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Build your own family Redwood

January 2009


All Christmases throw up their own problems.  Last year I found myself having a long conversation with a young relative about our mutual forbears, which didn’t do much more than expose my own ignorance.

It’s not that I’m not interested, it’s just that I’ve always felt that whilst I might have some tiny influence over the future of my family, its past is, to put it mildly, out of my control  and so my energies are better directed forwards rather than backwards.

That’s not a universal view.  For years, the second most popular use of the internet has been to research family trees.  I suppose it’s only fair, because the most popular use of cyberspace relates to the activity that causes families in the first place.

The trouble is that whenever I have looked at what is available online to help us discover who is to blame for our DNA, I have been discouraged by the amateur nature of many and the high cost of most. 

However, I am beginning to think that matters are improving.  At least I think I have found a couple of good ways of recording the information, if you can find it out.

The problem with any family tree is that it quickly gets out of hand.  By the time you go back even three generations, you need such a large piece of paper that the whole thing becomes completely unwieldy and you end up trying to write it on the back of a roll of wallpaper, and whatever you create is impossible to copy or correct.

Enter the computer.  If there is something that they do well (and there aren’t many) then it’s the storing, sorting and displaying of information.  Just right for a family tree, however complex.

Add the internet, and you have a family tree stored out there in cyberspace.  Other members of the family can look at it without troubling you; if you give them permission, they can add to or correct it.

I have discovered two quite good, free, online family tree creators that work that way: (European) and (American).  I’ve had a play with them both, and they are very similar; it’s a matter of personal preference.  Both allow you to store as much information about each person as you want, including photos, and both you can view or print the entries in various different ways.  A pedigree, or all blood relatives, for example. 

They also allow others to contribute, if you invite them to take part.  As you can imagine, if a number of people co-operate sensibly, you can quickly accumulate a Giant Redwood of a family tree. 

The key thing is that it doesn’t matter which one you pick, because they all use the same file system, called GEDCOM (created by the Mormon Church, believe it or not).  This means is that once you have entered a heap of information onto one of these sites, and a better site appears, you can “export” the information from the old site (in a GEDCOM file) into the new site that you now prefer.  This method also allows you to keep a back up copy; if the website goes bust, it’s not a disaster if you have “exported” a copy recently – you can just upload it to another family tree site.

Of course, this always presumes that you are happy to know where you have come from.  A friend whose family is much better documented than mine showed me how she had, in an afternoon, traced her line back to a dreadful 14th Century Castilian called Pedro the Cruel, and felt that was far enough.