Sunday, March 11, 2018

Hedging My Bets

I’ve been delving away at my current genealogical interest for the past few months now, and it’s been interesting.

Let’s just say I have a brand new appreciation of my grandmother and leave it at that.  And when you consider that this was the woman who taught me how to swear, that’s saying something.

The thing you learn when embarking on any large project involving historical research is that a surprising percentage of your job is simply organizational.  You end up with a massive pile of information that needs to be categorized, sifted, and generally kept track of in some meaningful way, and trying to ride herd on all those new facts can be tricky.  When I wrote my dissertation, for example, the most useful thing I did was take my final outline (a document that was nearly 50 pages long all by itself) and then go through all of my research and put references into the outline where it all fit in.  The final product was nearly as long as the actual dissertation, but it meant that every step of the way I could just focus on the paragraph in front of me and know what research needed to go where.

So much of life is just logistics.

There are any number of genealogical programs on the market today, all of which have their partisans who think it is the greatest product ever put on the market for any purpose and who hate all of the other programs with the blazing heat of a thousand white hot suns.  This makes it kind of hard to sift through the reviews for any useful information, to be honest.  Mostly it’s just people shouting aimlessly and passionately at each other for no discernible reason and I get enough of that whenever I can calm my stomach enough to pay attention to politics these days.

You need one of those programs, though, because after a while keeping track of all the information without one is a nuisance.  But which one?

I ended up picking one on the grounds that a) it works with my computer, b) it was on sale, c) I could download it directly and not have to wait, and d) even the people who hated it with the blazing heat of a thousand white hot suns seemed to hate it for its inability to do things that, frankly, I had no intention of asking it to do anytime soon. 

It seems to work, as far as I can tell.  It downloaded nicely, installed without a hitch, and displays a friendly blue icon on my desktop.  It’s kind of calming that way.  I did have to search out the instruction manual on my own – another pdf file that is about 350pp long and tragically boring to read even in its original language, I suspect, but useful nonetheless.  I didn’t survive graduate school without the ability to slog my way through some aggressively dull prose, after all.

I’ve managed to enter the names and relationships of pretty much everyone I know about now.  Including everyone – and, for the record, this includes branches of the family separated by multiple “in-law” jumps – I’m closing in on 400 people.  This came as something of a shock to me, since I spent most of my life with a family you could put around a dinner table if everyone got cozy together.  I always knew there were other relatives out there somewhere – some I would see every so often, some I heard stories about, and some I simply surmised from pure biology – but when I was a kid I had to get out to second cousins before I hit two dozen people.  Having 400 relatives is a bit of a revelation.  Getting them all entered into one place is even more of one.  Win for me, I suppose.

There have been a couple of hitches, though.

For one thing, the program has no mechanism for putting in siblings directly.  This isn’t a problem when I’m dealing with the generations I’ve met, but if you go back far enough you run into people who just magically appear as someone’s brother and need to be slotted in somewhere.  Eventually I discovered that the way to do that is to create a placeholder parent (“Father of Antonio”) and assign to this parent all Antonio’s brothers and sisters.  It’s clumsy, but not irredeemably so.  And sometimes I discover that I actually do know who Antonio’s dad was so I can go back and edit in all the information, so there’s that.

The program also defaults to French names, which means that a) if you’re not careful you end up with accent marks in strange places, and b) the assigned genders can be rather fluid (insert Parisian joke here).  This isn’t a big issue, really – it just means I have to pay close attention and be ready to override the decisions that the program makes as those decisions come to my attention.  Correcting engineers who felt they knew better than I did how I wished to use their products has been an ongoing theme in my life, after all.

The biggest problem I’m having with the program is that it doesn’t do the one thing I want it to do, which is to print out One Big Family Tree with everyone on it.

I thought that was the whole point of those programs, really.

What I want to see when I am done is a big honking chart with everyone on it, even if I have to print it out on a hundred separate pages and tape them all together.  I want there to be a single family tree with a hundred branches – a family hedge that is as wide as it is tall.  I want it all laid out, and I want it shareable so that everyone else can see it too.

Yeah well. 

The program has all kinds of charts you can get it to draw, it turns out.  You can make fans, hourglasses, charts that go up and charts that go down, and they give you about a hundred different templates for displaying the same information in artistic ways.  But not the one I want.

I may have figured out a way to trick the program into doing something almost as good, though.  It still requires me to put multiple charts together manually, but at least it gives me some way to do what I want.  So I forge ahead, and if this does work then eventually I will have my entire Family Hedge all ready to go.

And won’t that be a time.


Kim KM said...

I like the idea of a family hedge! It's broad, it's leafy, it weathers storms better than trees.

David said...

They tend to live longer, too. :)