File Structure for the Aspiring Genealogist

In my experience, beginning genealogists almost universally have difficulty with understanding the use and purpose of gedcoms in genealogy, how to save their files, backing up their files, restoring—and using the flash drive, which some of you call thumb drives.

To begin to better understand file structure, lets spend a minute or two on basic file structure. Think of your computer as a large filing cabinet—similar to a filing cabinet used in an office. The filing cabinet has drawers, and in each drawer you keep a certain kind of information. One could be bills, another could be legal papers, the third could be Boy Scout information, and the fourth could be recipes and hobby information.

To make it easier to keep track of things, we simply file things into the cabinet, first sorting by drawer, then by those green hanging files, and finally by those manila files with the tab on top to write on. It’s a simple system, but very effective in keeping things organized, and finding what you need.

Over time, you would no doubt fill up your filing cabinet—and be left with no place to put things. In that case would you do? Sure, simply buy another file cabinet.

Let’s shift gears a bit, and talk a little about your computer.

Well, it may surprise you to know that your computer has many tens of thousands of files on it. Yes, I said tens of thousands. If you dumped them into a big box, how in the world would you be able to find one particular file amid tens of thousands? The obvious answer is that you need a filing system.

On your computer you have one or more disk drives. Usually, drive “C” is the drive you work with. Drive D may likely be your CD burner and reader, or compact disk drive. Drive A is normally the 3-1/4” floppy drive—used for reading and writing to a floppy disk, but today few computers are being manufactured with a floppy drive. The floppy has not become OLD TECHNOLOGY. Slow, expensive, and they don’t hold very much data in the information age.

There comes a point when your computer drive—usually drive C—fills up, with no more space for your programs and files. If you think back a few years, a new computer sported a two gigabyte hard drive. I still have one, and my daughter uses it every day. Well, today, if you purchased Microsoft’s Office Suite—consisting of a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a few other ancillary programs—that would more than consume your available storage. Or, there is no more room on the disk to store the things you write, download or create.

Without remaining disk space, you can’t fit anything else into your computer’s filing system. You are out of business.

But, you do have a few options. They are

  • Clean out some of the files that you don’t need, use or want
  • Move some of the files to another filing cabinet
  • Use one of your computer’s special tools that compresses files for storage, usually to about ¼ of their original size. This is a good option, but the files become a little slow to open and save.

The solution I am most interested in today is simply adding another file cabinet. For your computer, you have a few options. They are

  • Store some of the files on a compact disk. But, each time you want to us a file, you have to find and load the CD—which takes a little time. But, it works.
  • The other option is to purchase an additional hard drive. This works just like your drive “C”, and in most cases it provides a tremendous amount of storage. 5 year old computers had perhaps 20 gigabytes of disk storage. Today, add-on drives with say 120 gigabytes of storage space cost $75-$120, depending on the manufacturer, where you purchase it, and a few whistles and bells. That is a very inexpensive solution for 6 times more storage space, AND the convenience it offers during use.

While we are on this subject, let’s talk a little about kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes and other bytes that the computer geeks often mention. The byte (pronounced bite, like taking a bite out of an apple) is a unit of measure for information storage. A typical business letter would be roughly 100 kilobytes, meaning that it occupied that much of your computer’s storage space.

A kilobyte is 1,000 bytes of information, per second

A megabyte is 1.000.000 bytes of information, per second

A gigabyte is 1,000,000,000 bytes of information per second

So, on that older 20 gigabyte storage disk on your computer, you could store about 200,000 of those typical business letters that we talked about. Of course, documents such as photographs, scanned documents and other typed of images can take up much more space.

If you need a break for a minute or two, remember to press the PAUSE key just once. That will stop the player. To start it again, press the triangle—which means play.

For the aspiring genealogist, a trip to the Family History Center presents some problems. First of all, you work on your genealogy at home—and getting it to the Family History Center would be quite a job if you had to lug your entire computer. Your Family History Center can’t allow your files to remain on their computers, because with all the users they would soon fill up and make the system inoperable. That’s why most centers clear out user files at the end of each day. When I say user, I am referring to you.

If your file is very small, you can transport it on a floppy disk. If it is bigger, you can transport it on a compact disk—but often you may need one to bring it, and one to take it home. Your cost, then, would be about 50 cents per trip—the approximate cost of two CD’s.

The best solution, though is to use a FLASH DRIVE to carry your work back and forth. It works well when going to a genealogical library as well, as you can copy records, census files, photographs and anything else that can be stored on a computer.

Flash drives are those little things that you see either plugged into a computer at the family history center; or hanging around the neck of the patrons. All aspiring genealogists need one.

Flash drives come in a number of sizes, with the smallest being 256 megabytes. The cost is about $10-$15. The next size is 512 megabytes, for about $12-$20. But probably the best buy is the 1 gigabyte size, at $14-$24. Prices vary widely because they are so inexpensive, and by looking around you can pick one up quite inexpensively. There does not seem to be a major difference in quality or feature either.

About five or more years ago computer manufacturer’s began making computers with what is called a USB Port. This is a small outlet, which you can plug comuter periphals into. Your flash drive plugs into this port very easily, and doesn’t require any adjustment or loading by your computer. USB stands for universal serial bus—which means absolutely nothing to us computer users. So, just remember USB and you are up to speed.

Oh, by the way. I walked into my son’s office a while back—with a flash drive hanging around my neck. He gave me a lecture that that was not considered cool. It would embarrass him if his friends saw me with it dangling around my neck. You be the judge on that one…but I remember how cool I was walking into class with my Pickett 12” slide rule hanging on my belt. I think I will leave the lanyard on my flash drive, at least for now.

Let’s get serious about genealogy now.

When we leave home and come to the family history center, we need to bring our information to the center so we can work on it. I will assume all of you are using PAF 5.0. If you aren’t, you should upgrade by going to the LDS Church’s website FAMILOYSEARACH.ORG. Upgrading to PAF 5.0 is free—as is simply downloading the program the first time.

PAF 5.0 runs on computers that operate on Microsoft Personal Computer software. Several versions are in use, and they are called Vista, Windows, and several other names—found on older computers. They all work, but of course—newer is always better, faster and more efficient.

Some genealogy files have lots of names in the. Many genealogists also load photographs and scanned documents into their files for better understanding and enjoyment. This can make your file larger than a CD, and even larger than most flash drives. I fellow I talk to through email has over one million five hundred thousand names in his data base. Wow—you’d have to have a wheelbarrow to carry that one.

Many years ago the LDS Church developed a system for condensing files, and allowing various software developers to develop genealogy programs that will work with all the other software that is available. They called this genealogical data communications, and gave it the nickname GEDCOM.

Today, we tell our computer to create a file in gedcom language, and wherever we go we can use it. In anyone’s computer, even Apple computers—which have a totally different operating system than the one marketed by Microsoft. As an aspiring genealogist, you need to know how to make a gedcom from your data, and how to load it onto another computer. It’s actually very simple to do.

Regardless of which genealogy software you are using, creating a GEDCOM is pretty much the same for all programs. To begin, you need to plug your Flash Drive into a USB port—in slip a floppy or CD into the correct drive.

In the menu that runs across the top of your program, you first click on FILE; then when the drop-down menu opens you simply tell it to EXPORT a Gedcom. The rest is just like saving any other file. You have to give it a name, and then tell it to save.

Oh, it will ask you if you want your name put into the Gedcom so anyone using it will know you created it. And, it may give you the chance to fine tune the file a little—but you really don’t need to deal with this at this stage of your career.

Remember, if you need to send your genealogy to a friend or relative, the GEDCOM is the way to do it. You can even save a part of your data by itself—but that is for another day.

Why don’t you take another break for a few minutes, to let your mine cool off for a bit. Just press the pause icon; then press the play icon to begin again.

We are coming to the end, but there are two more things that we need to learn. First, we need to know how to load a GEDCOM into the computer at the family history center. Don’t get nervous, this is a snap.

First, install your flash drive, CD or floppy. Then, click on the PAF icon to open PAF. Then, click on the FILE icon at the top of the page, followed by the IMPORT GEDCOM command. You will then have a dialog box that asks you to select the GEDCOM to import. This is simply selecting the right file to load into the computer. Remember, gedcoms all have the file extension of .ged.

Well, it should be there. After you do this a few times it will be a piece of cake.

Now, the final challenge…and the one that confuses people the most. The infamous BACKUP!

Your family history center will recommend you obtain and use a flash drive. They also recommend that you don’t use the GEDCOM. They want you to use the backup and restore commands found in the FILE menu of PAF.

PAF operates on a real-time basis. That means that when you type something into PAF it is there immediately, even if you don’t use the SAVE command.

When you are done for the day, instead of creating another GEDCOM of your latest data, you can create a BACKUP file. A backup file is often called a .ZIP file, and what it does is compresses your data to less than ¼ of it’s actual size. In essence, a large file can fit into a small space.

Backup works very well, and is very easy to use. You can easily tell if the file is a backup or gedcom by looking at the file extension—the three letter tag following the dot, after the name of the file. So a file named Jones.ged is a gedcom of your ,PAF file called Jones. Should you decide to save it as a backup file, you would see the file as Jones.bak.

To save a BACKUP file, load your flash drive, click on FILE, then click on BACKUP, then name it, then SAVE it. How complicated can it get; and it keeps the people at the family history center happy.

When you want to open the file, say the next day at home, you put your flash drive into your computer, load PAF, then click on FILE, then RESTORE, then select your file, then OPEN it.

Why do people get so confused over this? In mathematics, its called math anxiety. People have a bad experience, and are terrified that it will occur again.

Revisit this tutorial a few times and dealing with file structure should come to you with ease. You need to think through what you are doing though. You need to understand the steps, not just follow the list.

Spend fifteen minutes thinking about it, and you will never have another problem understanding computer filing structure. It’s that simple.

If you find this help session worthwhile, check back often. If people find our genealogy tutorials worthwhile, we will continue to create them.

Thanks again

One thought on “File Structure for the Aspiring Genealogist

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