Helen Smith: How I Hack Genealogy

Helen V Smith

[Editor’s Note: Helen Smith, owner of HVS Research, is an accomplished genealogist from Australia and author of the blog From Helen V Smith’s Keyboard. I’ve met Helen briefly at RootsTech 2013 in Salt Lake City and I’m looking forward to spending more time discussing genealogy with her in February 2014 as I venture Down Under on the upcoming Unlock The Past Genealogy Cruise.]

About Me

Name: Helen V Smith

Title or position: Everything at HVS Research; Public Health Microbiologist/Molecular Epidemiologist in day job

Company or Organization Name: HVS Research

Website or Blog: http://helenvsmithresearch.blogspot.com.au/

Other social media links:

Age (optional): 49

Location: Brisbane, Queensland Australia

Photo/Image: link or attach to email

Technology I Use


  • Laptop 1 Sony Vaio VPCZ1 three years old running Win 7
  • Laptop 2 Sony Vaio Pro 13 running Win 8 (still sitting in box until I have some free time)

Cloud storage: Dropbox, use it for genealogy, sharing my Quested One Name Study, Family History Society committee information, my genealogy business, and work (collaborations with scientists around the world). Would be lost without it.

Backup program or routine: back up genealogy program every time I change anything. Have regular backups of my computer to external drive, one onsite (hidden from view), one offsite. Also have online backup.

Printer: Brother wireless laser printer, HP  OfficeJet Pro 8600

Scanners: HP 3570, FlipPal, Epson Perfection V700 (as have a lot of old slides and negatives) ) and the HPOfficejet also scans.

Are you “paper” or “paperless” or in-between?: in between, doubt if I will ever go totally paperless

Email program: Outlook

Smartphone model: iPhone 5

Fave mobile app: Dropbox

E-reader: iPad mainly, own a Kindle as well but can’t carry everything

Web browser: Firefox 98% of time

Calendar program: Outlook and one on iphone

RSS feed reader: Feedly

Photo storage and editing: On my computer primarily with Adobe Photoshop Elements

Fave social media: I have a few favourites as they serve different purposes and have different audiences: Facebook, Twitter and Google+  and hope to be playing more with YouTube in the future.

Accounting or financial app: MYOB

Virus protection: Norton

Firewall or security program: Norton

Genealogy database program: The Master Genealogist, with forays in Legacy, RootsMagic and Family Historian. No, it isn’t that I can’t make up my mind but there are things I like in the other programs so use their features when required.

Music player: iPod

Blog platform: Blogger

Other tech stuff (headset, mouse, etc.): Headset Microsoft Lifechat LX300 (thanks to the help of the Technology for Genealogists group on Facebook)

Camera: iPhone, iPad,  Sony Cybershot DSC- WX100

Remote presenter: Logitech R800

Data Projector: BenQ

GPS: Garmin

Digital Note Taker: Sony

Me and Genealogy

Number of years involved in genealogy: 27

Professional or non-professional?: I work in a professional way and lecture and write but currently don’t get enough of my income via genealogy related work so am still in the workforce as a Public Health Microbiologist and Molecular Epidemiologist.

What I do (describe your role in the genealogy community):

Speaker, author, researcher, President of my FHS (Southern Suburbs Branch of the Genealogical Society of Queensland), previously on committee for the Genealogical Society of Queensland currently on Library purchasing sub-committee, volunteer indexer for a number of sites including Family Search, Trove, Queensland State Library, National Archives of Australia, previously indexer for Kent Family History Society.

What I enjoy most about genealogy and family history: The fun of finding out: the people who are my ancestors ( and anyone else who I can persuade to let me research their tree, have managed to do family trees on about 70% of my workmates over the last 27 years) and why things have occurred and people have been influenced to make the decisions they did.

What annoys me most about genealogy: The divisiveness that blows up at all too regular intervals ie the at-times “us and them” attitude of some people. I struck this very strongly in my early years of research where I was in an Local Studies Library/Archives and saw the librarian/archivist’s  response to the person in front of me who said they were doing “Family History”. The lip curled and it was suggested that they didn’t really belong there as they weren’t doing “proper research”. I showed my University student card and was welcomed (they didn’t know I was a Science student!).

There are more interactions between the academic historians and family historians nowadays but what we are seeing now are the people who are very intolerant of the newer researchers who haven’t done much archive work or the IT-literate people who don’t believe that someone who doesn’t have a computer could possibly do any research. Let alone the citation police who harass some people who are dipping their toes into this new wonderful genealogy world.

There are ways of showing people that source citations are important, that online research is not the only way and that >95% of material is not online without making the genealogy world so divisive and driving away the people we say we want to enter the genealogy world, to enjoy this fascinating obsession with us. Let alone the professional/non-professional, the free versus fee and so on.

Genealogy super power(s): Crowd sourcing. It is amazing what can be achieved by interested committed people working together. The 1940 census was a prime example as is the one billion plus indexed names that have appeared on FamilySearch  in the last five years. There are so many ways people can become involved. Even if people just indexed/transcribed one name, that might be the one name that smashed someone else’s brick wall. It is also a way of paying forward the efforts of so many people in the past who have provided the access to records we have used.

Biggest advance in genealogy in the last five years: The availability of online records certainly is a major advance but I think the rise in personal online publishing by individuals with blogs and websites of their own who are providing specialized content that would never have been seen in the past or without the Internet in the future as it is unlikely that many of these people would have published using traditional routes.

What will always stay the same in genealogy: The need to find out more about the people who came before us.

What will need to change in genealogy: Societies and organizations need to embrace the Internet and the fact that potential members may not live in the local area so what services can you provide that will make it worthwhile for them to join? Webinars, online indexes, paying membership online, having a social media presence, providing your journal in electronic format are only some of the services that should be offered if a society wants to survive into the future.

My vision for genealogy in the year 2020:

I see increasing numbers of people interacting via the web, maybe never meeting in person who can achieve great things, maybe making many more records accessible by transcribing and indexing, by blogging etc.

Unfortunately, I also foresee increasing budgetary pressure on archives and libraries. This is a major problem now and as a community we all need to be working on ways we can help the archives and libraries exist. We have to work out how we can have online records while still having access to the archives. The archives and libraries to get funding have to meet business requirements such as people through the door and with the more frequently used items going online there will be fewer people going in person. The numbers people don’t understand how research occurs and it is up to us as a community to ensure our governments and funding bodies no matter which country they are in know the importance of continued funding.

The increasing costs of storage will mean more people making decisions about what should be archived and what is not considered archival material. Many of the individual files that contain so much family history material are not being retained for the future eg the register books of housing loans in Queensland in the early 1900s were retained but the files relating to those loans were not considered archival. It is course is also the difference between saving and storing seven books rather than the 14000 individual files relating to those loans but how I wish those files could have been saved.

Closing Thoughts

My Secret Hack for Genealogy (a tip or trick): Regularly set time aside to enhance your genealogical knowledge whenever you can. Learn about new resources and record types, read an article, attend a webinar, there are many free ways of learning new things.

You never know when that new knowledge may relate to your own research. At a conference, attend a session that has no current relevance to expand your knowledge. You will also meet lots of new people which can be a little scary but I promise most of us don’t bite!

Advice to a beginning genealogist: Talk to all living members of your family and ideally their friends while you can. The stories and hints you will get by doing this will add character and life to the names and dates you will also be researching. Let it be known you are interested so that no-one throws out all “that junk” when they clear a home. Get involved with a local society even if you have no research in the area but most important of all, have fun and enjoy the journey!

Advice to a lifer genealogist: Remember to share your research now. It does not need to be finished or perfect before you share! Blogs are a perfect way of sharing snippets and also act as wonderful cousin bait.

Secondly please be kind to new researchers. We want to get them totally hooked and addicted. The interesting thing in family history  is there are so many specialty areas of research that we are all newbies in some areas.

Open Forum

I have major concerns about the concept that everything has to be free and why aren’t people making it free. Certainly there is much that can be done without a lot of cost and we should thank FamilySearch and so many Family History Societies for everything they have provided at no or very little cost!

I can’t think of any past-time that is free and at no cost for materials. A genealogist friend of mine has come to an arrangement with her husband who is a golf nut after he complained about how much she was spending on genealogy. She has equal spending rights as he does for his past-time. (I couldn’t believe how much he spends each year on golf!) She actually spends much less than he does but now doesn’t have to justify her expenditure.

If we want the convenience of online availability we have to pay something and really, what we pay is so much less than the cost of retrieving these items in person.

©2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee

About the Author

Thomas MacEntee
Genealogy educator and author Thomas MacEntee has been researching his family history for more than 40 years and is the creator of Abundant Genealogy, Genealogy Bargains, DNA Bargains, The Genealogy Do-Over and numerous other web-based genealogy and family history properties.