12 October 2021

What You're Losing With Your Private Family Tree

My family tree software almost gave me a heart attack. I routinely make a backup of my Family Tree Maker file after working on it for a while. It's not uncommon for me to make 3 or 4 backups in a long day of research. Then I close and compact my file before I synchronize any changes with Ancestry.com.

Still, there's a feeling of dread when my file takes to long to respond. Last week the FTM program stopped dead. I'd opened my family tree file to make one change and output an updated family tree chart. I began clicking my way up the generations, trying to get to the eldest Ohama in my husband's family tree.

But I couldn't click anything! Nothing was responding. I decided to leave it alone and do something else for a while. But the program was still stuck. After an hour, I held my breath and killed it.

When I relaunched Family Tree Maker, I saw the expected error message. I clicked Continue. I was confident I'd made only one edit that day, so I restored my tree from the full backup I made the day before.

Everything was fine! I repeated the change I made earlier and output that family tree chart I wanted.

Why do I stick with Family Tree Maker when it can cause me so much worry? Because I can share my up-to-date, uneditable family tree with every member of Ancestry.com. I want people to find my research, but I don't want them to change it. The shared trees of Family Search, Geni, and elsewhere are horrifying to a control freak like me. Plus, Ancestry has the best interface for viewing a family tree.

Share your family tree on a big stage for your own benefit.
Share your family tree on a big stage for your own benefit.

I've been building two other family trees lately that I'm not sharing online. One is for my son's girlfriend and one is for my college roommate. These trees don't belong online because I wasn't asked to share this information.

But my enormous family tree is another story. When the Italian government started posting vital records online in 2017, my genealogy goal changed.

I'm not satisfied with documenting my direct ancestors and cousins. I want to connect everyone from my ancestral hometowns. I don't care if someone is the mother-in-law of the 2nd husband of my 1st cousin 5 times removed. She's from one of my towns and has a connection to me. She belongs in my tree.

Strangers often thank me for the people, facts, and documents I've put together for their family. Sometimes they turn out to be a DNA match to my parents or me.

When all goes well, I can build onto my new contact's branch of the family. I can follow their ancestors to America, picking up what might otherwise have been a dead end. Sharing your family tree is the surest way to open up those dead ends.

The latest person to write and thank me for his ancestors turns out to be my 5th cousin once removed. Just knowing who my mom's 5th cousin is blows my mind. Thank you, internet.

This week I'm gathering vital records for his ancestors, adding them to my family tree, and sharing them with him on Ancestry. To me, this is the ideal collaboration. Don't touch my work. But let's work together. We can benefit one another.

You can talk to me all day long about your preferred family tree software. But nothing compares to the combination of Family Tree Maker on my desktop and Ancestry.com.

05 October 2021

Free and Easy-to-Use 4-Generation Family Tree Chart

I found a very nice family tree template in a surprising place. It seems perfect for those times when you're building a tree for a friend. Or showing a cousin why family trees are so amazing.

To find this free template, launch Microsoft Excel and click the link for More templates. Search for Family tree generator. (Or download it now.) When you open the template you'll see two tabs: Family Members and Family Tree. When you enter names on the Family Members tab, you're generating a chart on the Family Tree tab. It's pretty cool.

When you're explaining family relationships to someone, this simple visualization is a big help.
When you're explaining family relationships to someone, this simple visualization is a big help.

As an example, I entered a pair of my 4th great grandparents in the Grand Parents fields of the spreadsheet. Here are the steps to follow:

  • Click the spreadsheet's Reset Family button to empty all the sample names from the fields.
  • Enter the names of the ancestor couple you've chosen. For me, that's Francesco Iamarino and Cristina Iapozzuto. While the original template uses only first names, I want to use first and last names.
    • If you use both names, you'll need to turn on Wrap Text for the rows of names, and adjust the row height.
    • To do this, use your mouse to select rows 10 through 50 or so. Select Wrap Text (Home / Alignment section). Then select AutoFit Row Height (Home / Format in the Cells section).
  • Each time you add a descendant, you can pull down a menu to choose their parents from a list. (Look for the arrow beside the Parents field.)
  • Fill in names for each generation.
  • Once you finish the "Third Generation Children," click the Create Family Tree button at the top.
  • The names may appear cut off. If so, you need to turn on Wrap Text and change the Row Height. But you can't yet, because the row numbers and column letters are not visible.
    • Turn on the row and column headings by clicking the View menu and checking Headings in the Show section.
    • Set the Wrap Text as explained above, but this time, start at line 5.
    • Set the row height by clicking Format on the Home tab and choosing Row Height. I found that a row height of 50 worked well for the names I'd entered. You can experiment with different values until you're happy with the result.
Enter names for each generation, select their parents, then fine-tune your easy family tree chart.
Enter names for each generation, select their parents, then fine-tune your easy family tree chart.

When you save your Excel file, you'll see a message about your file containing macros. These macros are the functionality that generates the family tree chart. To keep the functionality:

  • Choose Save As.
  • Select the 2nd option in the list, Excel Macro-Enabled Workbook.

Now you can print the family tree chart as a PDF file to share. I chose the 11" x 17" tabloid setting and selected Fit Sheet on One Page. This way, I can print the tree onto two letter-sized pages and tape them together. Or I can find someone with a bigger printer tray.

Don't have Excel? Download the Family tree generator template and open it with your spreadsheet software. Let me know if that works or not.

The result is simple-looking (no photos or birth or death years). But what an easy way to help a friend or relative visualize their part of the family tree. Think how nice it would be to create a bunch of these charts for the holidays.

28 September 2021

It's Time to Organize All Your Family Photos

I thought my family photos were well organized. My digital photos have file names that include the names of the people in the picture.

Then my uncle died, and I wanted to share a couple of photos of him as a teenager. One photo shows my Uncle Silvio as a teenager, laughing. The other shows Uncle Silvio and his future wife, my Aunt Lillian. In that photo, they seem to be part of a cheerleader squad for their school's football team.

It was awful to discover that I couldn't find either of these precious photos when I needed them!

First I looked in my "Family Tree\photos" folder for any file name that included my uncle's last name. Then I checked any family folders in my separate "Saved Pictures" folder. No luck!

I turned to my favorite search program ("Everything" for Windows) to scour my computer for Silvio's last name.

With this tool, I found the photo of Silvio laughing in a folder called "FamilyTree\etcetera\scans". That's a great way to lose your stuff. Put it in a folder called etcetera! The folder contains pages I scanned from my Aunt Lillian's photo album more than 10 years ago. She had the teenage photo of Silvio. But I still can't find the cheerleader photo. Is it possible I never scanned that one?

This wasn't the first time I had trouble finding a particular photo. It's time to come up with a better system.

My family photos took a big step forward when I placed them all in a safe. But there's much more organizing to do.
My family photos took a big step forward when I placed them all in a safe. But there's much more organizing to do.

Take Stock of Your Collection

In my "Family Tree\photos" folder, image files are generally named for their subject (last name first):

  • IamarinoPasquale.jpg
  • IamarinoPasquale2.jpg
  • IamarinoPasqualeWithGreatGrandchildren.jpg

I'd like to reserve my "Saved Pictures" folder for vacation photos. Each vacation has its own folder (like "California Feb 2016"), plus sub-folders for individual destinations during that vacation ("Santa Barbara", "Hollywood", etc.). But it also has my family's digitized slide collection stretching back to the 1950s.

My mother has given me tons of old family photos that I keep in a fireproof safe. I can't guarantee that I've scanned every single one of them. And I know I have a thick 1980s–1990s photo album somewhere in my house, but I can't find it.

Determine Your Goals

To organize any digital photo collection, start by asking yourself what you need from it. I would like to have only one or two places to look for any given photo.

Rename your digital photo files with descriptive names. This will help you organize and locate them later on.
Rename your digital photo files with descriptive names. This will help you organize and locate them later on.

When I want to pull up a photo from Lyon, France, for example, I go to "Saved Pictures", open "France-Italy Sept 2015" and find the Lyon folder. I'll continue to keep all the destination photos in one place. But I'm going to review them and give them more descriptive file names. This will make specific photos easier to find.

Rather than sifting through 132 images of Paris, I can give them descriptive names, like:

  • Versailles-exterior-front.jpg
  • Versailles-Hall-of-Mirrors.jpg
  • Notre-Dame-Rose-Window.jpg

These descriptive names will make similar photos group together in the folder. Plus, I can use "Everything" to search for that famous rose-window.

Goal #1: Make all destination photo names more descriptive than IMG_1569.JPG.

In my case, it's the family photos that need more urgent attention. There's the folder I found called "scans" hiding on my computer. Its images don't follow my usual LastnameFirstname.jpg format. I'll begin by renaming them.

Like most genealogy fans, I'm going to wind up with TONS of family photos in one folder. They'll need some separation. Which organization method would you choose?

  • Put a date in the file name (whether it's general [1940s] or specific [1949])
  • Use sub-folders for each decade (1940s, 1950s, 1960s)
  • Use sub-folders for place (Ohio, Bronx, California)
  • Use sub-folders for family groups. I would need to include the name of the head of the family for this to work (IamarinoPasquale, IamarinoPietro, IamarinoFrank).
When you gather up and rename your family photo files, look for one or more of these ways to further organize them.
When you gather up and rename your family photo files, look for one or more of these ways to further organize them.

As you examine your collection, one or more of these filing methods may make the most sense to you. I know, for example, I have tons of photos from the Bronx. I could divide them by decade or exact location (mom's apartment house, dad's apartment house). But I know my California family photos are only from the couple of years my family lived there. They can all stay in one folder with descriptive file names.

Whichever method you choose, the purpose is to help you more easily find a particular photo.

Goal #2 has two parts:

  • Bring all digitized family photos into one location, improving their file names as you go.
  • Assess the entire collection for how best to divide them up.

Once your digitized photo collection is in good shape, it's time to take stock of your paper photos.

If you had to find a particular old photo of yourself and two of your best friends, could you find it? This happened to me last month. I needed a specific photo so my friends and I could recreate our funny pose 23 years later.

The photographs I've taken over the years are in a few cardboard boxes. They have dividers to separate them by time or place. I didn't see any photos from around 1998 in the boxes. I checked my "College" section, but the photo I wanted wasn't there. In the end, I found a forgotten 1990s photo album sitting in my safe. And there it was, along with a ton of photos of my sons as little kids. I need to digitize all these photos!

I also have two boxes of old photos from my mother, along with a stack of larger format photos. Are they all digitized? How should I organize them?

Goal #3: Go through your paper photo collection. Make sure you digitize and sort everything.

When you digitize your photos, remember to scan at the highest resolution available. This will allow you to zoom in and see details more clearly. If you have photo editing software, you can work to undo creases and spots on your photos.

This is a big project, for sure. In my case, it's long overdue. And I still need to find that cheerleader photo with my aunt and uncle!

As with any big family tree project, it's best to divide and conquer. Here's how I'll start:

  • Enhance the file names already in my "Family Tree\photos" folder. Those 700+ file names will group similar subjects together alphabetically.
  • Search for other photo folders on the computer. Then rename and bring everything into the main folder.
  • Check the digitized collection for natural breaks. Will organizing by time, place, or family group work best?
  • Check paper photos to see that you've got them all digitized.
  • Organize the paper collection to make future searches easier.

My family often turns to me to produce a certain photo. I want to make dead sure I am the family historian who can meet that need.