Four sorts of software for one-namers


One-namers are often asked what sort of computer software they use, and the answers usually come down to four types (see diagram).

When the question was put to the Guild's online Forum this year, many one-namers said they were soldiering on with programs designed for regular family histories. But some were unhappy that their data was locked up now in programs they were no longer satisfied with.

Others said that genealogical software was not the right choice for a one-name study in progress, which differs from a family history in two ways: the mass of data can be 10 or 100 times larger and the quality of guesses about who all those Johns and Anns are is much poorer.

If you are reluctant to laboriously enter and manipulate all your data in a traditional genealogical package, a general-purpose office database program may well be an alternative (see the bottom half of the diagram).

In recent years, one of these office programs, MS Access has spawned two special programs, Custodian and Clooz, that provide ready-made templates for all the main classes of source (top right in the diagram). Both Custodian and Clooz save their files in Access format. For a summary of the points made in the following, click here.

Family-Tree Programs

Simon Martin <SMartin258[the at symbol]> is one of those who swears by a standard family program, The Master Genealogist (TMG). "I think it is fabulous and use it for all my linked trees," he told the Forum. "Okay, it may be a sharp learning curve, but I think it is the best."

Patrick Dunbar <Dunbarclanuk[the at symbol]> found TMG's online help excellent, and the user forum "revealed many different and novel ways of utilising the database. I thought it quite refreshing to be able to email TMG's boss Bob Velke and get a reply from him."

Starting up was not so easy: "Did this cause me headaches! So much so that I obtained demo copies of similar software, but becoming more confused and frustrated decided to plod on with TMG.

"I am now quite comfortable in using TMG and see no reason to change to any other software. I particularly like (1) being able to allocate surety values of zero to 3 to data (zero for a guess, 3 for best), (2) the wide range of standard report formats that can be modified for individual needs, (3) the virtually unlimited file size, (4) being able to use multiple dates for single events and allocate surety values to these dates, (5) the ability to import from a wide range of sources, and (6) to link text files to entries and store these internally or externally."

Not so Peter Simpson <simpson[the at symbol]> who was a longtime user of TMG.

"In our part of the world TMG appears to have lost it," he said. "At the last three genealogical group meetings where I helped promote the software, I regret that Legacy was outselling us 20 to nil."

Among disadvantages: its "clunky non-Windows interface and lousy picklist". TMG also "fails miserably when recording a census."

Mike Kingston <digweed[the at symbol]> was among those using Legacy "for its editing capabilities", noting that he was "pleased to find that it has a good Windows 'feel'."

Flatfile Programs

Not-quite-Windows family-tree programs frustrate many one-namers, who are keen to see graphical-user-interface software that fully exploits capabilities provided by the computer mouse: it lets you drag and drop small or large pieces of information anywhere in a database with the same ease that you sort index cards or jigsaw-puzzle pieces on a tabletop.

A "flatfile" database - one arranged in columns, one line per entry - makes ideal use of the mouse and is simple to understand: it can be sorted in date, alphabetical or any other order at will.

The author of this article, Jean-Baptiste Piggin <piggin[the at symbol]> keeps his main database as a 5,000-line MS Works flatfile because of limited time. He was able to assemble a complete database in just a few weeks instead of taking months, and believes the file will be easy to convert later into a relational database or even the do-everything one-name program, if such a thing is ever invented.

Another use for flatfiles was discovered by Polly Lawrence <rowberry[the at symbol]> who uses MS Excel to hand-draw family trees: "All those events that I have allocated to a tree have a cell following them with a hotlink to the appropriate tree."

She has published such trees on the Internet: they have to be scrolled because they are many times wider than the screen. "Drop-line trees drawn on Excel 97 are comprehensible to most people, as they are a "picture" of the family and can be shared with anyone."

Relational Databases

The principal limitation of flatfiles is that they become unwieldy when they extend to dozens of columns. The answer is to keep the various lists separate and link the data using a relational database program.

Such software "lets one construct any number of flat files for the collection of source data in formats suitable to the data. These are usually, but not necessarily, event files," explained Bill Bunning <bunning[the at symbol]> who believes relational databases are the perfect tool for the one-namer.

Such programs can "find relationships among the records" and discover multiple records about the same person. He uses a little-known program, Smartware, that can highlight likely matches in a bright colour. "It lets me add to the definition of any field one or more formulas that compare the contents with other fields and change the field colour depending on how the formula is satisfied.

"I can scroll through a file of 1851 census records and see how the various data items for each person compare with the entries of other census years by how the fields change colour."

A file for the person found can then be equipped with "pointers to the source data in other files. These pointers allow references in any and all files to be called and viewed together."

One-namers' main apprehension about relational databases comes from their complexity.

"I have Access 97 but I have never learned to use it. I know that the learning curve is complicated and time consuming," said Ralph Games <gamesri[the at symbol]>

Patrick Dunbar uses Access as his number-two system for lists such as BMD extracts "but I wasted much time updating fields, deciding, writing and modifying report definition files." He said: My data-gathering time was being limited by continual software-tweaking."

Ready-made Templates

Custodian, which is available from the Guild at a discount, comes with its definitions ready-made.

Custodian was first mentioned on the Forum in mid-1998 and caused a sensation in the Guild. Alec Tritton <alec.tritton[the at symbol]> has described it as "the first successful commercial attempt to write a program specifically for one-namers".

Users say it can take over an existing study without a great deal of work needed for the conversion: it imports Access, Dbase, FoxPro, Paradox, Btrieve, Excel, and text (CSV) files and it will also accept some information from gedcoms, the standardized files that are created by family-tree programs.

Its principal fault - a word that Custodian's defenders say is unfair for a promising two-year-old - is that it cannot read the lineage information contained in a gedcom. Nor can it write a gedcom containing lineage information that would instruct a family-tree program how to show the descent.

Sonja Smith <PandSSmith[the at symbol]>, the wife of its author and a member of the Guild, said there was a long-term plan to make import/export of gedcom data possible but stressed that the Smiths are not committing themselves to a time-scale on these plans.

Peter Simpson is one who has now partly embraced Custodian, which "appeared to fit a gaping hole in citation of sources that TMG could only do in the most complex and frustrating fashion," but adds: "I find Access the most convenient method of trawling lists."

The broad consensus in the Forum discussion remained that a one-name study needed different pieces of software for different tasks.

Peter Simpson said: "I'm left with the sad conclusion that for my purposes, no one piece of software can do it all. Hence my preoccupation with gedcom and 'standardized' data entry that hopefully will allow some future portability.

"The template concept of Custodian goes some way, if only it could be linked to a family-tree-type program."

Mike Kingston agreed on this point: "All the discussions over the years about 'which program?' have been largely inconclusive as far as I know. There is not (yet) one ideal program."

Alongside portability and reliable backup, he said one of three guiding principles in choosing software was to use "more than one program - two is sufficient - so as not to be locked into the idiosyncrasies of any particular program."

Mix and Match

Most one-namers appear in fact to practice a form of double bookkeeping, maintaining two or more sets of their data to take advantage of the different programs' strengths. They are simply happy if they can find two programs that complement one another well.

Examples include Custodian supplemented by a standard family-tree program, or flatfile databases supplemented by drawn charts.

David Smart <[the at symbol]> described to the Forum how he uses no fewer than six: "I use the MS Works database for marriages because you can ask it to match any string rather than search indidivual fields.

"My main database has been Filemaker Pro. It has got a particularly useful move-up feature: each page of my PCC will database stretches over two pages, but where there's only a bit of text it all shoves up into a few lines. I really like are being able to set up clickable drop-down menus for fields (e.g. parish names).

"For trees I use the Draw module in Claris Works. I use Excel to give me grids with drag-and-drop, and Word for word processing - its table facilities are excellent.

"Eighteen months ago I got Reunion (a family-tree program), and I'm very pleased with it. I like the level of customizing and the control over reports and trees it gives you and import/export facilities. One thing it doesn't have - and sounds good - is a surety indicator. You can reassign people very easily between families."

Reunion also won plaudits from Robert Young <KempAssn[the at symbol]>, a "faithful user of Macintosh computers".

"The premier program for Macintosh is Reunion 6, which has a marvelous Windows companion in Generations 6," he said. "We have found that, with only minor tweaking, full files may be freely shared across platforms without the need to zip or convert to gedcom."

Making the teapot

One-namers with computers evidently lose a lot of time fiddling with data and trying to get the maximum benefit from their chosen software. Setting up a database design and writing formulas will waste many days of your time if you go the Excel or the relational database way: it's like having to make the teapot first before you make the tea.

Others have evidently chosen time-consuming ways of inputting the one-namer's four standard sources (BMD, census, IGI and directories). That is the tribute extracted by TMG, Legacy and so on and it can be tricky with Custodian too, unless Excel or Access files are used as the source.

Worse still is that some of the potential yield of the one-name study is probably lost too.

Associating thousands of items of information loosely in possible families and frequently breaking those associations again when the guesses prove wrong is not a strength of family-tree software, but it is excellent at displaying the completed research, whereas sharing our guesses with other people in an easily comprehensible display overtaxes Custodian, Excel and the relational databases.

When something is too hard, we may not do it at all. It may be that a choice of software colours the whole style of a one-name study. Some people come to relish publishing high-quality trees but remain overwhelmed by their stray data. Others enjoy hunting and gathering in their splendid lists of source data but cannot print or present it well.

A better future

If no single program fulfils the needs of one-namers, is there at least a way of creating a unified main file that can be tended using the different tools currently available? Possibly, but the solution does demand software sophistication.

John Bending <John[the at symbol]> has a relational database of his study, managed by Paradox, and has managed to create a gedcom file directly from it. This can be viewed on his website and naturally it can be downloaded and viewed in almost any family-tree program, giving the best of both worlds.

This database almost meets the definition of portability, though not quite, because the gedcom "translation” cannot complete the round trip. The database can only be altered in Paradox, not in its gedcom dress. "I do not think I could translate a gedcom file to Paradox," he said.

The path that he has begun seems to offer the most promise if one-namers are to beat the bugbear of double bookkeeping. Beyond that, there is at least the hope that one day there will be single program that will import long lists of uncorrelated data, help us to explore it and display the sorted areas of the data as family trees.

Perhaps the Guild should offer a prize to the first software developer to devise a solution.

Websites for lesser-known software






FileMaker Pro:


The Author:
Jean-Baptiste Piggin, Member No. 1839
Kiwittsmoor 64,
22417 Hamburg, Germany
E-mail: piggin[the at symbol]

This article originally appeared in the Journal of One-Name Studies, July 2000

© Jean-Baptiste Piggin 2000-2009
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