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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Are you still using PAF?

Personal Ancestral File or PAF was first released back in 1984. It went through about a dozen upgrades before it was discontinued in 2002. Despite the lack of upgrades, the program refuses to die and I would guess that thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of people still use the program. Finally, FamilySearch made the following announcement:
Beginning July 15, 2013, PAF will be retired and will no longer be available for download or support. For full details and for information on alternative products, please visit
It has now been well over a year since this announcement and I am still talking to people who rely on PAF as their primary genealogical database. I have written about this phenomena several times over the last few years and the persistence of this program continues to surprise, no, better said, astonish me.

Since PAF was first released, we have now entered an entirely new level of family history software, with an emphasis on online programs and connections between these online programs. This is a genealogical world that from which, PAF users are almost completely isolated. The only tenuous links are the ability to copy and paste information and the now-outdated GEDCOM file transfer program. The tragedy of the situation is that those who are deprived of the latest innovations in computerized genealogy, for the most part, are perfectly happy with the situation. We could postulate that they do not know what they are missing. But the issues go way beyond that sort of simplistic evaluation.

PAF is more than a genealogy program. It is the epitomization of a whole culture. Its persistence demonstrates how well the program was originally promoted and supported, but the fact that there are so many people who still use the program illustrates that the promotion of PAF imposed a dampening effect on the entire development of genealogy in that segment of the overall genealogical society by discouraging innovation and acceptance of newer technology. No, PAF is not the cause of the stagnation of its users, but it is a heavy contributor to that stagnation.

Now, you can come back and ask, how does the use of a simple genealogy program affect the entire genealogy community? PAF appeared at a crucial point in the development of genealogical computing. It was heavily promoted simply because many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were unaware of the existence of any other program. I have even heard prominent genealogists state, in the past, that they will stop using PAF when they pry it from their cold, dead hands.

Why am I back on a tirade about PAF? Because I just spent some hours helping someone copy their data from PAF onto the FamilySearch Family Tree. Never mind that there are programs that make that transition easier and error free. Never mind that the programs are free or have free copies. Never mind that the program is now twenty-year-old technology. This person was one of the fortunate ones. He was not losing his file, he was migrating it to a newer technology. At the same time, he was totally opposed to the idea of substituting a program that could copy his entire file and accomplish the same procedure with out the need to copy each entry over into Family Tree.

I am convinced that the solution to the PAF problem lies at the heart of the entire issue of the greater acceptance of genealogy or family history. Why are all these people still using a old computer program? Why aren't they accepting newer technology? If we can answer that question, I think we have the key to answering many other sticky genealogy questions like involving the youth and broadening genealogy's appeal to a wider audience.


  1. One possible answer is that for many, choosing a new software product is quite difficult. It took me a while to decide that RootsMagic was the best for me, and that choice was quite a subjective one. And where the Church could direct members to a specific product earlier, I assume that such direction is not appreciated anymore, because it might give an unfair advantage to one product, where I think about a dozen are certified.

    Another factor is that most certified products are more complicated than PAF, and that's a thing that scares some of my relatives too. Also, synchronizing data with the try may look quite frightening, and be quite complicated when you see duplicates, or want to transfer sources, which in most desktop programs are way more advanced than sources in the tree.

  2. I think a quote from Thomas Kuhn about scientific paradigms applies to our paradigm shift in genealogy:

    "How, then, are scientists brought to make this transposition [from one paradigm to another]? Part of the answer is that they are very often not. … Lifelong resistance, particularly from those whose productive careers have committed them to an older tradition of normal science, is not a violation of scientific standards but an index to the nature of scientific research itself. … Though a generation is sometimes required to effect the change, scientific communities have again and again been converted to new paradigms. … Though some scientists, particularly the older and more experienced ones, may resist indefinitely, most of them can be reached in one way or another. Conversions will occur a few at a time until, after the last holdouts have died, the whole profession will again be practicing under a single, but now a different, paradigm” (Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 150-152).

    1. Good quote. Probably very accurate about the users having to die off.