ability. 

20. Desktop programs provide a variety of "Dashboard" features for tracking your temple submissions and their progress. It's easier to determine who still needs their ordinances done and which have been completed. You can manage your temple cards and record which family members you have assigned them to. 

21. Desktop programs can help keep you in touch with living family members that are not interested right now in family history. It can be a great tool in planning family reunions.  You can determine very easily all the living descendants of a common ancestor. Most programs include a way to record contact information. You can also generate calendars showing family members birthdays and other special events. 

The Family Tree is a great tool, but it is just not there yet to replace the desktop programs.  Maybe in another 10 years the technology, bandwidth and computing power will evolve enough for it to do so.  For now, there is still a great need for the desktop programs. Family Tree and the desktop programs actually need each other.  The Family Tree helps by getting new people interested in working on their family history.  It's a starting point for them.  The desktop programs in turn receive new customers when the Family Tree users realize they need more features to help them manage their research efforts. This in turns helps them come to better conclusions in their research that then can be added back to the Family Tree. 

FamilySearch is doing a wonderful job by allowing third party affiliates (genealogy software programs) to interact with the Family Tree through their API. It bridges and brings the online experience within the desktop experience. You can have the best of both worlds together.  To learn more about the third party affiliate programs certified to sync with Family Tree check out the following link:

See ya tomorrow, for tomorrow is always another genealogy day.


Bill Buchanan said...

Renee, this is an excellent article. Nicely done!

Anonymous said...

The reasonings in this document are excellent and mostly ones I have been able to work out for myself. When other people are able to change your information on your tree on line you really do need your original copy to see the problems to change or challenge. I will certainly print this for use.

Beverly Markham said...

First off it is hard to get some people to do their family history. Then secondly it is hard to get them to even purchase a reputable/adequate program (such as Rootsmagic, Legacy, Ancestral Quest etc.) They would rather spend their $30 on a dinner out than on a genealogy program.
Thirdly it is hard to convince them that these programs, in concert with the Familysearch/Family tree is the way to go.
Mostly, they are somewhat lazy and think that having both options is a lot of extra work and they would rather have a pile of papers to go through each time they need some information than to enter it into a personal genealogy program.
This is the most frustrating thing to have to deal with as a family history consultant.
Thank you Renee for your well written article - now, if I could just get people to read it and follow your reasoning.
Beverly Markham.

Robert Givens said...

Renee - Great article. I have to laugh when some of the people at the FHL teach that you don't need a personal genealogy program. You did a wonderful job of explaining why we should have one.
That said though for a first time dabbler or someone who isn't convinced they are willing to really jump into Family History in a serious way, let them start in Tree. If they get hooked then is the time to have them consider a personal program.
Bob Givens

Robert Givens said...

Renee - Great article. I have to laugh when some of the people at the FHL teach that you don't need a personal genealogy program. You did a wonderful job of explaining why we should have one.
That said though for a first time dabbler or someone who isn't convinced they are willing to really jump into Family History in a serious way, let them start in Tree. If they get hooked then is the time to have them consider a personal program.
Bob Givens

Robert Givens said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
gophergenealogy said...

Wonderful article that echos all my reasons for having a personal database of our findings. I like the Family Tree and teaching others how to use it. My personal database contains far more people and information than what I have on Family Tree as I am not ready to add those individuals/families to the online access. Both are needed and support the family history of researchers. Thank you for sharing so well the reasons for doing so.

Janet said...

Agree, agree, agree. Sometimes I feel like I am the only one expressing my view of the NEED for your own personal software. I also appreciate the arguments I have thought of. Great article, and I hope that the need continues to be circulated. Thank you!

MHD said...

Thank you! Excellent summary. There are so many people who really should know all this!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this article/summary. I've been so frustrated trying to explain why people still need their own database. This is great.

Alphonse said...

This is cool!

safdar said...

Nice post with great details. I really appreciate your work. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

There is another excellent reason for keeping your family tree in a desktop application.... accuracy! In my experience, FamilySearch and many other online family trees are literally filled with errors, exaggerations and even outright inventions. The internet has made research much easier but it has also laid traps for the unwary. The best procedure is to use online resources for research, review all your findings rigorously for accuracy and valid source citations and then post them to your own desktop program, safe from the errors and faulty research of others.

Hey,Hey,Paula said...

When they stopped upgrading PAF and encouraged us to do straight Family Search I balked! So glad I found RootsMagic! What a difference and a way to gather, sort, proof and clean up before I upload! great article! Sharing!

flyty1n said...

Thanks so much for this fine article. It is what I think and have found over time. The difficult part, as a FH consultant, is to get others to even download the free basic programs available online. I shall hand this out to every one in the classes I teach and try to get them to see how important a desktop program is to their work.

Donna said...

Renee, I agree with you 100%. But for few years I've been happily compiling my tree on Ancestry, complete with documentation/images. So how do I get all of THAT into my Legacy program, date and images? Please advise in a future post??? Donna Potter Phillips

Jackie Bergstrom said...

March 22,2014
Hi Rene, So glad to see you're still connected to Family History. This article is terrific. I've printed it out and plan to share with all I'm working with. Respond when your can.
Love Jackie duBois Bergstrom.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! So many people has asked me why they should keep their information in a genealogy database program and not just work on it online via FamilySearch or You have explained it better than I could. I am on a short break from my blog because I am in the middle of several big projects but as soon as I am back posting I plan to link to your excellent post.

Mantvydas said...

Good arguments / checklist.
However, most of the features that you listed that Family Tree cannot do, are already available on and

Anonymous said...

Mantvydas Juozapavičius

If you can color-code and print out reports then you know way more about Ancestry & MyHeritage than I do. I really don't think you read the full article, because it's just not possible to do on a website what you are doing in a desktop program.

Michigan Girl said...

Excellent article. I have had so many conversations about this subject. It is very difficult sometimes, to make people understand that having a private database is really invaluable. I will be linking to this post in my blog at so that my readers will have access to it.
Thank you,

Unknown said...

Do you allow reprints of your articles? I'd love to share this article on why you need genealogy software with the other members of our genealogical society though our printed quarterly.

Renee Zamora said...

Yes, anyone can reprint my blog articles. Just include credit back to me and a link.

Anonymous said...

What you've said here, and how you've said it is absolutely wonderful. However, I would take what you've added here, and take it a step further. I have been burned by computers crashing; a glass of spilled water fried my harddrive; but the most recent mishap was the upgrading of XP to Windows 8.1 and the fact that my software will not work due to being too old on WIN 8.1. Paper, Paper, Paper copies of everything are needed. After all of this work you want it to go forward generations into the future. Computers most likely will not be a viable resource, and go by the wayside as CD's and DVD's are going. Technology is ever changing and becomes useless. I am old enough to have a lot of "antiques" hanging around the house that I still consider viable but society doesn't. Use archival quality paper when printing out your family tree. Laser is better than inkjet; and acid free paper really isn't that much more costlier than regular paper, which will buy you many years of your hard work being viable. Another bit of information I would offer you is to check your pictures. The old ones pre-1960, are maintaining their images pretty well, but anything from the 1970's going forward is fading very quickly; which I suspect has something to do with the type of processing. Archival storage boxes are so critical to save these images, but if you can, scan them and save them now if they are fading so you will still have them to print and share down the road. Thank you for sharing your information. I am always learning, and lost any of my stubbornness after the 3rd time of losing all my hard work. Until the budget allows for another software program, I am handwriting information, and keeping it online, but am very eager to get it offline. One never knows when the privacy policies or user agreements for online work will change, or as you stated, change and the work be lost.