Monday, September 20, 2010

Mailbox Monday: Web Versus Desktop

Dear Insider,

I have been searching my family history for 10 years now. What started out as a list of 20 people that my great-grandmother gave to me in an old photo album has blossomed into a family of over 1,000 people and growing. 

Until recently I was paper-based. I have never had a desktop family tree program but I recently paid for a month of Canadian access and managed to build a sizable public tree on-line. I appreciate the work that Ancestry has done but can't afford to keep paying for their service (two daughters with braces...) and I need to avail myself of a free service.

I would appreciate your advice on a 'next-step'.

If I download my GEDCOM file from Ancestry and upload it to FamilySearch will any of the data be compromised? Should I wait for the new version of FamilySearch to go live?

Do you think I should bother with a desktop program at this point or is it better to keep everything on-line? I run a Mac at home, where I do most of my research and will sometimes do a bit of searching from my office PC.

Finally, will there ever be one big happy on-line family tree, where if I input 'proof' that I am the son of X and Y - I will be instantly connected to all of my ancestors?

Thank you,

Mark Donaldson


Dear Mark,

A Stanford University initiative to help libraries backup digital information is called LOCKSS: Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Save. That’s a maxim we should all live by. Try to keep copies of your genealogy in a variety of places, and in a variety of formats. Use choices that are convenient for you, or you won’t use them.

And variety there is:

  • Web and desktop
  • Electronic and paper
  • PC and Mac
  • GEDCOM and proprietary
  • Trees, personal and communal
  • For profit and not for profit
  • On your property and off your property
  • Local backup and cloud backup

Unfortunately, let the GEDCOM standard languish so it is difficult to make complete copies of your genealogy. GEDCOM can not transfer genealogical data without compromising sources, images, attachments, and citations.

What do I recommend for you? I work almost exclusively with and, so I am ill qualified to speak to other possibilities. I invite your fellow readers to proffer their advice.

But here’s what my family does.


FamilySearch Bullet  FamilySearch Personal Ancestral File (PAF)

One family member is our designated archivist. She has the official copy of our PAF-compatible tree. She sends copies to us and when we have new information to add to it, we make the changes and send the PAF file back to her. Various FamilySearch affiliates make it easy to merge the changes back into the master. Affiliates can also store a collaborative copy online, and upload information to the new FamilySearch Tree.

We don’t use PAF much for photographs and digitized documents. For those, we use an…

Bullet Member Tree

We use our Member Tree to share ancestor photographs and digitized documents. We leave the tree public so that lots of people will pilfer our stuff. Should we ever lose anything, we can find lots and lots of copies. (Some of the copies even credit us. But I digress…)

You don’t have to maintain your subscription to continue using your tree. Once your subscription expires you will not be able to see others’ trees, but you can use your own for free. While I believe you can still see the records attached to your tree (, is that true?), in the spirit of LOCKSS, you should download the records to your desktop for safety’s sake.

Keeping a copy of your tree online allows you to access it as easily from home on as Mac as at work on a PC. Also, takes care of hardware, software, and media upgrades for you. You don’t have to move files from floppies to CDs to DVDs to flash drives.

Of the online genealogy vendors, is one of the most stable. They aren’t likely to go out of business or disappear anytime soon. They keep copies of your stuff in a granite vault similar to the FamilySearch Granite Mountain Record Vault.

FamilySearch Bullet  new FamilySearch Tree

We regularly spend time in the new FamilySearch Tree (NFS) citing sources that dispel myths in our lines. The Tree is currently optimized for adding information, not removing bad. So my current counsel and practice is to ignore the bad and add the good. There’ll be time enough for fixin’ when the system’s done. (Apologies to Schlitz.)

We won’t use a communal tree as our only online solution, but in keeping with the LOCKSS principle, we plan on using it for one.

Will there ever be one, big, happy tree to rule them all? One tree to find them, one tree to bring them all and in the brightness combine them? (Apologies to Tolkien.)

Scientific cannon is filled with universally accepted truths that were debated for years, decades, even centuries, before attaining unanimity. And this by minds more logical and careful than some of today’s communal tree contributors.

How about you? Do you think there can ever be a universally accepted communal tree?


-- The Insider


  1. In answer to Mark's question "if I upload the GEDCOM to FamilySearch, will the data be compromised?", I offer the following as a ward Family History Consultant:

    The nFS tree will likely, if you have any family who were LDS, already contain much of your tree. Thus, uploading a GEDCOM will merely contribute to what is already a huge problem of duplication of data. PLEASE do not upload a GEDCOM until you have at least looked to see what is already there - and then ONLY upload names of persons not already there. for the other members of your family, add corrected (sourced) data, but please do not add extra copies of people already in the tree.

    As to your question, what to use as your primary data repository, I offer the following:

    nFS is not intended as a primary repository, but rather as a place to record and track temple work, and to reduce the duplication of such work. It is intended to work with people's local, desktop copies of their family information. If you go to the login page for nFS, you will find a link to a list of all the software (both Mac and PC) certified to work with nFS. For the price of one or two month's subscription to Ancestry, you can purchase one of these programs (some even have free versions). By all means, download your tree from Ancestry, but rather than uploading it to nFS willy-nilly, load it into a desktop program which can sync with nFS.

  2. I am an avid mac user and have my 1,000 plus records in two places - the MacFamily Tree program and New Family Search. I like MacFamily Tree because it allows me to attach all the digital media to a person's name and to provide detailed info on sources. I like new FamilySearch because it does what Charles states so well-allowing for Temple Ordinance work to be recorded. With the SYNC function that the Church has created, most major genealogy programs now or will shortly allow you to easily transfer information back and forth through your Mac and nFS.

    I also store a back up copy of my MacFamily Tree file to my Mobile Me account for safekeeping.

    My job is made easier in that I am the only member of my family that is LDS and that is actively compiling the family history on both sides of my tree. I don't have to worry about too much duplication or coordinating with a plethora of other family historians. Oh, the joy of being a first generation convert!

  3. Whatever you do, please don't upload a GEDCOM to new Familysearch (Unless your family is not already in the database). There is already a huge problem with duplication and sometimes hundreds of records for one person! Just go in and correct what is already there, it will save frustration for people working on the same family lines.


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