Pint-Sized Pedigrees - Palm Pilots for Genealogy


A version of this article first appeared in the May/June 2000 issue of Ancestry Magazine


By Mark Howells


One of Us

Surely you've noticed? When one of US walks into a library or Family History Center? Watching from your film reader, you can instantly spot the fellow genealogist.

They carry at least one large bag over their shoulder – a research bag bulging with notebooks and file folders. Some even wheel in little portable filing systems. The outward signs are obvious. "Wonder what surnames they're working on?" you think as you return to your microfilm. You can always tell when a genealogist arrives. Perhaps the well-heeled carry only a laptop computer case, but our baggage usually gives us away.

Must it always be thus? Will genealogists always be recognizable by our luggage? Although family history is thoroughly grounded in paper, this is supposed to be the Computer Age, after all. While computing devices are getting progressively smaller, family historians continue to carry the equivalent of a large Douglas fir tree when visiting a research facility. Perhaps the weight of the load is about to be shifted.

The Midgetization of Digitization

Notebook computers now commonly weigh in at under 4 lbs. Even at this slim fighting weight, notebooks have bee eclipsed in the Featherweight division by Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). PDAs are broadly defined as portable hand held computers designed to fit in a coat pocket. In order to be conveniently sized, the smallest PDAs usually forego the traditional computer keyboard for a touch-sensitive screen activated by a style or the user's fingers.

The darling of the PDA industry right now is the Palm Pilot series from 3com (see http://www.palmpilot.com ). Weighing four ounces and measuring five inches tall by 3 inches wide, Palm Pilots are smaller than a pack of cigarettes. Be warned that the size of the screen does not make the reading of text with the Palm Pilot easy on the eyesight. Some adjustment of the screen contrast to suit user-specific legibility requirements usually helps. Sporting a touch-sensitive screen utilizing a stylus, Palm Pilot users can enter data onto the screen by "typing" with the stylus with an on-screen "keyboard" or by using the stylus and handwritten character recognition software. The handwritten character recognition takes a bit of getting used to as you have to learn to scrawl the way the Palm Pilot reads – it will not adapt to your personal penmanship. Synchronization with a user's primary PC (for shared schedules, e-mail, etc.) and battery recharging are all performed by a companion docking cradle.

[Image of a Palm IIIe]

A Palm Pilot IIIe in docking cradle

As the Palm Pilots are increasing finding their way into the business community, their potential for family history is just now being explored. There are a variety of models to choose from and competition from similar PDAs such as the Handspring Visor (see http://www.handspring.com/ ) has driven down the prices of Palm Pilots. The Palm Pilot IIIe with 2 megabytes of memory retails for $149 while the 8 megabyte Palm Pilot Vx retails for $399. These Personal Digital Assistants have become affordable for the average genealogist.

Palm Pilots come equipped with personal organization software. Calendars, contact list, To Do list, memo pad and calculator are all standard. E-mail and wireless web browsing are available with the high-end models. A large aftermarket for Palm Pilot shareware has developed to meet the diverse application needs of their users. Obviously, a portable contact list and memo pad in themselves are a great boon to a family historian using a Palm Pilot. However, there are a growing number of genealogy-specific shareware programs available for the Palm Pilot.

Genealogy In Your Pocket

There are currently only a handful (pardon the pun) of genealogy programs designed for the Palm Pilot (see Cyndi's List – Software - Handhelds, Palmtops and PDAs at http://www.CyndisList.com/software.htm#Palm ). However, software designers are seeing the potential of the Palm Pilot platform as an aid to genealogical research. Some programs such as GedPalm (see http://pages.prodigy.net/gordondjc/ghcs/ ) simply allow you to download your existing GEDCOM file from your PC to your Palm Pilot. You then have your basic names, dates, events, and relationships with you in your Palm Pilot whenever you need them. GedPalm does not accept input via the Palm Pilot so it may not be used as recording software. Other genealogy programs for the Palm Pilot such as Palm Tree (see http://www.GhcsSoftware.com ) can accept updates to their GEDCOM information from your PC but require initial conversion of your GEDCOM to Palm Pilot format to be done by the software developers themselves. Clearly there is a wide range of utility and sophistication available in Palm Pilot genealogy software.

A fully functional Palm Pilot genealogy program which I have used with success is My Roots, version 1.3 from Tapperware (see http://www.tapperware.com/MyRoots/ ). My Roots is shareware selling for $16.95. My Roots accepts multiple GEDCOM file downloads from your PC so you can keep your lines of research in separate databases if you desire.

[Example List of Separate Databases in <i>My Roots</i>]

Example List of Separate Databases in My Roots

The individuals in each database may be displayed as a list of names or in a family group sheet style.

[Display of list of individuals in <i>My Roots</i>]

Display of list of individuals in My Roots

Tapping on any other individual on the display takes you to that individual's own page so My Roots provides intelligent linking between individuals - be they parents, children, or siblings.

[Display of individual and family in <i>My Roots</i>]

Display of individual and family in My Roots

Essentially, My Roots allows you to refer to and update your GEDCOM in your pocket when you research. The ability to update the GEDCOM is one of My Roots' best features. It can accept new or modified information via the Palm Pilot itself. By entering data into the fields provided with My Roots, a researcher can modify an existing GEDCOM database or create an entirely new one. By synchronizing up from the Palm Pilot to your primary PC, a "GEDCOM of record" may be modified and displayed in your favorite PC genealogy software with the results of what you entered into the Palm Pilot. By allowing the Palm Pilot to both import GEDCOMs from a PC and export GEDCOMs to a PC, My Roots is an extremely handy little tool for family historians.

For example, on your lunch hour, you've managed to scurry over to the local library to do a bit of research. As you're coming from work, you probably don't have your research bag with you. But you do have your Palm Pilot loaded with your GEDCOMs in My Roots. If you happen to find a record which clearly shows that Great Great Aunt Barbara was actually born on February 29th (Leap Day) rather than on March 1st as you've always been told, you can enter this change directly into My Roots. Returning home to your favorite PC genealogy program, you can upload this information from your Palm Pilot into a PC-based GEDCOM and the process is complete. No intermediate notes on paper (or on the Palm Pilot's memo pad) required. No re-typing of the information into your PC's genealogy program. By combining the portability of the Palm Pilot with the flexibility of data entry, My Roots makes the most of a PDA for the family historian.

What Else Can A Family Historian Do With A Palm Pilot?

Anywhere the family historian needs an easily-portable data recording and storage device, the Palm Pilot is an ideal solution. Palm Pilot software developers continue to add products and features which can ease the genealogist's burden of transporting their hard-won data and adding to it as required. We will certainly see more genealogy-specific software programs designed for the Palm Pilot in the future.

One obvious situation where taking notes on paper can be difficult is when doing tombstone recording at a cemetery. Wind, rain, and other elements can play havoc with note taking. Although I have not yet seen any standardized monumental inscription recording software for the Palm Pilot as exists for regular Personal Computers, the lack of software has not stopped cemetery enthusiasts armed with Palm Pilots. Steve Paul Johnson's online article "A Tombstone in Your Pocket" at http://www.interment.net/column/records/palmpilot/index.htm shows what can be done. Using a general database application for the Palm Pilot, Paul designed his own database for recording tombstones. His database form recorded the section, row, marker number, surname, given name, birth date, death date, and inscription. He found he could record a tombstone in about 30 seconds using the Palm Pilot and his database form.

One of my personal "aids to research" is keeping photographs of my ancestors nearby. Somehow, their stern gazes inspire me to continue my search for the elusive forebears which we share. As you might have guessed, you can bring your ancestors' photographs with you when you carry a Palm Pilot. PocketPhoto, shareware retailing for $19.95 from Dream House Software (see http://www.dreamhs.com/PocketPhoto.htm ), allows you to carry up to 100 scanned photos or other images in your Palm Pilot. Previously-scanned images may be downloaded into the Palm Pilot in almost any graphic format and are then displayed in 16-level grayscale. This is perfect for the black & white photography of past times. Now researchers can take pocket-sized images of their ancestors (or the grand kids) just about anywhere without the need to worry about the images being folded, bent, or otherwise ruined. This makes showing-off family photographs simplicity itself - and no bulky photo albums!

[Palm Pilot V displaying a PocketPhoto of an Ancestor-To-Be]

Palm Pilot V displaying a PocketPhoto of an Ancestor-To-Be

Another typical situation faced by the genealogist springs to mind. Archives and libraries are becoming increasingly strict in their efforts to limit what their patrons may carry into the stacks with them. Pens have long been forbidden at most repositories frequented by genealogists. Research bags are often not allowed in due to work space constraints or the possibility of the bags being used to hide the theft of materials. Some institutions allow only a few sheets of paper and a single pencil in with each patron. How is the researcher expected to remember the important facts of their research with their materials left in the storage lockers outside? A Palm Pilot loaded with the researcher's GEDCOM solves this memory dilemma. Also, as the Palm Pilot allows for note taking without the use of pen or pencil (the Palm Pilot's stylus is simply a pointer), no objection can be raised on the grounds of marring any of the materials with ink or graphite marks.

When in Rome

I am unable to resist the temptation to note how similar in basic design and purpose the Palm Pilot is to the wax-impregnated table books used by the ancient Romans. These hand held wax tablets were about the same size as a Palm Pilot and were written on with a stylus. By folding the bound tablets together, what was written on the inside was protected from prying eyes and from modification or loss. They could be erased and re-used by smoothing the wax surface of the interior using the blunt end of the stylus. Several wall paintings from the buried city of Pompeii show these "ancient PDAs" in use. Their appearance in these paintings was a symbol of the literacy of those portrayed. As the dimensions of the human hand haven't changed much in two millennia, the basic design parameters of a successful portable data recording and storage device have similarly remained constant. Clearly, the more things change….

[Portrait of a Young Woman With Table Book From a House in Pompeii – circa 50 A.D.]

Portrait of a Young Woman With Table Book From a House in Pompeii – circa 50 A.D.

Palm Pilots are becoming more common. In addition, the selection of genealogy software written for them is becoming more diverse. It may well be that our ability to outwardly recognize one of our own kind will be reduced by these trends. In the not too distant future, you may only be able to distinguish a fellow genealogist entering your local research institution by the slight bulge in their shirt pocket. "I wonder what model PDA they use?" you may muse as you turn back to your microfilm reader.



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Pint-Sized Pedigrees - Palm Pilots for Genealogy
Created & maintained by Mark Howells.
For information about this article, please send email to markhow@oz.net
Updated April 10, 2002

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