Genealogy Virus Continues to Spread

I was disappointed yesterday to hear of another outbreak of the virus that’s sweeping through genealogy. A new GEDCOM (GEnealogy Data COMmunication) file sharing site sprang up. I’m disappointed because this nonsense undermines the practice of genealogy. Mostly this is because many (if not most) GEDCOMs being shared contain incorrect conclusions. Sharing incorrect conclusions is the single biggest threat to our hobby. It wastes an incredible amount of research time.

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Is the Virtual Globe Bloat?

I’ve been working on a MacFamilyTree screencast this evening. It’s related to geocoding which is related to the “virtual globe” feature. As is usual for me when I explore features, I asked myself, “What value does this offer genealogists?” I’m having a hard time coming up with something nice to say about this one.

Yes, I get that you can see points on a globe for events in your database. And, that lines indicating the direction of movement connect the points. So, what? How can this help you with the fundamental activities a genealogist undertakes? Does it help you plan or carry out research? No. Can it help you identify or locate sources? No. Can you turn evidence into sound conclusions with it? No. Does it make preserving information more efficient or effective? No. I can’t imagine a single way that this “feature” improves, in a material way, what you can do already. [Read more…]

Documenting Unknown Dates in Your Genealogy Database Software

Genealogists and family historians often find themselves with unknown dates for events they have researched. How to capture this in a genealogical database is not immediately apparent to many of us. We think, “Perhaps I should enter ‘Unknown,’ or a question mark, or omit the date entirely.” After all that work, it seems like something should be documented to indicate that research has been done and no conclusion reached. Trying to force the date field to do more than it’s intended or capable of doing isn’t the solution. It could be an indication that we’re not confident that our research is well documented or that our plan is recorded. What should one enter in a genealogical database when the date of an event is unknown? How should one deal with that feeling of unease that’s causing them to look at the date field as a cure-all? This article will answer both questions for you. Let’s start with what to do with the unknown date.

Omit the Date

The best solution is not to enter anything at all in the date field for an event when the date is completely unknown. Naturally, if parts of the date are known, enter the partial date. This answer is more a matter of style than a rule, but it will serve you well for the reasons below.

Omitting Works with All Software

Omitting the date is the only approach universally supported by all genealogy software. Some genealogy software will allow you to enter something that’s obviously not a date, such as a question mark or the word “unknown.” Personal Ancestral File (PAF) 5.2 and The Master Genealogist will display a warning dialog if the date is non-standard. Legacy Family Tree will change the entry of a question mark to the word “Unknown.” Other software will steadfastly refuse to accept any entry it cannot understand as a date. There’s a good reason behind the applications preferring or requiring actual dates; any reasonably sophisticated genealogy software checks dates as they are entered. Typically the format of the date is checked to ensure that it is valid when entered. For instance, the program would refuse to accept 32 Jan 2009 as a date because there are never 32 days in the month of January. Most software also performs date feasibility (or coherence) checks. These checks are for conditions that ought to be impossible or extremely improbable and issue a warning or prevent the entry. An example of such a condition is a death date that precedes a birth date. These types of checks are meaningless for entries like a question mark or “unknown.” Omitting an unknown date prevents validation and feasibility checks as well as date calculations, like the person’s age at an event, from being confounded. Unfortunately, it doesn’t prevent us from forgetting what research has been done. So how does one keep track of what’s been researched?

Log Your Research Efforts

The date field for an event isn’t the best place to indicate what you’ve investigated already. It’s better to keep a research log containing the subject being investigated, the research performed, and the results of the search. This approach ensures that you or other genealogist can know, potentially years later, what research was performed, how, and what evidence resulted. It makes it easy to have a colleague check your work to uncover missed opportunities. Finally, it makes preparing your proof statement easier as all the information is preserved and contained. This is important to do whether you find conclusive evidence or not. Even with your painstaking research efforts safely preserved for future consideration, you may be wondering, “Wouldn’t the date field still be a good place to indicate that more research is needed?” It could be, but for the reasons above, it isn’t the best way. Besides, future research to-do items have a better place to reside.

Identify Next Research To-Dos in a Task List

Research tasks are best kept in a task list. Using the date field, or other event attributes for that matter, cannot compare to the benefits of using a dedicated to-do list. The list could be within your genealogy software, if that’s a built-in feature, or a stand-alone task manager. A modern task list application will enable you to filter and sort tasks in ways that will make your work more efficient and ensure you don’t forget what remains to be researched.

Feel Confident and Leave the Date Field Empty

Keeping a research task list and logging your research efforts will give you the confidence you need to leave fields unpopulated for unknown dates. You’ll solve more genealogical puzzles and leave even more helpful family history documentation for future generations. It will also make working with your genealogy software more pleasant because you will be working with its features, rather than against them. Wouldn’t it be great if our genealogy software were trying this hard to cooperate with us!

How Reunion 9 Users Can Find More Relatives Faster

How You Can Find More Relatives Faster

If you don’t have enough time for your genealogy research and would like to have more, the MacGenealogist Archives may be the best solution for you. You see, genealogy research is subject to Parkinson’s law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

You Can’t Afford to Fiddle

In other words, once you start fiddling with your software you waste big chunks of time that could have been better spent pursuing your genealogy research goals. If your primary hobby is being a computer geek this isn’t so bad, but you’re a genealogist. That means that you’re in pursuit of ancestors and you don’t find relatives by tinkering with your computer.

Robbing Yourself of Time

To make matters worse, Parkinson’s law suggests that when you start fiddling you’re likely to use up lots of your valuable genealogy time. Playing with your software—even when your intent is learning to use it more effectively—robs you of precious research time that will get you to those thrilling discoveries. Don’t get me wrong; I know that you are well served by learning to be more effective with your tools. Mastering your tools will save you time, but you can’t be all day about it.

You Have Undiscovered Ancestors

I know it’s hard to strike a balance between time spent learning and researching, but it’s worth doing. There are ancestors waiting for you to discover that one piece of evidence that will lead you to them. You need time to meticulously focus to uncover them and their relatives.

Discover Your Ancestors Sooner

We can’t make more time, but we can use it more efficiently. You need a tool to help you learn how to better use your Mac so you have the time to enjoy more genealogy breakthroughs sooner.

MacGenealogist Archives Will Help

The MacGenealogist Archives will help you develop mastery of Reunion 9 for Mac while protecting your valuable research time. The archive contains 50 videos–over 459 minutes of helpful video. And they’re only available to GenealogyTools members. Click this link to go become a member.

MacGenealogist Videos Create More Research Time by Focusing Your Learning

Following along with the step-by-step video tutorials in the MacGenealogist Archives will help you free up time to find your relatives. It will focus your learning so you’re not just poking around. And that’s not all!

The MacGenealogist Archives Does So Much More

  • Simple step-by-step video tutorials make you more efficient and effective
  • Reading and seeing details on the videos is easier because they’re large
  • You can take the videos with you and view them without being dependent on an Internet connection
  • See at a glance which videos go together with series color coding

Okay, So What Does It Cost?

The MacGenealogist Archives are only available to GenealogyTools members. You set the membership dues. Pay what you can.

100% Satisfaction Guarantee

I want you to be completely satisfied and I don’t want you to rush through the videos. Take as long as you need to go through the videos. If after you’ve followed along with all the videos you can honestly say the lessons haven’t made you more effective with Reunion 9 for Mac, send me an email and I’ll refund your money.


You can find more ancestors faster by learning the techniques covered in these screencast videos. Using the videos on your computer is even more convenient than on the website. Click this link to go become a member then download the MacGenealogist Archives videos today.

Happy Thanksgiving!

In the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving today. I hope you all had as great a day as I did. My wife Carrie and I prepared a wonderful vegetarian—almost vegan—meal. We shared it with our children, Logan, and Paige as well as Carrie’s mom and step-dad. We are so blessed! On this day it is customary to consider the things we are grateful for.

You are one of the reasons I feel so blessed this year. Naturally my family tops my list of blessings, but I am doubly blessed by having a fabulously supportive MacGenealogist family too. Thank you for reading my articles, viewing my videos, and leaving comments. I  love it when you learn new things as a result of following along and putting my lessons into practice then tell me about it. Your comments these first four months have been informative and incredibly helpful. Lastly, thank you for supporting this venture financially. You have made purchases through my affiliate links like and bought the first volume of my screencast video CDs. While it doesn’t yet cover the monthly expenses of operating, it helps by giving me hope that I can get it to that point so that I can continue to make informative how-to videos for you.

May the next year be as great for you as this past one has been for me.

50th Screencast

The video included in my most recent article includes the 50th screencast created for MacGenealogists since I launched the site in July! I’d like to take an opportunity presented by this milestone: thank you for the wonderful support you’ve given me.

MacFamilyTree 5.3 Beta Review

A beautiful, capable, moderately priced Macintosh genealogy application.

Product Overview

MacFamilyTree is one of the most popular genealogy data management programs for Macintosh. With it one can store, update, explore, and report on family history data. The data can consist of names, events, sources, notes, and multimedia files (images, video, sound). Interacting with family data is done via nested data entry panels and slick diagrams. A basic selection of charts and reports are provided and can be customized, viewed on-screen, and printed. The application integrates tightly with iPhoto, the web (via MobileMe or a free page hosted by Synium), Google Earth, and the iPhone (via a separate product, MobileFamilyTree).


MacFamilyTree is compatible with Intel and PowerPC Macs running Mac OS X versions 10.4 (tiger) to 10.5 (leopard). There is a graphics card requirement (ATI Radeon 7500 or GeForce 4 MX Graphics Card or Intel GMA 950 or better) due to its stunning graphics. A new copy will cost you $49.00 USD while an upgrade runs $25.00 USD. There is a competitive upgrade incentive that will net you a 25% discount on the regular price if you can prove you bought a competing product. A limited demo version is available for download.


A comprehensive table of features is provided in the Macintosh Genealogy Software Feature Comparison. This section describes remarkable functionality and behaviors observed or found lacking during my evaluation. Each application reviewed in this series was subjected to the same set of scenarios designed to represent normal usage.

Data Entry

The MacFamilyTree interface is generally easy to navigate. The “Navigation Bar” is helpful in this regard. Bookmarks for people and families make returning to commonly or actively researched subjects quick and easy. There are fields for some data that one must navigate more deeply to reach. For example, setting the country for event locations takes an extra step. If you include the country in events like I do you may also find this annoying.


Dates are not automatically formatted upon entry. To me, this is like intermittent wipers on a car—one can manufacture a car without the feature, but why? It’s everywhere else, so the lack in this product makes it stick out like a sore thumb. Dates can be reformatted, but one has to use the “Database Maintenance Editor” to accomplish it.


Event support overall is solid. Events can have associated icons which simplify locating them in a list. There is a notable, additional event type: miscarriage. Unfortunately, one cannot create custom event types. There is an “other event” type that, when coupled with descriptive text, is an acceptable work around. All event types have the same fields, so the type is just a categorization tool—it doesn’t change what data is collected.


Determining relationships is problematic in MacFamilyTree. This may be because parental relationships such as adopted, step, and foster are applied to a family not individuals. This causes inaccurate representation of relationships in the family charts, views, and reports (see the Reports section for details).

That said, the “Person Chart” graphical view of a section of the family tree clearly illustrates relationships and makes navigation simple; although, it could be improved by providing a visual indicator of connected, but un-displayed people. A new feature in the beta version of the software is the differentiation of graphical depiction of relationships in the person chart; a natural relationship is indicated with a solid line while a non-natural one is represented by a dashed line.


Source data entry and citation is generally good, but could be improved by more granularity. Sources are cited at a high level. For example, birth date and birth place are cited together in a “topic” called “birth.” Source citations can be applied to persons, events, families, and media.

Source record types cannot be customized. The source fields are limited to:

  • title
  • author
  • publication
  • page
  • abbreviation
  • date
  • place
  • authority
  • reference number
  • reference type
  • credibility
  • label
  • notes
  • media

There are a couple of wonderful surprises in the supported source data. Sources can be rated “unreliable,” “questionable,” “second hand information,” or “first hand information.” They can also be labeled “important,” “incomplete,” or “noteworthy.” Sources can contain pictures, audio, and video. These media files can also have their own source records. Very nice!

There is no report listing of all sources in the database.

Management Tools

The database tools are minimal. They provide the ability to change date formats en masse, remove “empty entries,” and search for mismatched partners.

MacFamilyTree includes a media browser. I’m not sure that it’s especially useful, but it is pretty. Audio, images, and video can be added to a person or source, but the media browser is limited to images.

There is no automated way to list people who are not connected to others. It can be accomplished manually by looking for isolated people in the “virtual tree.”

Comparing, Merging, and Splitting Trees

There is no facility for comparing, merging, nor splitting databases in their native format. While one can export a database to GEDCOM format, then import it into another database, it shouldn’t be necessary to go through all those steps.


Joining a GEDCOM file to a database is easy and feels natural. There are two approaches that can be taken. Firstly, the GEDCOM can be joined using the “Append GEDCOM File to current Tree…” feature found on the “Special” menu. This is best used when the GEDCOM data does not include any duplicate people. After this merge, one needs only to connect a person in the original database to their parent(s) in the joined data. Be careful to establish these connections by adding the child to the family, rather than adding the parents to the child. Doing the latter will create a duplicate family in the database. Lastly, one can use a feature, also on the “Special” menu, called “Merge GEDCOM File with current Tree…” to do just that. Use this when the GEDCOM file to be joined has, or may have, entries that duplicate one or more already in the database. The software will identify the duplicates and on a case-by-case basis, allow one to indicate which entry to replace.


The GEDCOM export file I generated as a test contained many tags that are not defined in the GEDCOM 5.5 standard. This data will likely not transfer to other genealogy databases.


MacFamilyTree includes support for common charts (ancestor, descendant, family, fan, and timeline) as well as some unusual ones.

The virtual tree is a three-dimensional view that includes ancestors and descendants of the selected person. See the virtual tree glossary entry for more information and a picture.

There is a chart in MacFamilyTree that I was previously unfamiliar with. It’s called a genogram and it’s used to depict a person’s relationships (family, emotional, and social) and medical history. Genograms typically have specific symbols to represent family and emotional relationships as well as medical conditions. Unfortunately, MacFamilyTree’s nascent implementation includes only basic social relationship symbols and no emotional or medical symbols. It also has anomalies in the information it does display. For example, the genogram incorrectly shows my maternal grandmother as deceased. It also did not include adoptive parents even after checking the box in the view options.

The Virtual globe is informative, but faulty. It plots events on a globe that can be manipulated in three dimensions. Unfortunately, the data it gets from the “Look Up Coordinates” feature is often incorrect. Once I corrected the obvious errors (e.g. Saline, Washtenaw, Michigan being on the other side of the planet in Cyprus and Fine, St. Lawrence, New York being in South America) I found looking at the geographic proximity of events on the virtual globe to be intriguing. The events in a person’s life are shown as interconnected dots.

The statistics chart is a multi-function chart that allows one to view the following data in either a bar or line graph:

  • age of living persons
  • age at death
  • children per family
  • year of birth
  • year of death
  • month of birth
  • month of death


Several reports are supported by the application: list of persons, person, place, event, distinctive persons, and birthdays. Several other basic reports are missing. See the Macintosh Genealogy Software Comparison for details.

The Kinship Report does not correctly show half-sibling relationships. Nor does it show adoptive parents. In my tests it listed a woman as an aunt, who was neither the sister of the person’s father or mother, nor the wife of an uncle. In fact, she is the first wife of the person’s biological father. As expected, these kinship identification errors are also in the kinship section of the person report.


Integration is a competitive advantage for MacFamilyTree. One can launch Google Earth from the “General Information” panel. A separate product, MobileFamilyTree, can synchronize MacFamilyTree databases to an iPhone. When choosing images to add to a record, the application can present lists of images in the iPhoto library and albums. This level of integration is one of the aspects that make using a Mac feel so right. It’s great to be able to experience it in a genealogy application.

Help and Support

I’m giving MacFamilyTree the benefit of the doubt with respect to bugs I encountered during my review process since I’m reviewing a beta version; however, judging by the questions and comments on Synium’s online forum, they’ve got some work to do to make this product as solid as Reunion 9 and iFamily for Leopard.

The “Help” menu contains a link to the online forums where any question you may have has likely been addressed. There is a spartan users guide in portable document format (PDF) that is also accessible from the “Help” menu. Its coverage of installation and registration of the application is thorough. The main features and functions of the application are given only cursory treatment. Finally, there is a tutorial document that covers much of the same information in the users guide. It also includes answers to frequently asked questions. Its use of screenshots with call-outs make the information clear.


MacFamilyTree is a promising genealogy database application. It’s well suited to family historians who highly value the way an application looks. It’s a particularly good fit for those who want their data on their iPhone and those who want hassle-free, no cost web publishing.