Family History Programs

So one of the things that I’ve started looking into is a decent way of storing and sharing family histories. I’m less interested in the dates and sources, although I do agree that those are important. I don’t think nearly enough emphasis has been placed on learning the histories and stories of our ancestors.

A couple quick examples:

  1. I really don’t need a census to tell me that I have a great-grandfather. I am very certain that at one point he did exist. So what? Why do I care? Why should I care? Well, when I heard the story about how he and his father worked together for a time, something inside me resonated with that. It did so enough that when I got a chance to work with my dad professionally I jumped at the chance. I even left a solid job for one that was rather shaky (the company did go under a couple years later). But I not only love and respect my father; he is one of my best friends, and I wanted to have the same experience my great-grandfather had. Virtually everyone I talked to warned me about the dangers of working with family–you can really ruin your relationship that way, etc. But you know what? It was awesome! I loved it–it was a wonderful experience. I’m sorry it didn’t last longer.
  2. Let’s say that you ask me how my day was, and I respond like this: “I woke up at 4:00 am, ate a very small breakfast. Lunch was at 12:35 pm, dinner at 6:30. I went to bed at 11:00 pm.” What have you learned about me? I’ve given you some facts, but without context it means nothing to anyone. It proves I was alive, but doesn’t show anything beyond that. In fact, that particular answer is misleading; as it implies that I get up extremely early–I did get up extremely early that day, but that was very much the exception. I’m actually known for sleeping in somewhat. You don’t know if that was a good day or a bad day, or whether it was remarkable in any way. The day I just described was June 11, 2011, when I ran the Utah Valley Marathon with two of my sisters. It was extremely hard, due to lack of both sleep and training, but still a very worthwhile (and remarkable) experience. Will my children and their children be affected in some way because they learn that I enjoyed running long distances? Probably more so than just if they know that I existed.

Now, I’ve heard my parents tell a couple remarkable stories about our ancestors, and I want to know more. I want to record those and share them. That’s where this gets a little tricky. The traditional genealogy programs out there focus very much on dates and sources–proving that this person was your ancestor. That is valuable and important. To a Mormon like myself, it’s even important for our salvation. But I believe that is only half of the equation. The Bible talks of the hearts of the children turning to their fathers. For myself I have experienced this as I have learned about them–what kind of people they were and the stories of their lives.

I want a program where the focus is on sharing stories. I want it to be collaborative. I want it to be sharable. I want it to be simple. Family History is done largely by people who are unfamiliar with computers, and even I get confused at all the buttons, options, and choices presented to me on some of the programs I’ve seen. Why is it so complex? Why is it that the only place to put histories is in the notes? And why, oh why is it that I can only upload pictures and sounds? Why not RTF documents, PDFs, videos, etc, or even text documents? Histories do not belong in the notes section. Notes belong in the notes section. Thankfully the genealogy programs seem to be improving somewhat, but the focus is still on proof and dates much more than stories and histories.

Personally, when I see a quick summary view of an ancestor, what I would like to see is:

  • Their picture, if available
  • birth and death (years ONLY)
  • A one or two sentence summary about the person (“Cattle thief. Good with kids”).

The detailed view of the individual would have the picture, full birth and death dates and summary at the top. The main section would be their full biography. Other data (birth place, ordinances, etc). would be in an info box to the side. Sources would be at the bottom. Something along those lines.

I thought a wiki-based approach would be a good way to do what I consider to be a family history program as opposed to a genealogy program. It is collaborative, it is online, so it’s sharable. The trouble is that without some serious work, the average wiki is too complex. We don’t want the users to have to learn wikitext. They need a rich text editor. They need a simple way to attach families, individuals, pictures, movies, etc.–the process would be more like writing a blog than using PAF.

I just recently installed a wiki with the intent to try and grow it into something useful, but a friend pointed me to a few sites that are doing this kind of thing, and I’m looking into those as well as trying to do further research on additional existing functionality. So far the ones that are the most interesting to me are werelate.org and familypedia.org, although there is a lot more research to do.

I’m especially intrigued by the idea of combining family history information (including the dates and places that I’ve been ranting about) with the idea of the semantic web, making that information (and the associated stories and histories) easier to share not just by pointing people to your specific site, but allowing other sites and programs to easily find, interpret, understand, and re-share that same information.

For the short term, I’m going to research the existing products more, and decide whether to continue trying to build my own or to use an existing program (and/or assist in developing it). Part of me wants to build my own, of course, but that would be a very large undertaking, and I don’t have very much time to spare.

Do you have any family history programs you would recommend? How do you share your family stories?

2 thoughts on Family History Programs

  1. I would love something! I have no computer expertise however. I am also very interested in stories. I have started collecting stuff and am trying to figure out how to compile and share. I have started with my family and haven’t yet gotten to the Robertson side. I know your mom has tons of stuff and would love to get my hands on it! I will follow your ideas with interest! Thanks for posting on FB where I found you!

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