Thanks a Lot, Ancestry.com

No, really. 

I guess it’s time for me to rework my entire research process. If you’re a genealogist, you already know about this. If you’re not, you probably don’t care. 

On Tuesday, 8 Dec 2015, Kendall Hulet of Ancestry.com announced via email and the Ancestry blog that they would be retiring their desktop software package known as Family Tree Maker:

“…we’ve taken a hard look at the declining desktop software market and the impact this has on being able to continue to provide product enhancements and support that our users need. With that, we’ve made the tough decision to stop selling Family Tree Maker as of December 31, 2015.”

What?!?!

He then goes on to say,

“Our subscription business and website, on the other hand, continue to grow and we are doubling down our efforts to make that experience even better for our Ancestry community.”

Wrong. 

The next day on 9 Dec 2015, after a deluge of outraged customers hit the Comments box, he made another blog post to “clarify” the issue. Here’s the key portion of that: 

After January 1, 2017, features that require connectivity to Ancestry, such as TreeSync, uploading and downloading trees and media, and Web Search, may no longer be supported. Most Family Tree Maker features are designed to work offline, and should continue to function unless a change on your computer, such as an operating system update, causes the functionality to break.

Oh, you mean those operating system updates that we perform say, about twice a year on average

In other words, Ancestry.com decided to rock the genealogical world 17 days before Christmas, pulling out from under our feet the single most useful feature present in any genealogy software on the market: TreeSync™. 

You see, the software in question, Family Tree Maker (or FTM), isn’t really that great. It’s clunky, doesn’t have good charting or reporting capabilities, is nearly useless for source citation* and refuses to export a gedcom that comes complete with media. 

*BUT

FTM syncs your desktop tree with your online tree at Ancestry.com. In other words, every source record and EVERY ASSOCIATED IMAGE is present on your desktop computer. Without TreeSync™, if you perform a lot of research on Ancestry (and who doesn’t?), the process to attach image copies to records is about ten steps long. 

Some genealogists, the smart ones, already use other (BETTER except for the sync) software programs, and already include this ten-step process in their Method. But those of us who are lazy, or slaves to convenience, or who simply never thought the day would come when ANCESTRY WOULD PULL THE RUG OUT FROM UNDER OUR FEET, simply relied on TreeSync™ to import our data. The lack of a comprehensive export feature never really bothered me unless I wanted to try out new software. And once I realized the export didn’t work, I just grinned and bore it: went back to FTM. It’s just easier that way, despite FTM’s foibles. 

Instead of figuring out a workaround for the media issue, I developed workarounds for the citation issues. For the charting. For the database maintenance. 

And now I realize that I must go back and start all over in order to have my entire tree in another program. 

You see, here’s the problem: Ancestry refuses to release the TreeSync™ function to other software developers. 

So now, the slaves to convenience like me, must force ourselves to adapt, to access our online trees and download every single image, rename it, attach it to the source citations, then to the people, then to their respective events. Some people have tens of thousands of these images in their tree. 

This. Is. Going. To. Take. Forever. 

The good news: 

In the upcoming nightmare of redoing my whole tree, I actually may learn something. I may figure out a better process. I may find that some of my attached records, which I haven’t needed to revisit since I added them, are incorrect. I will be forced to analyze each and every piece of evidence for each and every person. The result will ultimately be a better tree. Better research. Better citations. 

Better genealogy. 

Ancestry.com, most of your customers are horrified. You’re going to lose a LOT of business among the online subscribers. 

But THIS customer? This customer is glad. 

Thank you, Ancestry.com, for forcing me to become a better genealogist. 

How to Get Started

A non-genealogist recently asked me how she should begin researching her grandmother’s ancestry.  I responded to her via email with an overview of the “basics” as I see them, and afterward realized that my response is worthy of reposting here on my site.  You can get the same advice elsewhere, but here it is in MY words.

How to Get Started in Genealogy – The Basics

Collect the Information

The #1 most important first step is to talk to your older relatives.  You need to find the EARLIEST possible information in living memory.   Do they know where Grandma lived throughout her life?  Did she move around, did she work, what did her husband do?  What do your relatives remember about her?  The answers to these questions will provide a combo of vital information to help find her, as well as personal, non-official information that will be invaluable when writing her life story.

Then ask them about Grandma’s parents.  Do they happen to know their names?  Their MIDDLE names?  Maiden names? What did they do?  Did they own land?   When did the family come to America (even an estimate is good) and where were they from?  “Scotland” is good, but “Perthshire, Scotland” is better.  

Collect the Evidence

Then start acquiring evidence of your grandmother’s vital info:  Her birth date, marriage date, death date, names of her children, any paper copies of vital records (i.e. birth cert) that you can get your hands on.  It’s best to get these records for as many people as you can find, but it’s okay to start with just one person’s papers.  Other resources to check are family bibles, scrapbooks, clipped newspaper articles, photos, letters, military discharge papers, social security cards, etc.  I found some very useful information in a copy of my grandparents’ first mortgage agreement.  Pretty much anything that has a date and a name on it can be useful.

Look Online

Sites such as Mocavo, Find My Past, and of course, the ubiquitous Ancestry, offer records and even images of original documents, for a price.  Keep in mind, however, that there are dangers in online research – it’s very easy for a beginner to accept information found online without realizing the pitfalls.  Such as:

  1. Info that does not include source information – if it’s not sourced, it’s NOT evidence – it’s just a hint.  This applies to the “hints” that Ancestry gives, the public family trees found on Ancestry and other family tree websites, the information published by individuals on their personal web pages, etc.  Remember, just because it’s on the internet does NOT mean it is true.
  2. Records that look like they pertain to your ancestor, but do not.  Be sure to check all  the information in the record.  Did she live in California her whole life?  Well then, the Census listing a person with her name in Missouri – does NOT refer to your ancestor.  Do the dates on the records make sense?  If she was born in 1900, then a marriage certificate dated 1910 is highly unlikely to belong to her (not impossible, but unlikely – you’ll want to place an asterisk by this information until you can research it further).

Please Cite Your Sources

Keep notes of everything you learn, make copies of everything you find, and carefully record the source information.  Who gave it to you, who wrote it, where did you find it?  Who is the publisher?  Also be sure to note which evidence applies to each fact.    It is absolutely vital to record as much information about the origin of every piece of evidence you have, from the very beginning.  I cannot stress this enough.  The Board for Certification of Genealogists provides an extremely useful “Skillbuilding” article on this subject. It includes basic guidelines on the source information you should collect for each type of source (book, certificate, census, etc).  Here is an excellent layman’s-terms blog post on the same topic.  

Ask For Help

There are many online resources for new genealogists.  Cyndi’s List, a nifty directory of genealogical websites, has a great collection of links for beginners.  If you’re willing to pay a professional, email me!  Or check the Association for Professional Genealogists‘ directory for a pro who specializes in your region, time period, etc.  There are a number of good forms online where you can record your information to keep everything organized.  Family Tree Magazine provides free downloadable forms for this purpose.  You can also simply Google Genealogy Forms for other resources.

By the way, it isn’t tragic if you can’t access all of the information or documents I suggested above.  I was never able to talk to my relatives, and I have to order most vital records from courthouses.  As an experienced professional, the only things I REALLY need to get started are a name, birthday, birthplace, and something about at least one relative to help differentiate your person from others by her name; preferably a husband or parents, but even a child’s name will do. And if you don’t know anything about any of her relatives, well, I can probably find something for you anyway.  🙂