So you've procrastinated on researching your family's history, because organizing the names of 50 ancestors and descendants into trees and reports seems like an unbearable challenge. Now you have no excuse: Genealogical software makes it easy to keep track of great-grandfather Milton (and his four divorces) or the 40 descendants of Grandma Schulsinger. While you still have to do your own research, these programs automate chores like diagramming your family tree and sorting all of the pertinent facts about your relatives. You can accessorize the family-tree diagrams with photos or set up a family Web site listing the ancestors you want to find, in the hope that a distant relative who is researching the same family will see it.
I recently tried a pair of these software bundles, Broderbund's Family Tree Maker and Sierra Home's Generations Family Tree Grande Suite. They cost from $45 to $80 and are Windows-only. Leister Production's Reunion, $99, is a commonly suggested Mac-only alternative (see http://www.leisterpro.com); you can also download free family-tree software at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' FamilySearch site
Computer neophytes will do best with Family Tree Maker. The software manual ought to win an award for its fine, clear writing and chapter organization. You can start with its simple tutorial, which leads you through steps to chart Abraham Lincoln's heritage; then you're ready to type in facts for your own family reports, and it's smooth sailing from there.
With genealogy software, you input a relative's name and other information (such as occupation or education) only once, and it then pops up in a variety of formats. For example, after you enter your Uncle Henry's name and birth date, Family Tree Maker will show the information on a tree, in a report or in a handy calendar that indicates the birthdays and ages of your living relatives. Family Tree Maker also suggests pertinent tips in little boxes that pop up while you're typing information.
Generations is more complicated to use than Family Tree Maker, but it has a better format for displaying informative, three-generation groupings. On one screen, you can clearly identify immediate family members: grandparents, parents and children; then click on any individual's "Family Card" and major facts, such as education, occupation and religion, are well organized. Generations sorts different generations by color on the genealogical trees, a big help when trying to distinguish generations from each other in large families.
Generations also offers some cool tools for playing with statistics. For example, it can report which day of the week your relative was born or the average age of your relatives when they had their first child. But Generations also has glitches, such as an annoying tendency to duplicate a name in various reports -- my name and my grandfather's each accidentally appeared two or three times in one report. It was hard to figure out how it happened and how to delete the extra entries. And the manual insists that you begin its tutorial by typing in your own name and the names of "your children." I had no children to input, which caused a little confusion later on in the tutorial.
Both software packages boast extra CDs that contain information on millions of people who might be related to your family, but don't buy either bundle for these extras. First, lots of the data on these CDs is also available on the Internet for free. For instance, although the Family Tree Maker and Generations packages each include a CD with names from the Social Security Death Index, you're better off accessing the index for free on the Internet (try searching Ancestry.com, http://www.ancestry.com, for this and other databases), where I found the name of a relative of mine who died in 1996. Neither Social Security Death Index CD had the name.
I also found that most of the topics of the extra CDs weren't helpful in searching for my relatives, many of whom emigrated from Europe to the northeastern United States around the turn of the century. CDs such as Generations's "U.S. Civil War Muster Rolls" and Family Tree Maker's "Local and Family Histories: New England, 1600s-1900s" were useless to me.
Which brings up one truth about digging into your family's past: The best research methods are still likely to be low-tech options such as interviewing older relatives, collecting family papers and ferreting out pertinent documents at places such as churches, county courthouses and the National Archives. But once you've done that legwork, you're much better off organizing it the high-tech way.
Family Tree Maker, Broderbund; Win 95-98, $80 (15-CD Deluxe version) or $45 (8-CD regular version)
Family Tree Generations Grande Suite, Sierra Home; Win 95-98, $70 ($20 Heritage Edition "available soon for download" at http://www.sierra.com)