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

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The PAF Overburden of Family History

The term "overburden" refers to rock or soil overlying a mineral deposit. It is made up of less valuable or even worthless rock that must be removed in order to get to the minerals that have commercial value. As the title to this post indicates, family history has its overburden. A major part of that material is sitting in old PAF files. PAF or Personal Ancestral File was a fabulously popular, free to very low priced program, that began its long run of usefulness in 1984. The last revised version of the program, Version 5.2, was released on 23 July 2002 as a free program. Because it was low priced or free for its entire production run and because it was a good program and quite useful, it has survived for many years.

I used the program for many years and entered thousands of names into the program. Over the years, I have provided support to hundreds of Personal Ancestral File users. One of my early activities was providing support in transferring files from the Macintosh version of the program into the DOS version. In the past week, I have had two people come to me and ask questions about how to transfer their old Personal Ancestral File files into current programs. Many of these people are unaware that the information that they have in their old PAF file is now likely duplicated online. This is particularly true of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Why do I consider the existing PAF files to be an "overburdened?" There are several reasons for my opinion.

Beginning in about 1894, the Church began its process of accumulating genealogical information from around the world including submissions by members of the Church. Members of the church were consistently urged to submit the names of family members for Temple ordinances. Ultimately, the work of most of those members was accumulated in several large databases. These databases included the Ancestral File, the International Genealogical Index, the Pedigree Resource File and other such databases. As an example, the Family Group Records Collection, Archives Section, 1942 to 1969 contains 5,337,178 images. These records consist of Family Group Records submitted by Church members to the Genealogical Society of Utah. The Ancestral File contains about 40 million records. The Pedigree Resource File contains about 200 million records. All of these records were primarily submitted by members of the Church.

In my personal experience, nearly all of the records contained in the old PAF files I examine have been previously submitted into one of these huge, now readily available, databases. In addition, most of the records set forth above, have been incorporated into the Family Tree. So why are PAF files an overburden? Because the people who have these old files are almost always unaware of the content of their own records on Family Tree. In fact, many of the inquiries I get are from people who have forgotten entirely the nature of the contents of the files they are trying to recover.

In making these kinds of statements, I am perfectly aware that there are notable exceptions. For this reason, I am still involved in the process of trying to recapture of these old files. Here is where the analogy of the "overburden" comes into play. Even if there are some records that are unique and have yet to be preserved in any other fashion, there are usually a series of names that are currently freely available in the Family Tree the overburden is the effort it takes to sift through these old files and find the nuggets of valuable information that are buried in the large number of names already available online.

Many of these family historians who were entering their data into the PAF program were automatically submitting all of their names for Temple ordinances. In this case, all of the information in their files is duplicated online. For example, my early efforts at surveying what had previously been done in my own family involved entering content of thousands of family group records into the PAF program. All of my information was already available in the Archives Section of the Family History Library. In fact, that's exactly where it came from.

The analogy to a mineralogical overburden is somewhat faulty in that the information in these old files contains valuable information but the reason for the designation as "overburden" is that the information is duplicated online but there is no way of knowing what part of the file is "original" and which parts of the file are already duplicated. In fact, most of the people who approach me with the problem of an old PAF file have made no effort whatsoever to determine what is already online.

If you are aware of the existence of any of these old PAF files, please take the time to move the files to an updated program so they can be reviewed. There are still a number of programs that advertise their ability to open and restore old PAF files. While this is still the case, it is imperative that these old files be transferred. Of course, there is the challenge that many of these files reside on obsolete media. In some cases, there is likely no way they can be restored. But presently, floppy disks are still readable by available devices. However, some of the earliest versions of the PAF program were stored on multiple discs and without access to the program itself, may be unreadable.

Time is running out. These old files will likely soon be unreadable. But even if it is possible to restore an old file the difficulty still remains of determining which portions of the file have any value. None of these old files should be automatically copied into current family history data files without a careful examination of the duplicates.


  1. James,

    As long as Incline Software continues to produce Ancestral Quest, people with PAF databases likely don't have to worry. The AQ people were the original producers of PAF and AQ is the evolution of their version of it. It has its own data format, but can be set to still read and write PAF format if one desires, although some of the features of AQ won't be possible with that format.

    Ancestral Quest is also one of the top rated programs at GenSoftReviews. It is likely the program most similar to PAF for any people who need a replacement.


    1. You are correct. But relying on another program doesn't really solve the problem. Additionally, AQ can't solve the problem of outmoded media.

  2. Move into newer technology as soon as possible, or you will definitely be left behind. When you leave this world for a better, your children and grandchildren will not value anything on old technology, nor take the time nor energy to move it to newer. Perhaps. Don't leave it to chance. In fact, if your records are not on FamilySearch Family Tree, you have no guarantee your stuff will be preserved. If you believe, as I do, that the sponsoring institution of FSFT will survive through time and eternity, your stuff is best kept there. Back up for sure, but get it loaded where it will survive, - despite Open Edit format.