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Digitising Your Family Tree, Where To Start by Maeve Rogan
Posted by IRISH ROOTS on Tuesday 16 October 2018

Digitising Your Family Tree - Where to Start 

Maeve Rogan is a hobbyist family historian who is a keen user of online resources, apps and social media for genealogy. In this article she shares some options for getting your tree off paper and into the digital world.

Digitising Your Family Tree – Options for Everyone.

I started my genealogy research with names on a very basic chart on an A4 sheet of paper. I carried it everywhere, folded up in four, just in case I picked up another clue to help me climb my family tree. It got very scruffy and had lots of tiny notes and names scribbled all over it, but I loved it as it was so portable and had useful information. Then I lost it. Time for a rethink and I started exploring how else I could gather and save my information. I opted for a free online tree, later transferring the information to a family tree software programme on a PC and now I also use an app on my phone.  Genealogy software, and the devices it is used on, has changed over the years but the aim is still to make it easy for all of us family historians to research, document and share our ancestry.

However, before getting into details about software, there is still room for that simple sheet of paper, with a basic tree, that can be printed out to show to your relatives. Particularly if it is decorative. One for potential framing, not scrunching up in a bag! Computers help with this as many free templates are available online. One I have used successfully is found on the Irish Genealogy Toolkit website: You can type in the names of your family on-screen, before printing, or fill in by hand, after. The chart will print out with a tree image in the background and it is nice to share with family as well as acting as a reference sheet. Templates for more functional charts, fitting in more names, can also be found online.

Where to Start with Digital

Beyond a paper chart (or a roll of wallpaper!) there are three main options available to work on your family history electronically: online trees, desktop software, and mobile apps.

Online Trees

Perhaps it’s easiest to begin by filling in your family tree information online, on a website. It is usually free and there is no software to download or install. Most of the large “Genealogy Giants”, such as Ancestry and FindMyPast, offer this service. Register for a free account, click the tree option if necessary, and then there are usually prompts to help you start filling in some names and working back. Some online trees have different default settings, so it is good to check these as you begin.

Possibly because I have been using it the longest, I find the Ancestry tree the easiest and most intuitive to use, but I do use others too, for various reasons, not least the hints that I get from their databases. However, at the start, I would suggest keeping it simple and working on one website.

The commercial companies usually offer a free trial period to search their records. If you have any brick walls, try concentrating on that part of your family tree first as you may get hints from their database to help you. It would be impossible to make use of all free trial periods at the same time. As tempting as the offers are, they are better used spaced out a bit. There are simply not enough hours in the day!

TIP: the privacy settings are very important. Do you want your tree to be publicly visible or private? Are living people automatically hidden? There will usually be a way to share your tree with your family or long-lost cousins. Decide if you want to give people view-only access or will you give them editing rights too?


Desktop Software

Using desktop software is a different approach. While online trees can be used from anywhere you have access to a computer, e.g., when researching at a library, a desktop family tree programme is installed on your personal computer or laptop. Planning will usually be needed to ensure you have it with you when needed away from home. RootsMagic, however, has a feature where you can download the entire programme, and your tree, to a USB key which you can then plug into another computer elsewhere and carry on working.

Desktop software is usually much more comprehensive, allowing more choice, more fields to fill in, more flexibility and greater control. There are usually better charts to print out to share your work with your family.

There is plenty of choice in this sector: RootsMagic and Legacy offer free versions of their software and you can upgrade to access more features. Family Tree Maker does not have a free version but offers a full package from the outset. These are just some of the many options available and all have their supporters. 

I personally use Family Tree Maker as traditionally it had a “sync” facility and linked with my online tree at Ancestry, meaning I could continue my work away from home and both versions would be kept up to date with the same information. RootsMagic now offers a similar sync facility. 

TIP: you can supplement the official support channels for software packages by going directly to other users within Facebook groups, where people share the many tips and tricks they have picked up over the years. Legacy are known for having many webinars available to view on their website. Also, check out YouTube for helpful videos made by the companies themselves or by others who have built up expertise.


Appy Days - Mobile Devices

For ease of use, my favourite way to access my family tree is by using an app on my tablet or smartphone. These devices are obviously very portable, which means your genealogy can be easily carried around with you. It is very easy to see quick results when building a tree for the first time. Simply download an app, set up or sign in to your account, and start filling in a new tree or link to an existing one. 

It’s easier to input data on a larger tablet but mobile phone apps can be more useful when out and about. I use the free Ancestry app, which is available for both Android and Apple devices, and I find it incredibly useful. It is designed with smaller screens and touchscreen technology in mind and is easy to navigate and input information. It is very easy to zoom in and out to see things in better detail. It also means I always have an up-to-date family tree in my pocket, complete with photos, to share with family. If I unexpectedly come across a new piece of information, I can check the app for details to help with research. If I have a current subscription to Ancestry, then I can make use of the hints feature. Even though the app is free, I can still sync it with my online data at Ancestry and with my desktop data on Family Tree Maker. They are essentially all the same tree.

TIP: if you are researching online, use the screenshot facility on your tablet to save, for example, images from online newspaper archives, and quickly add them to your family tree via the app. 


TIP: you don’t need to start from scratch if you want to try a different software package. You can download a “GEDCOM” file from your online or desktop tree and upload it to a different service. GEDCOM files will happily cope with transferring names and dates, but unfortunately not images. Some software, like RootsMagic, can directly import images from other family tree services.


If you are using DNA to help with your research, then adding your tree to the DNA websites you’re using can be a useful tool to help you identify matches or to help cousins find you. Check the settings as, depending on the website, you may need to remove any living people from the copy of your tree before uploading it. A desktop genealogy programme should be able to do this. On Family Tree DNA you can use your uploaded tree to split your matches into maternal and paternal groups. The Legacy software package has printable charts specifically designed to help with using DNA research.


TIP: if you are stuck with your research and need a change of scene, try uploading your tree to another service, such as MyHeritage, but keep it under their free limit of 250 people - use a desktop package to copy and prune your tree first. During the free trial period you may just discover that a cousin has a family tree saved there – I did, and finally discovered that a missing Great Aunt had a large family in New York that continues to this day. Previously, all that I had known about her was that, according to my grandfather, she was a terrible letter writer!

Remember to save and back up your work. My digital family tree started out as a twig on a basic website and has survived many moves and computer crashes since then. The piece of paper I started out with has never resurfaced.  

Whether as a treasured document, an active research tool, a basis to collaborate with your relatives around the world or your guide into the science and surprises of genetic genealogy, a family tree is essential for every family historian. A digital one is even better. Start yours today!

This article first appeared in issue no 105 of Irish Roots magazine - see


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