The computer is one of our most important genealogical tools.
Many of us remember when this was not the case. I have my fair share of mimeographed family group sheets filled out in fading pencil waiting in a stack to be scanned. But today, with your research findings stored in a digital database and your research consisting of a blend of pay and free websites, with the local and state repositories you want to visit tagged in a Google Map, and with your latest photos of gravestones shared on Flickr and FindAGrave, you need a computer and you need it to work.
Whether you have a Mac or a Windows machine, the key to keeping your system working is maintenance. Just like with a car, you should have a schedule for maintaining your computer. With a car, every 3,000 or 5,000 miles, you need to change the oil; periodically, you need to rotate the tires. It helps to check the air pressure, air filters, and oil level from time to time. There is a similar regimen you should follow to keep your computer running smoothly, so you can focus on your research and not on recovering from a catastrophic computer issue.
Those of us who use Macs often come off as smug about the lack of a need for virus checking software. This implication is that the superior design of the Macintosh wards off all threats. (We can be such pains!) Of course, the Macintosh is just as vulnerable as any other operating system. Since OS X has been released, not as many viruses written for the Mac, but it takes only one virus to endanger your data or your privacy. So, while Macs are less likely to get viruses, the Mac OS is not without its vulnerabilities. Additionally, with cross-platform files (such as Microsoft Word files) can arrive with a virus and be sent on with that same virus, whether or not the virus infects your machine.
In addition to viruses, it is important to understand that there are spyware applications that are designed to gather data about you and your online identity. These often run based on your browser, and are therefore often platform independent. So, no matter what kind of computer your have, you should have anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and keep the virus and spyware definitions up-to-date.
For both the Mac and the PC, the two mainstays of the security market, Norton (us.norton.com) and McAfee (www.mcafee.com) offer a suite of products that provide protection against viruses, adware, spyware, and a variety of other online threats. The biggest hurdle for me in using virus protection like the programs sold by McAfee and Norton is hat they sometimes take over your computer when you are not expecting it to do so. For the Mac, there is also ClamXav (www.clamxav.com), a free open-source virus protection software package. While ClamXav is free, it does not proactively scan new or changed files; you have to remember to run it. Therefore, you get less protection, but also more control over what your computer is doing at any given moment.
Virus and malware protection fall in the category of adaptive maintenance. They are ways of adapting to changes in the environment.
System Security Updates
Both the PC in Windows Vista and Windows 7 and the Mac in OS X provide periodic updates to the system software. Some of these are optional. They might be updating a component of the operating system that you do not use, for example. But, often the updates will be issues to close up security holes in the operating system. This is known as “adaptive maintenance.” The Whenever you receive a security-related upgrade for your operating system, you should allow it to install. The software vendors will usually not announce security issues with their software until a fix is available, so you will probably not even know there is a problem. However, those who would like to exploit security issues with the operating system are constantly on the lookout for these issues, so you should let the experts at Microsoft and Apple give you the benefit of their attempts to keep you and your genealogical data safe.
Security issues are often also discovered with desktop application, especially Adobe Acrobat and the various browsers, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. Be aware of how your software vendor will make updates available. Some updates, such as system updates for Windows or the Mac OS and many applications will be delivered to your system automatically, whenever it is connected to the Internet and there has been a patch released.
In general, you should install these system and application updates as soon as it is feasible to do so. If you have any concern with whether the updates you are receiving are authorized by and delivered from the vendor, go to the support or downloads area of their website to verify that the change is valid, and learn what defect or vulnerability the change is intended to address.
Simply Staying Current
You have invested money in the software you use every day. More importantly, you have invested time in it. You have spent time learning how to use it, figuring out its features and foibles. Any software that you use a lot for your genealogy research, whether as a database for your records, or as a way to write or share your findings, should be protected in another way. It should be kept reasonably current. This does not mean that you need to be as assiduous as you should be with installing OS security patches. However, you should not be more than two major releases behind the released product. In other words, if the product is on version 7, you should be running at least version 5. This is a general rule of thumb, and may vary depending on how much the vendor has changed its product.
There are a couple of powerful websites and desktop applications that can help you keep on top of keeping your applications current. For both the Windows OS and the Mac OS, there is CNet’s TechTracker (formerly VersionTracker), with both free and subscription services (www.cnet.com/techtracker-free). For the Mac OS, there is a handy desktop software package, AppFresh (metaquark.de/appfresh/) which uses the osx.iusethis.com website to keep track of changes to applications, widgets, preference panes and application plug-ins. In addition to checking for new versions of all the applications submitted to osx.iusethis.com, AppFresh also keeps track of Apple and Microsoft Updates (and soon, Adobe updates), to help you keep your system current with the latest releases of the software you use on a regular basis. The tool also allows for Sparkle updates, which are built into many Mac OS products to automatically keep an installed product aware of updates.
With your computer operating system and the applications you run on it safe, you can focus the bulk of your energy on the search for and analysis of genealogical data. After all, your computer is simply a tool for your research, for finding, gathering, arranging, and storing your genealogical findings. You are doing the key intellectual work of assessing sources, thinking through unique ways to find your way past “brickwall” problems. It would be a shame if this work were lost because of a virus or a security hole. More commonly, simply by neglect of a standard process, your system may degrade in its performance, and you will lose the benefit it can provide you and get drawn into many hours of maintenance and repairs, of trying to reassemble the content you have brought together. We all know, and I have talked about in this column, the need for backups. In addition to backing up your system, you should also maintain what you have.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the National Genealogical Society Magazine. Used by permission.