Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

How do you choose a genealogy program? -- Part Two

It is a fact of life in the larger genealogical community that there are still a huge number of would-be genealogists who have varying amounts of their research in old, unsupported programs such as Personal Ancestral File (PAF). This seems to be more prevalent among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than those who are not members. It is almost inevitable, that even more than 12 years after the last upgrade made to PAF, that I will talk to someone who still has their entire genealogical data file locked up in PAF. Let me try to explain why this is a problem and also why moving to a newer program is desirable.

Because the Church introduced PAF, many members took that as an endorsement that PAF was the "official" program for members of the Church. At the time PAF was introduced back in 1984, the idea of universally connecting individual computers through the Internet was not even a dream. The personal computer industry was in its infancy and connecting anything electronic to telephone lines was extremely rare. Do you remember the first audio-modems where you put the telephone handset in a receiver to relay signals, usually in electronic format? I do. Now that I have established that I am practically ancient, the point is that what we accept today as commonplace with smartphones, tablet computers, laptops and desktop computers, not only did not exist, but could not be imagined at the time PAF was introduced.

Now, think about this for just a few minutes. PAF did not advance with the network and interconnectivity. Changes or updates to the program were discontinued just about the time the Internet really got functioning in about 2002. In fact, I would guess that it may be just about the only program in the entire world that old that is still being used by a significant number of people.

The question is, why do so many people still use the program? I see two major reasons; it was and is free and it performs the basic genealogical functions. In my experience, there is also a third reason and this is that it was being actively supported and taught by Family History Centers around the world and probably still is.

I used both the PC and Mac versions of PAF for many years. I found it to be well written, rock solid and not subject to crashing or freezing up and very useful. However, compared to the programs available today and from today's perspective, it was clunky, slow, poorly designed for data entry and does not support some of the most common functions of the present-day programs. What is even more important, given the current understanding of the needs of genealogy, it had a very limited sourcing and even in its latest versions, a limited support of media. It basically supported and even promoted, a limited, name centered, method of viewing and storing information about families.

What do we do about data that is still wrapped up in PAF files? There are still quite a few commercially available and brand new programs that will read PAF files directly and salvage all of the information contained in those files. This usually requires that the information be in the last version of PAF or PAF Version 5.2, but the current programs such as RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree and Ancestral Quest, will read the files directly with no need to convert the data to a GEDCOM file. Any one of the three programs, in fact all of the programs listed as FamilySearch Certified for Tree Share and LDS Support will read PAF files directly.

What will the new programs not do with old PAF files? They will not convert source information in notes into any form of current source information. Many old PAF users realized that the source capabilities of the program were sadly lacking and so they put their source information in notes. The good news is that the information is preserved in notes in the newer programs. The bad news is that it is still in the notes and there is no way to get the sources into the source fields in the new programs. All of the sources locked up in notes have to be re-entered into the source fields of any of the programs.

Therefore, if you or someone you know is still a PAF user and is thinking about moving to a newer program, you might want to look at one or more of the FamilySearch Certified Programs for the possibility of reading all of the old PAF file information. One other detail that is important to understand. Family Tree incorporates data from Church membership records and nearly all of the Church Temple records. I have found that people who have old PAF files usually do not realize that most, if not all, of the information they gathered years ago is now readily and freely available online in Family Tree. If you are in that situation or know someone that is, I suggest sitting down and comparing the data online in Family Tree with the old PAF file and you will see, most of the information is likely already online.

What I see is that many people do not want to upgrade to a newer program at all if they think that they will have to re-enter all of their information into the computer. This is almost never the case, but even if it were to be needed, that is really no reason not to upgrade to a newer program. Another objection I get constantly is the fact that it might cost something to pay for upgrades to the newer program. Yes, that is true. Every so often, these new programs are upgraded and sometimes the upgrade have an additional cost. This is a fact of life. There seems to be an attitude among genealogists that everything about genealogy should be free. I could speculate where this attitude arose, but that is the subject for other posts. I do understand the annoyance at having to pay for upgrades, but as long as technology and innovation continue, upgrades will be a fact of life.

If you or someone you know is still using PAF, please help them to see the need to move on. There may be some real challenges especially if their files are locked up on 3.5 floppy disks or are in some really old format but even then the files can be converted by some of the current programs if the files can be physically transferred to some other media than floppy disks.

There are still a number of issues to discuss about choosing a genealogy program and so this series will probably continue for a while.

1 comment:

  1. James,

    PAF was the first genealogy program to implement Unicode. There are still a number of well-known programs that have not. If a person uses the Unicode features of PAF, e.g. to record the spelling of East European names and places in their native languages, then they should make sure they switch to a program that not only handles Unicode, but can also read the Unicode from the GEDCOM that PAF produces.

    Long ago, it was realized that PAF did not have good capability for recording sources. Back in 1992, the Silicon Valley PAF Users Group Documentation Committee produced a 48 page "PAF Documentation Guidelines" booklet that has since morphed into a 116 page Family History Documentation Guidelines" document. See: ). This defined in a Shown-Mills-like way (but was pre-Shown-Mills) how to add sources to PAF notes with standardized tags, semicolons and other punctuation so that the data would be retrievable again from a "smart" program. The SVPUG even at the time produced a software utility for DOS called HotNotes to help enter your sources into PAF in this standardized manner. I believe a lot of people took to using this system as I have found lots of GEDCOMs built by PAF containing the telltale exclamation mark at the beginning of many of their notes.

    Unfortunately, few programs (if any) can read and understand this format. However, anyone who was so meticulous to follow this system should be able to map it into a new program. They likely will have to manually do the work to convert the notes into sources, but the defined structure they would have used should allow them to do this.

    As long as all the "sources" that people put into PAF can get translated into NOTEs in the new system, there is no reason why a person cannot switch programs. As long as the information is there, they can convert the notes to sources when they have time. They don't have to do so right away.