Using Your iPad to Write Your Family History

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

I will begin this article with a major disclaimer. With the exception of my iPod and my iPad, I am a devoted PC user, and foresee no possibility of moving over to the Mac side of the technology world beyond the two devices I just mentioned. Don’t get me wrong. I love my iPad and use it daily for a variety of functions including my calendar, a to do list, Evernote, Dropbox, pinball, the daily New York Times Crossword Puzzle, Netflix movies, FamilySearch indexing, Ancestry, lecture presentations, and my favorite pastime, listening to every broadcast Red Sox baseball game (as I’m typing they are losing to the Texas Rangers by 5 to 2 in the third). I do not, however, use it for narrative composition. First, I just can’t get past the inability to right click! More importantly, however, my first (and so far only) experience in using my iPad and its Bluetooth keyboard to transcribe wills in the Augusta County (Virginia) Courthouse proved to be a disaster. I was happily typing my third will when, suddenly, it was as if some invisible finger descended onto the backspace key and I saw an hour’s worth of work unravel in front of my eyes. I could not find a way to stop its inexorable deletions! The extended fallout of this problem was the inability to type in other apps, a problem resolved only by turning the iPad completely off and holding my breath when I restarted it. Functionality was restored, but I have not tempted fate with the keyboard again.

Despite this rather eerie and exasperating experience, my interest in using my iPad to write family history was rekindled (no pun intended) when I attended a lecture by Lisa A. Also, A Dozen Ways to Use Your iPad2 for Genealogy and Writing, during RootsTech 2012. Lisa’s lecture prompted me to investigate a variety of apps that offer support for aspiring family history writers.

  1. How well do you write? I am convinced, based on my client-work experience, that anyone aspiring to write stories or a book about the history of his or her family needs to learn how to write well (either acquiring new skills or brushing up on those acquired in the past). It is not enough to let your genealogical software “write” the book for you. You will need to add anecdotal information to enhance the often bland recitation of dates and places. The stories that you will want to tell need to be well-written in order to engage the reader and add understanding and value to the saga of your ancestors’ lives. An app developed by The Professional Writing Academy, entitled How to Write Your Family History, states that it is the “first in a series of mobile learning courses from the Academy.” Its press release states that “We know how to teach people to write effectively in all forms, from novels to emails. We also understand how many people want to learn new skills, but lack the time to undertake formal study.” The app is available from iTunes where, however, it is listed only as an iPhone app (with no plus sign indicating use on both iPad and iPhone). However, The Professional Writing Academy website homepage includes a link to the app stating that it is for use on iPhone, iPad, and Android. If you follow the link to a full description of the product, you will find a qualification that eBook and Android versions are “coming soon.” In iTunes, a click on the iPhone app icon for How to Write Your Family History leads to the product description page which states “compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 4.0 or later.” At $5.99, however, the price may be low enough for you to take a chance. There are no reviews available on the app’s iTunes page.

You may also want to explore The Professional Writing Academy site further as it offers many services including manuscript review and suggestions for publication options.

  1. How can you access and use current documents – particularly Microsoft documents? As my work is predominantly Microsoft Word based, researching answers to this question continues to be an important pursuit. When I first received my iPad2, I promptly looked for apps that would facilitate my use of existing Microsoft documents. I downloaded the Pages app after reading that it would open Word documents and allow edits and additions, while also permitting me to resave them in Word format. I have used Pages (still grumbling about the absence about of right click ability) and it is okay. My concern is that the one time I used it to edit and submit my blog copy, the person to whom I sent it had difficulty opening the file in Word, thus negating the timeliness and convenience I was looking for when away from home at deadline time. I have also moved documents into Evernote, but find that while some files open with no problem, more frequently, I get an error message that says “An error occurred while reading the document.” My work-around for this issue has been to generate a pdf version of the same document which then opens with no problem, but reduces functionality (more on that later). In researching this article, I have discovered Quickoffice Connect Mobile Suite for iPad. A bit more expensive at $19.99, it is however, “the #1 office editing suite for iPad” and will “edit ALL Microsoft Office® document, spreadsheet, and presentation format, as well as view PDF files, on the go.” Editing capabilities include formatting text, numbers, colors, paragraphs, backgrounds and cells. It also provides a virtual laser pointer and VGA-out support for presentations. The app is Cloud compatible (MobileMe, Dropbox, Google®Docs, and Evernote). If the product delivers on its description promises, I will definitely be downloading it. The app is available through the iTunes store under the title Quickoffice Pro-HD.

If you share documents as pdf files, you will want to check out GoodReader. This powerful app not only reads pdf documents, but provides mark-up capabilities including typewriter text boxes; “sticky-note” popup comments; text highlights; freehand drawings such as lines, arrows, rectangles, and ovals; text underlines; strikeouts; and text insertion marks.  You can also create folders, move, copy, rename, and email your files as well as synch to Dropbox. The $4.99 cost seems very reasonable considering the functionality of the app.

  1. How can I collect and/or organize new research information? Evernote is probably one of the best tools available for collecting and organizing notes, web pages, photos, videos, etc.  – and better yet, it’s a free app. Cloud technology allows you to access your documents and folders from all of your devices including your desktop PC, your laptop, your iPad, and your Smartphone (I have it on my Android). Evernote is available on iTunes, although you will have to install it on your PC or laptop from the Evernote site. I use Dropbox to move files between my PC and my laptop. I work on projects from within Dropbox and the synched version is then available to me wherever I happen to be. It keeps files easily accessible during trips, and no more thumb drives to keep track of. 2GB is included in the basic account. Again, Dropbox is available on iTunes for your iPad, but you will need to download on your PC or laptop from the Dropbox site. If you use an Android phone, search in the “Play Store.”

You may also be interested in other ways to record information. Dragon Dictation is probably the foremost voice-recognition app, particularly as it is available at no cost. I had hoped to use it for a current project in which I am interviewing individuals for a community history book. Unfortunately, it appears that this app does not work with multiple voices, and reviews on iTunes are mixed. People seem to love it, or like it not at all. It claims to produce documents five times faster than typing and that would be useful in drafting client reports, email messages, and compiling notes. It would not be useful in libraries, courthouses and other public places where others might be disturbed.

I have always wondered about handwriting notes or drawing diagrams on the iPad. I downloaded My Script Memo but discovered that, regardless of settings adjustments, the end of my finger made far too broad a line so that I could get a very few words per screen! I tried a stylus but it did not register. The Penultimate app seems as if it might provide a useful alternative. Its description indicates that a stylus will work and Cloud integration is available via Evernote and Dropbox. For 99 cents, the price is certainly right.

  1. How can I print the document I’ve created on my iPad? I avoid this problem by synching my document into Dropbox and then printing it from either my desktop or my laptop. However, if you need to print from your iPad, PrintCentral may provide the answer. This app allows you to print direct to most wireless printers without additional software and to print via 3G when Wi-Fi is not available. The app costs $8.99 and the PrintCentralPro app is available for an additional dollar.

The world of iPad apps expands continuously. Although your iPad will alert you to available updates to apps that you have downloaded previously, it is worth frequent iTunes store visits to see what new opportunities may be available. A comparison chart of a number of writing-related apps is available at Inkygirl.com. I will be trying my Bluetooth keyboard again and downloading several of the apps described above. Meanwhile let’s hone writing skills and share our ancestors’ stories.

You may also want to refer to the following print sources:

For All Time: a Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History by Charley Kempthorne (Boynton/Cook, 1996).

Genealogical Writing in the 21st Century: a Guide to Register Style and More edited by Michael J. Leclerc and Henry B. Hoff, 2nd ed. (New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2006).

Legacy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence (Swallow Press, 1997).

Writing Family Histories and Memoirs by Kirk Polking (Betterway Books, 1995).

You Can Write Your Family History by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009).

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