Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My Three Best Technology Tips

Technology. We often complain about living with it, but we wouldn't want to live without it either.

Technological advances are coming along more quickly all the time... new hardware, new software, new websites and blogs. All of these things allow us to advance our genealogy research at a faster pace than ever before. Sometimes it's hard to know what's worth buying and how often to upgrade. In some instances the learning curve that comes with new technology may be discouraging. How do you know what will give you the most value for your genealogy time and money budgets?

Well, I certainly don't have all the answers. And anyway, the answers would certainly differ from individual to individual. But here's a look at the technology that I find most valuable in compiling my own family history.

In the hardware category (besides my computer), I'd have to say that my digital cameras are the technology I value the most. I have both a "point and shoot" digital camera that I carry with me at all times and a digital SLR that I use intentionally.

My point and shoot is a slimline style that fits nicely in a coin purse. Yes, that's right. I carry it in a coin purse inside my purse. The Canon PowerShot SD600 is a great little camera that easily fits in a purse or a pocket, takes still photos and video, and has enough settings and options to make it very versatile. And its 6.0 megapixel images allow me plenty of data to work with if I want to edit or print. This camera has been a real workhorse for me. Because of it's light weight and small size it is very easy to hold steady for shooting microfilm in lowlight conditions. The Canon lens gives me clear and sharp images of pages with fine print, like city directories. And there's just nothing like having a camera with you for those moments when you come across a book, journal, magazine or newspaper article that you want to reference. I'll take a quick snapshot of the title page of a book I discover rather than digging out a pencil and paper. If I find a magazine article of interest while I'm waiting in a doctor's office I can capture it digitally and read it when I get home. At home all I have to do is pop out my 2GB SD card and pop it into my computer and voila! All my images are right there :-)

My digital SLR is a Canon Digital Rebel XTi. This is a pro-am camera (professional/amateur) which has the whistles and bells that pros need but also has a fully automatic setting that makes it as easy to use as a point and shoot. It's lightweight compared to professional line cameras but is much heavier and bulkier than my point and shoot. I take this camera with me when I want to use lenses beyond what my SD600 has. I have two image stabilized lenses for my camera which allow me to shoot in situations that would normally require a tripod. It doesn't totally eliminate the need for a tripod but it is very helpful in minimizing motion blur from camera shake. I use this camera for shooting pictures of gravestones, recording my ancestors' neighborhoods, capturing great people pictures, and taking photos of churches and architecture. This camera has a high "cool factor" and is a lot of fun to play with :-)

In the software category (besides my internet browser), I would say that my PaperPort software is what I value most and use extensively. PaperPort 11 is the most current version and the one I'm currently using but I've been using PaperPort for many years (continuously since 1998). PaperPort is document organizing software that is ideal for genealogists. It allows me to keep track of all my documents including photos, scans, text documents, etc. in one place. Each document has a large thumbnail preview and can be viewed full size within the software so I don't have to launch a new program. I can scan direct into PaperPort from my scanner and add keywords, a description of the document, and a title. Documents can be scanned directly into a PDF format to distribute via email or put on a web site. PaperPort also has OCR (optical character recognition) capability so I can turn any documents into text. I can also annotate, crop, rotate, etc.

When I get say a new birth certificate in the mail, I scan it into PaperPort and then file it. No need to ever pull it out again. It's easy for me to find and I can quickly view the details. If I want to fax it to someone, it's a simple drag and drop operation. No need for a fax machine :-) In fact, it is the only way I have ever sent a fax! If I want to create a text file (OCR) from the image, that's drag and drop too. Oh, and I can capture web pages in one click and store them along with photos and documents for each of my ancestors. I love this technology!

In the web site category (besides my blog), I'd have to say the Google search engine is my best online resource and what I use most in my genealogy research these days. When I was actively trying to add more names to the family tree I would have said a database or the LDS web site. But I'm no longer chasing names and am looking almost exclusively for background information at this point. And Google is definitely my go-to site for that. I especially like that Google has a Polish version so I can look up surnames, locations, and topics that would be harder to find in the English version. Unfortunately, Google translator won't help me with Polish web sites. But I can forgive that. It's still invaluable to me!