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

Friday, July 25, 2014

Moving your family tree from one program to another

One of the most common issues for computer-based genealogists is moving information from one program to another. You would hope and perhaps expect that this would be a trivial issue. But, as with many things in life, the reality is complex and somewhat arcane. Since I had to explain transferring files in a class just this week, I thought I should get busy with a post.

Let's start with a basic hypothetical situation. You have a paper copy of a family group record (or sheet, as I commonly call them) of an ancestral family. You want to share that information with someone across the country or world. Well, you could do three or four things:

  1. You could send the relative the sheet by regular mail.
  2. You could photocopy the sheet and mail the relative the copy.
  3. You could scan the sheet and send the scanned image the relative.
  4. You could call the relative on the telephone and read the information to them as they copied it down.
  5. You could type the information into an email or hand copy the information into a letter.
  6. etc.
All of these work for a relatively small amount of information. But what if you have hundreds (or thousands) of ancestors in your file? Where does the practicality of making individual copies stop being a good way to transmit all of the information? I suppose that depends on your tolerance for pain. 

Let's move to a slightly different hypothetical situation. Suppose you have a computer and you have entered your ancestors into Personal Ancestral File (PAF) for the last twenty years and now want to share that information with a relative before you die. Remember, this is a hypothetical situation and I control the facts. You could do anyone of the following:
  1. You could copy the file to you floppy disk and send the disk to the relative by mail.
  2. You could copy the file to a flash drive (assuming your old computer has a USB port) and send the file to your relative. You would have to assume your relative had both a USB port and/or a floppy disk drive and a computer with the Personal Ancestral File (PAF) or whatever to read what you sent.
  3. You could print off the entire thousands of pages of the file and send the pile of paper to your relative in a FEDEX or UPS box.
  4. etc.
Do you think there might be an easier way to exchange data between genealogists? The answer to this question is both yes and no. One of the major concerns with this whole process is the concern that all of the information is transferred and further, that the information transferred is in a format that your relative can use effectively. I might also mention, at this point, that some of the same considerations apply to preserving your file information, but that is another post.

Back to the hypothetical, what if the amount of information you have in your twenty-year-old file is huge? What if it will no longer fit on a floppy disk? Are you out of luck? Maybe. It depends on how persistent and innovative you are and how much time and money you want to spend. File size is a consideration when you consider any of the options I have already mentioned. Some time ago, I estimated the number of pages of paper it would take to print one copy of my family file and it came out about 80,000 pages. I effect, I have exceeded the practical limit for publishing a copy of my data on paper. So, let's take the file sitting on the computer in PAF and see what we can do.

Some years ago, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints developed a program called GEDCOM. Assuming you know how to export a file from your current genealogy program and assuming further that you have such a program, you can export a copy of your file in GEDCOM format and then send this considerably smaller file to your relative who can then import that same GEDCOM file into his or her program and see your data entirely. There are some limitations with this procedure however:
  1. GEDCOM does not include any media items or attached sources, such as photos, documents etc.
  2. GEDCOM may not transmit all of the data of a file that is not in PAF but in another program. GEDCOM has a frustrating way of chopping off stuff from your file if you use it export from a program other than an old PAF program.
OK, so now you are really frustrated. You could send you file electronically or physically on an external storage device to your relative and make sure that the relative had the same program you are using. For example, you could copy your RootsMagic (or whatever program you are using) file to a flash drive with all your photos, documents etc. and send the flash drive (or hard drive) to your relative. That way you and your relative would have the same exact program and data. 

What are the practical realities? Here is a list of some limitations:
  • As mentioned, GEDCOM is an imperfect method of transferring files. It is common that not all the information is transferred.
  • Physically sharing a file where both the sender and the recipient have the same program works very well if all the attached media files are included.
  • You might notice that I have omitted the possibility of sharing the information online with an online family tree. This is a very good option, but may have almost all of the same limitations of transferring files using GEDCOM. 
  • There are many other ways of sharing data and files, but this is enough for now. 

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