Tracking down family history on a computer makes genealogy a lot easier than it once was.
But figuring out how to use software programs to gather, collate and display the details of a family tree can be difficult. In 1991, a group of Billings genealogy buffs started meeting to help each other through the process.
The Big Sky PAF Users Group celebrated its two-decade milestone Saturday with a presentation by member Rick Davis, who talked about creating a family tree chart from a genealogy program. PAF stands for personal ancestral file.
The daylong celebration also included a webinar on creating charts, a potluck lunch and a tour explaining how to do research at the Family History Center, 1711 Sixth St. W., where the group meets.
The center is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although the group itself is not part of the church. It's open to anyone interested in tracing ancestry.
Davis, who projected his computer monitor onto a white screen, took his audience to a website called Family Chartmasters. He spent the next 50 minutes reviewing all the ways the website can help people visually display their family histories.
Some of the charts are simple, others are elaborate, some are free and others you can buy, Davis told the group of about 45 women and men.
"A lot of people spend a lot of time doing their family history and then trying to decide 'well, now what do I do?' " said Davis, who was one of the founding members of the group.
Charts can let amateur genealogists show others the fruits of their labor. A working chart can get others involved in collecting family history, he said, at gatherings such as family reunions.
"If you hang it up, people go look at that chart and try to find themselves or somebody they know," Davis said. "And if there's information that's not right on there, invariably they want a pencil so they can correct it."
During Davis' talk, Big Sky PAF president Sydney Gabel held up examples of charts she has created, some using photos and words and others just words to map out family generations.
When a question came up on one type of chart — a bow tie — Gabel explained it to the group.
"Just think of a bow tie on a gentleman, you know how it fans out? That's what it is," she said. "The two people in the center are the little knot and then it fans out."
When the website referred to a type of portable scanner that can be used to scan documents or photographs, Gabel pulled hers out and explained to the others how it works.
Before the gathering, Jean McCormick, vice president of the group and also one of its founders, said that members are always glad to share their expertise.
"They even will go to a person's home to set up their computer or if they have problems," McCormick said.
She talked about what it was like to collect family information before computers made it easier.
"I spent weeks, months, years looking for certain information on my family because it would take so long to read through those microfilms and figure out what you needed to order," she said. "Now it's so much easier."
In the past, she said, if she wanted to look at the 1900 census, she would have to painstakingly search through each name in a database to find the one she wanted.
"Now they're indexed, so if you put in the name, the state and the country and you tell it to search and if they're in there, it will come up with it," McCormick said. "If you click the right button, it will show you the actual census page and you can print it out."
The LDS church supports genealogy research and makes the vast amount of information it has collected available to the public for free, she said. McCormick, who has been studying her ancestry for more than 30 years, said it's something she really enjoys.
"It's tremendously fun," she said. "It's like a detective story. If you find something you've been looking for a long time, it's just amazing."