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Sharing Genealogy Files
by Gary B. Hoffman
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How to Safely Share Your Family History
Make your computer collaboration hassle-free! Find out how to share information with researchers who don't use your genealogy software.

Shortly after you enter about ten names in your genealogy program, you will begin to have the urge to share your database with others and perhaps hope someone else has already typed all these names and will share them with you.

If there were only one type of computer in the world and one genealogy program, sharing files would be easy. You could just copy your file to a floppy disk or attach it to an e-mail message and send it off. Whoever gets the file could just open it and see what good work you've been doing.

But life is not simple and neither is sharing files among genealogists. To begin with, there are many kinds of computers, including Apple Macintosh, IBM PC-types running DOS, Windows of various generations, and OS/2 Warp. Then there are many kinds of Unix computers and even mainframes used for genealogy.

Not only that, but there are many genealogy programs, such as the popular Family Tree Maker, whose makers sponsor this Web site, Personal Ancestral File, Reunion, Ancestral Quest, The Master Genealogist, and many others. There is even a freeware program for Unix called LifeLines.

Each of these computer programs saves its data in a different format than another, much as WordPerfect documents are in a different format than files created by Microsoft Word. Some programs can directly read the files created by other programs. For example, Ancestral Quest reads files created by Personal Ancestral File version 2.3.1 and actually saves its own data in PAF format. Family Tree Maker can read PAF files and converts the data into its own format.

As programs mature and more features are added with each new version, file formats often change from one version to another. The developers of Personal Ancestral File have created a new file format that cannot be read by earlier versions of the program (likewise in Family Tree Maker).

What's a Family Historian to Do?

The key to sharing files with someone using a different computer, different program, or a different version of the same program, is to consider the destination of your data. Inquire of the recipient what computer they have, what program they are using for genealogy, and what version of that program they have. If they have a later version of your program, your chances are good that they'll be able to read the file you send them. However, if their version is earlier (a lower number), then you'll have to take special care to prepare the file you send them. Don't just copy your files because they'll probably not be able to read it.

Many programs have the ability to save files in earlier versions or even in versions compatible with other programs. In most programs, these formats are choices you make when you select "Save As..." from the File menu. Sometimes, you need to choose "Export..." to get the various file format choices. Check your program to see what formats you can save in.

Pay Close Attention When You Export Files

A disadvantage of saving files in earlier formats is that you may lose some data in the translation. Later file formats invariably have extra space for storing tidbits about your genealogy that earlier versions of the program did not consider. If you have entered data into those new fields, then save "down" to an earlier version, the new data will probably not be contained in the transmission file. Of course, the data will remain in your original main database file.

Most current genealogy programs can export data to an intermediate file format called GEDCOM, which is a very good interchange format for genealogy. How well your program translates to GEDCOM and how well the recipient's program translates from GEDCOM will govern how successful the transfer will be. Common problems include data that is too long for certain data fields, such as personal names or place names. Also, data from certain special fields may not find a regular place in the GEDCOM format or in the receiving program's data structure.

Well behaved programs will alert you if you are losing data and will put the lost data someplace where you can retrieve it. For example, it may put data it does not recognize into the Notes field or into a special exception report. You must look there to find what you may be missing.

Also Use Caution When You Receive Files

If you are on the receiving end of a data transfer, you should never just import someone else's data into your precious genealogical database without checking it first. It is better to create a new, empty file and import the data into it as a precaution. Even if your program has a good merging feature, you may not want to combine your "good" information about your relatives with "bad" data about the same people. And once you import a large number of records into your database and discover that the data is bad, it is very difficult to get all those bad names out again.

What About Conversion from Macs to PCs?

Here is a hint about sending files from Macs to PCs: all Mac computers can read and write floppy disks formatted for PCs. Don't send a PC person a Mac disk. Rather, format the disk for MS-DOS, or buy it pre-formatted for PCs, then copy your data onto it. Also, Mac users of PAF should check out the FRConvert program that allows you to convert the single Mac PAF file into the six PC PAF files. Do that conversion on a Mac and your PC friends will appreciate it.

Another hint for all the Mac users and Windows 95/98 folks: your long file names look great until you copy the files to a floppy disk. Then they get truncated to the familiar DOS 8 characters plus an extension. It may be better to name the files you want to send in the eight-dot-three format from the beginning, then there will be no problem when they arrive.

Educate Yourself to Get the Best Results

The advice in this article has come from many years of helping people send files from one program to another, one type of computer to another, and one type of diskette to another. This situation does not seem to get better as time goes on, but more complex. The more you know about file formats and how they are used, the easier it will be to share files with your relatives.

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• Have questions about researching your family history? Browse through our expert tips archives for answers.
How-To Article: Finding Other Researchers Who are Interested in Your Family Line
Expert Tips: Sharing Research from Program to Program
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