Family history software and services have improved dramatically since I first started working on genealogy about fifteen years ago. It has never been easier to do genealogy research, edit data, and export that data into other formats.
In this article, I share the software system I use to collect, organize, and print my family history data. It took me a little while to build up my software system. I hope this information is useful if you are looking to get started in genealogy yourself.
You can see a quick summary of the family history software I use to create posters and books in the diagram below.
Family History Software Details
Genealogical Data Subscription
Ancestry.com is my favorite subscription service to search for and download new genealogical data. I use the “U.S. Discovery Membership”. Ancestry also offers “World Explorer” and “All Access” memberships. You can compare each of the plans here.
I get the most value out of U.S. Discovery. With this plan, I can access photos and data from other members, look up basic records like census data, etc. The “World Explorer” plan was not useful to me since my eastern European ancestors do not tend to show up in Ancestry’s records. The “All Access” plan included a subscription to Newspapers.com. I found some useful and interesting newspaper clippings with this service. However, there was only so much to find, and I let my “All Access” membership lapse after the initial six-month term.
Ancestry cannot replace the basic practice of going to libraries and looking up records. But it excels at rapid search and download of common records.
Personal Genealogy Software
You could story your family tree entirely online, for free, at Ancestry.com. However, like Google or Facebook, Ancestry is a business. Any data stored on Ancestry isn’t owned by you. A local database of genealogy data is essential to control your own data. I use Family Tree Maker (FTM) for this.
FTM has an impressive 30-year history. It has accumulated a vast array of features in that history, including not just the data entry of people and dates, but also the management of sources, media, and places, along with ability to export via built-in reports and charts.
My favorite feature is its synchronization with Ancestry.com. Using this feature, I can retain ownership of my data while exporting it to the cloud. The family tree data in the cloud can be shared with other family members and it can be sent to MyCanvas.com for printing (more on that in a second).
Genealogy Poster Prints
Now we are getting to the fun stuff! Family tree posters were the first genealogy products I made using my family history software. Family Tree Maker has basic charting capabilities suitable for home printing. But I wanted beautiful wall art to print, frame, and admire.
MyCanvas.com offers a convenient way of doing this. Family tree data shared in Ancestry.com is accessed by MyCanvas.com and is used to automatically construct a family tree poster. The poster includes names, dates, and photos laid out in an ancestry chart. This automatically generated chart gets you to a beautiful poster quickly.
In the older version of the MyCanvas software, I could also manually edit posters. I could add additional photos, embellishments, text boxes, and make other adjustments. For example, the default size of photos always seemed far too small to me, and I could easily resize them to my taste.
Unfortunately, Adobe Flash was retired from the internet in late 2020. This required a complete redesign of MyCanvas’ poster-making software. I have not created a poster since this redesign, so the jury is still out on if it offers as rich set of features as it did pre-2020.
Family History Book Creation
FTM comes with a simple “Genealogy Book” report that generates text in a narrative format. This report comes free with FTM but provides limited functionality.
Family Book Creator (FBC) is a plug-in to Family Tree Maker which offers an astonishing amount of customization and book generation power. FBC can create entire books, hundreds of pages long, complete with tables, photos, indices, and footnotes, within minutes.
The true power of FBC is to automate the mechanical details of creating a family history book and allow you to concentrate on ensuring your data is correct and complete. I just would not have had the time to create family history books like this by hand.
I have used FBC to produce simple printouts placed in a three-ring binder, professional spiral-bound books, and glossy, hardbound photobooks. Since the output is simply a digital file (PDF, Word, and other formats), I have full control of how I print the book.
Family History Book Printing
Printing a professional family history book is easy and fast. Printing a beautiful family history photo book takes a little longer, and a little more money, but the results are highly gratifying.
For a basic spiral-bound printout of an FBC book, I used Staples professional print services. Printing a 200-page book in black-and-white, with spiral binding, cost about $20 a copy. I used this service to print early draft copies of my book for review by family members. Printing took only a day or two and I was able to pick up my book the Staples near my home.
For a hardbound, full-color, glossy printout, I use Lulu.com. The same 200-page book on glossy photo paper bound with a hard cover costs $42. The turnaround time for a Lulu book can be weeks, especially in a busy season like Christmas. When planning, I assume it will take a month to receive a printout from Lulu once the order is made.
The biggest challenge to printing a beautiful book with Lulu is creating a cover. Lulu has several default templates that you can use. These covers are utilitarian. If you want the book you’ve dreamed of, you have to design it yourself (or find someone who can do it for you).
To create print-ready book cover PDF files for Lulu, I use Microsoft 365‘s Publisher produce the print-ready PDF files Lulu needs. Lulu provides you with the dimensions to make the front, spine, and back print correctly. You provide the graphics.
Thankfully, your family history book has plenty of graphics to decorate the cover of your book – family photos! For example, here is an image of my latest family history book cover.
Future Family History Software
What do you think of the family history software that I use? Am I missing something? Do you have a favorite software tool that you recommend that I use? Would you like to know more about how I use the tools I describe above? Please tell me by writing a comment below!
Thanks for reading. Good luck on your family research.