Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Using Microsoft Access for Genealogy

Let's be real for a minute. As genealogists, one of the worst mistakes we can make is being our own worst enemy. Many moons ago, I did this through being disorganized. But as I wrangled my digital files into submission and limited all of my papers to a single binder, organization became one of my greatest strengths.

Now that I'm organized, my new enemy is inefficiency.

Inefficiency: The Genealogy Edition

Let me set a scene for you. You find a family group sheet or a report you really like to track certain information about a family. Maybe it's your research log, or tracking vital records for a family, or any type of family group sheet--anything you use to analyze your research. Naturally, you have copies of those reports for different ancestors. So the number of them begins to grow exponentially.

But then what happens when it's time to update them? Do you hunt down each one of them, and update them individually? When it's time to delete the outdated ones or backups, there's no easy way to do that. And what happens if you find a new report you like more, or want to make changes to the one you've been using? Do you copy and paste all of that information from your old form onto your new form? That takes forever!

The moment I have a blank document where I'm typing information I already know, about people I've already discovered, that to me is inefficiency. For a long time, it seemed like a necessary evil because I didn't know of any programs that could avoid that needless repetition.

Then I discovered Microsoft Access.

Introducing: Microsoft Access

Microsoft Access is a great source of untapped potential for genealogy. In terms of a learning curve, the transition is minimal--it uses the same menu and command structure as the Microsoft Office ribbon. Learning the unique functions of Access was simple. Everything I needed to know, I learned from YouTube. Creating a fully customized database is no more difficult than creating a PowerPoint presentation.

Looking at you, Evernote!
No coding, no tinkering with new platforms or websites. No more apps bricking up my phone. No more wondering if some website is going to get hacked and all of my data is going to disappear. And no more sacrificing functionality because a website like Evernote seems to think that fully functional rich-text editing is some kind of luxury.

For me, Microsoft Access's single greatest strength was how it unified my research tasks. I don't have research logs, document tracking, DNA matching lists, repository contact information, and other such documents and information scattered all over my computer and different platforms anymore. All of that information is organized and working together in the same stand-alone program.

How else does it help my productivity? In Microsoft Access, the data entry mode and creating reports from that data are two different steps, not one. If I create a family group sheet in Microsoft Word, the only way for the information to end up on that family group sheet is if I type it on there. The same is true of Excel, OneNote, and Evernote. To create a new document or page means I have to copy and paste, or type, for every additional report I create. The creation of the form and the data entry and pretty much the same step.

In Microsoft Access, the form on the left creates the report on the right

 In Access, this is not the case. It allows me to create forms for data entry. I enter the data, and it saves that information into a spreadsheet. Once that information is on the spreadsheet, it's there until I delete it. So I enter the data ONCE--for any person, from any family line--on the same data entry form. It will store it all that data together on the same sortable spreadsheet, which I can export in a variety of formats. But I'm not just limited to displaying that information on a spreadsheet.

When I want the information on a specific individual or family, I can easily create a report from Microsoft Access. It takes the information from my spreadsheet, and will create any combination or number of reports that I want it to create. It will sort, organize, or reorganize the data on that report in whatever way I wish. I can change the report content or design without having to retype any information I've already entered. It simply pulls all of the same data from the spreadsheet, and enters it for me on the report.

No more hunting down a specific document to update, which is already outdated the second I finish it. I don't even create reports until I need them anymore. Every document I create is up to date, existing in real time with the rest of my research. All I have to do is backup my database, and it backs up literally hundreds of forms--all at the same time.

If the definition of efficiency is only having to do something one, Microsoft Access is the only program I've found that allows me to be efficient in everything I do.


If you're spending more time tinkering with documents and websites than getting your research done, maybe it's time for a change.

And maybe that change should be Microsoft Access.