Software for Linux

Linux has very few genealogy programs. The leading product is GRAMPS:

GRAMPS 1.0.0, a Genealogy Program for Linux
by Dick Eastman, originally published in the February 16, 2004 edition of Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter.

GRAMPS is a personal genealogy program written by Don Allingham for use with Linux, FreeBSD UNIX, and Macintosh OS X operating systems. Best of all, GRAMPS is a free program. The program has been in beta test for two and a half years. This week [16 Feb 2004] the GRAMPS beta ended, and version 1.0.0 was released. The author states that "version 1.0.0 is as stable as a tombstone!" I took GRAMPS on a "test drive" and was very impressed with the program.

Supporting databases of up to about 10,000 people, GRAMPS can handle most family trees. GRAMPS is capable of importing data from and exporting data to other genealogy programs, using the GEDCOM interchange format. The data can then be imported into most any Linux, Windows or Macintosh word processor or desktop publishing system. Reports can be generated in OpenOffice.org, AbiWord, Kword, PDF, RTF, LaTeX, and PostScript formats. All data is stored in XML format, a format that many other programs can import. Programmers will be interested to know that the functionality of GRAMPS can be extended by using a plug-in system, supporting plug-ins written in the Python language.

Linux experts will note that GRAMPS is designed for the GNOME desktop environment although it will also operate under KDE if the appropriate GNOME libraries have been installed on the system. Translation for non-Linux experts: Linux has several "desktop environments" to choose from. If you are new to Linux and you wish to use GRAMPS, choose GNOME as your preferred desktop environment when you first install Linux. You can experiment with other desktop environments later as you gain experience.

I found installation of GRAMPS on my SuSE Linux system to be very simple. I used a standard Web browser to find the program, then used SuSE Linux' built-in YAST installation software. The complete program was included in a single file of less than 5 megabytes. After downloading, I answered a couple of simple questions that appeared on the screen. About a minute later, GRAMPS was fully installed and ready for use. The installation process was actually easier than doing the same thing on Windows, primarily due to the SuSE YAST installation process. Other Linux distributions will require download-and-installation techniques that are about the same as doing the same thing on Windows.

I started GRAMPS and found myself looking at a simple but intuitive screen. In fact, it looks a bit like some Windows genealogy programs. A number of screenshots are available in the online userís manual. By looking at these screenshots, you can get a better view of the program in operation than I could ever describe in text. The pedigree view is shown at http://gramps.sourceforge.net/ss-pedigree.html; the family view is at http://gramps.sourceforge.net/ss-family.html; and the "edit a person" view is available at http://gramps.sourceforge.net/ss-edit-person.html. (Note the nice use of pictures built into the editing window.)

I created a few records and found the data entry to be intuitive as well. I didn't need to refer to the online documentation at all. Moving around the database is also very easy. I then imported a 3,000+ person GEDCOM that had been created earlier with a leading Windows genealogy program. Again, the process was simple. It took less than a minute to import information about all of the 3,000+ people on my 2.4-gigahertz PC with a gigabyte of RAM memory. Slower systems obviously will require a bit more time for GEDCOM imports, but the process seems to be faster than many of the Windows programs that I have written about in the past.

I should note that a high-speed system is not required. Some time ago, I ran a beta version of GRAMPS on a 550-MHz Celeron processor that had 128 megabytes of RAM memory. Performance was quite good on that modest system.

Navigating through GRAMPS, I clicked on a name, and a new window appeared, offering all sorts of data entry fields. There were intuitive fields for the person's name, as well as dates and places of birth, marriage, and death. However, I also discovered that GRAMPS will record all sorts of events, including multiple occupations, military service, census entries, and much, much more.

Best of all, GRAMPS offers the capability to record source citations for every scrap of information collected as well as extensive text notes. Unlike some Windows genealogy programs, GRAMPS supports a true sources database. You can create a source one time and then refer to it from the entries of many different people. There is no requirement to retype the source information each time. It also contains a Places database. Again, you enter a location once, after which you can quickly refer to it from the records of individuals without a need to retype the place name. Images can also be associated with locations; when referring to the ancestral homestead, you can have an image of the house appear on the screen. There are Windows genealogy programs selling for more than $50 that do not yet match the capabilities of this free program!

I have written often about the need to handle conflicting data; that is, the common occurrence of multiple records for a particular event that contradict each other. For instance, I have found three different claimed dates and four different claimed locations for the birth of my great-great-grandfather. Any genealogy program should be able to handle all that data equally without requiring the user to guess which one is correct. Unfortunately, GRAMPS only allows for the recording of one date and one location of birth and of death. The same is true for each marriage: only one date and one location is allowed per spouse. I looked through the userís manual to see if there was any alternate method of entering conflicting data. However, the subject is not mentioned at all in the manual. I must admit that I was quite disappointed with this limitation.

GRAMPS supports multimedia files. These files are typically images or photographs, but they may be of any file type, such as (but not limited to) sound files and word processing documents. Any individual in the database can have a number of associated multimedia objects, and this collection is called a ďgallery.Ē While each media object can have a note and attributes attached to it, each gallery can also have its own notes and attributes. This allows media objects to have global and local properties. For example, letís say your Aunt Martha appears in a group photo of a family. A global note may describe the picture in general, identifying the place and date. When this object is added to Aunt Martha's gallery, you can attach a note to the reference in the gallery, adding some specific information, such as, "Aunt Martha is the third person from the right in the second row."

GRAMPS also supports an Internet tab for each person in the database. Frequently, information about a person is available on the Internet, either in a major online database or on someone else's personal Web site. When multiple people are researching the same family, it is desirable to keep track of Internet sites that contain information about someone in your database. GRAMPS allows you to have one or more Internet links for each person in your database, should you wish to use this feature. The Internet entries recorded in the GRAMPS database allow you to keep track of the web sites so that you can periodically check them for any addition information. You can visit each Internet site by simply clicking on its information in the Internet tab's window.

Members of the Mormon faith will be interested in GRAMPS' support for the LDS ordinances available under the LDS tab. This tab allows you to enter specific information used by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

GRAMPS also has revision control that allows you to keep a history of the changes that you have made to your database. In place of multiple sets of backup files, a single revision control database is maintained. At any point you can revert back to a previously saved version. Think about this: let's say that you imported a GEDCOM file that you downloaded from the Web and then discovered that the new file was riddled with errors. With GRAMPS' revision control feature, you can quickly revert back to an earlier version of your database that was saved before the errant GEDCOM file was imported! Other programs create backups, but GRAMPS' revision control system is a step beyond simple backup systems.

GRAMPS can produce a wide variety of reports. It produces timeline reports, relationship graphs, descendant charts, ancestor charts, fan charts, genealogy books and a variety of textual reports. A report generator is included so that technically savvy users can even create new reports not envisioned by the program's author. Unlike many genealogy programs, GRAMPS does not directly print reports. Instead, GRAMPS produces report files and saves them on the hard drive in formats that are understood by other programs. These formats include OpenOffice.org, AbiWord, PDF, and HTML, among others. You then use a word processor or some other program to view, edit, and print the reports. This allows the generated reports to be modified after they are generated, stored for use at a later time, or e-mailed to another person.

I was able to read GRAMPS-generated reports with OpenOffice.org (a free Linux and Windows word processor) and use its ďSave AsĒ menu option to save the file in Microsoft Word format. I then copied the file to a Windows system and opened it with Word. Saving files in HTML format also worked well; I could view the files with any Linux, Macintosh, or Windows Web browser without difficulty. The same was true of reports produced in PDF format.

GRAMPS is available in English, Hungarian, Danish, German, French, Norwegian, Dutch, Russian, and Swedish, with partial translations available in eight other languages. The userís manual is available in English, Russian, and French.

Unlike most other genealogy programs, even the current source code can be obtained online. If you are a programmer who finds something in GRAMPS that could be improved, you can create the improvement yourself! In fact, you are encouraged to do so. The author does ask that you send the source code of the improvements to him for his evaluation. If he agrees, your new code will be included in a future release of GRAMPS.

In this review, I have only scratched the surface of the many capabilities of this program. A "complete review" would fill two or three of these newsletters. If you are interested in GRAMPS, I suggest you read the full userís manual available at http://gramps.sourceforge.net/gramps-manual-en/index.html.

All in all, I was impressed with GRAMPS. It is very easy to install and use (unlike some other Linux genealogy programs that I tried in the past) and has many, many features. The only significant disappointment was the inability to handle multiple dates and locations of critical life events: birth, marriages, and death. Perhaps this capability will be added in a future release. I certainly hope I can make such an announcement in a future newsletter.

So, the one remaining question to be answered is, "Is GRAMPS as good as the typical Windows or Macintosh genealogy program?" I have to say "No" because of GRAMPS' inability to handle conflicting dates and locations. All of the leading Windows programs of today can do that. In the Windows arena, even the free genealogy programs (Legacy Standard Edition and Personal Ancestral File) can handle conflicting data. However, if we ignore that one major flaw, I would say that the remainder of GRAMPS' capabilities meet or exceed those of many of the free Windows and Macintosh genealogy programs available today. It is even as good as some commercial Windows and Macintosh programs that cost $20.00 or more. However, it does not match the better commercial Windows and Macintosh genealogy programs of today.

I am a big fan of Linux and am considering switching to that operating system for all my daily needs. While I am very impressed with the operating system, I am equally frustrated by its lack of certain application programs. Genealogy programs obviously are high on my personal list of required applications. GRAMPS just might be the one application that I would be willing to use as my primary genealogy program, assuming that a few new features are added in the near future.

No, I am not abandoning Windows just yet. But the day of the big switch certainly is getting closer, thanks to Don Allingham's efforts with GRAMPS.

For more information about GRAMPS, the free Genealogical Research and Analysis Management Programming System for Linux, FreeBSD UNIX, and Macintosh OS X, go to http://gramps.sourceforge.net/.

Macintosh OS X users can find a native mode GRAMPS implementation for their operating system at http://fink.sourceforge.net/pdb/package.php/gramps.