Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Computers and genealogy -- some pitfalls

When we started on genealogy soon after we were married, back in 1974, we didn't have a computer. Nobody we knew had a computer either. The only computers we encountered were in building societies (remember them?). Even the banks that later took over the building societies didn't have computers, but entered transactions manually in savings passbooks.

I kept hoping that somewhere, somehow, a computer would become available where one could enter information once, and instead of labouriously writing out family group sheets by hand to send to distant relatives by snail mail, one could just print them out. And when the reply came that great uncle Joe was born on 3 November and not 3 July, one could just correct it once.

Well, within ten years the dream came true, and we could do just that.

We had an Osborne portable computer (not a laptop, it was the size of a small suitcase, or a large briefcase). It came woith a word processor (Wordstar) a spreadsheet (Supercalc) and a database (Personal Pearl). It stored its programs and data on two 185k floppy disks. We bought a genealogy program, Roots/M, which cost $US49.00, which, in the days before the Rubicon Rand, was quite affordable.

And so we enjoyed all the things we had only dreamed of before. We began typing in the family tree, and could print out family group sheets to send to relatives (still by snail mail, but it was a lot easier than writing them by hand). We also discovered limitations. Roots/M loaded all its data into memory, and the Osborne computer only had 128k of memory. The disks, with 185k, were also rather small. But we began typing some of the paper documents we had -- wills and the like. The handwriting was often hard to read, so typing them up made it easer to find things.

Fast-forward to 2013.

A relative of a relative of a relative (don't ask!) writes from Montreal to say he can look up information for us about John Gray, the founder and firs tpresident of the Bank of Montreal. He wanted to know the source of the information we already had, so he could know where to start looking.

Ah, yes, we had typed out the will of John Gray in 1987, on the Osborne Executive, in WordStar, running under the CP/M operating system.

And, when we had got an MS DOS computer later that year (with a hard disk with all of 20 megabytes) I had taken the precaution of using a disk conversion program, called UniForm, to copy the Osborne data files over to disks in MS DOS format. . 

So yes, there is a copy of the will on my hard disk in an archive somewhere. But it is in WordStar, and I no longer have a copy of WordStar on my disk, and even if I did, I doubt that I could remember how to use it.

But what I do have on my disk is a word processor conversion program, called Word for Word. It also dates from about 1987, when there were about 20 or more different word processors on the market, each using a different format. But not one of them can be read by the word processors in common use today, LibreOffice and Microsoft Word.

So I convert it into XyWrite III+, which I do still have on my computer. But XyWrite III+ was designed for publishing, and all publishers' typesetters knew that you set underlined text (typed on a typewriter) as italics. So you used Mode Underline, and set the printer to print it as italics (laser printers were versatile in those days). You could typeset a book in XyWrite, no problem. That's what it was designed for. As a word processor, MS Word still hasn't caught up, 25 years later. Word has more bells and whistles, yes, but not as many pistons and cylinders as XyWrite.

The trouble is, XyWrite is a DOS program, and modern dumbed-down printers can't cope. So I convert it to XyWrite 4.0, and make one change. I type "ch /MDUL/MDIT/" that converts all the underlines to italics, which modern printers can understand.

Then I save the XyWrite 4.0 document as an RTF file (Rich Text Format), and import it into LibreOffice or MS Word, and print it as a PDF (Portable Document Format) file, which I send to the guy in Montreal.

So now I have these copies of John Gray's will on my computer: GRAYWILL.TXT (WordStar), GRAYWILL.XY3, GRAYWILL.XY4, GRAYWILL.RTF, GRAYWILL.ODT and finally GRAYWILL.PDF.

Six copies, where there was only one before. Am I going to delete any of them, as "surplus to requirements"?

Not a chance. Who knows when some "advance" in computer technology might make it impossible to read one or more of them? The workaround was cumbersome, but it was a lot easier than retyping the will of John Gray.

And the lesson for genealogists is this: when you "upgrade" to a new computer, don't be conned by some glib salesman into just buying the latest and greatest.

First make sure that you can use it to access and work with the data you have spent hours and hours and days and days typing in. You might find that Gee-Whiz graphics and amazing surround sound are a poor compensation for all that lost labour.

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