The Future of Family History

Sometime back I sat in on a panel discussion of the future of genealogy. Most of the discussion revolved around technical advances and digital content being added at the large database sites. I was surprised that little was said about the impact of personal archives. While the large databases are a treasure trove of vital records, probate records, immigration records and such, personal archives are where the letters, journals, photographs, portraits and artifacts reside that add life and personality to our ancestors. I don’t know about you, but these items are the life blood of my research and storytelling efforts.

My family has been knocking around an idea to photograph many of the family heirlooms to create a book that would allow each of us to “share the heritage”. In researching what it would take to pull such a project together, I realized this could easily become a massive effort. In addition to lighting and photography equipment, wouldn’t it also be wonderful to have conservators and appraisers available to offer expert advice? Wonderful? Yes! Affordable? Not so much.

It was at that point that it dawned on me this would be a perfect project for a local historical or genealogical society. Societies have the expertise and connections for both digitizing and documenting family heirlooms. Putting on such an event could also give them access to personal archives which would expand their knowledge base. And, they could ask for digital copies with appropriate releases as a part of the digitizing/documentation service. Then, there’s also the possibility for negotiating loans of artwork and other artifacts for special exhibits in local museums. Individuals get digital copies of their artifacts along with conservation tips and some idea of their history. And, hopefully, everyone has some fun in the process.

Our mobile society means a small local genealogy society needs the support of distant members to survive and prosper. This is increasingly difficult when their record collections are only available in print format. Projects to digitize both the society’s collection and their members’ personal archives can go a long way to attract new members and create a vibrant community where both local and distant members can actively participate.

And, by attracting more people to the joys of genealogy, they will help the commercial side of our community too.

Internet Archive: Building Libraries Together

The Internet Archive is redesigning the site with a very impressive purpose in mind:

We are creating new tools to help every media-based community build their own collections on a long term platform that is available to the entire world for free. Collectors will be able to upload media, reference media from other collections, use tools to coordinate the activities of their community, and create a distinct Internet presence while also offering users the chance to explore diverse collections of other content.

Why should a genealogy society find this interesting? It will give even the smallest society an affordable opportunity to make their unique collections available to the world. And, in the process, they are protecting those collections from disaster. A number of impressive archives and libraries are already offering collections via Internet Archive. Now, they are inviting us little guys.

Conversations Across the Web

As I said in an earlier post, the comments feature on most blog platforms was what turned genealogy bloggers into geneabloggers. We went from being individual bloggers into a blogging community thanks to the comments section. Although the comments section is still there and does see some activity, social networking sites are now the place to go for conversation. Why is that? I think it’s because it’s easier. One login lets us get into just about any conversation.

Unfortunately, there’s a downside to social networks – a lack of privacy. Facebook’s recent research scandal is one of many attacks on our privacy.

Fortunately there’s an alternative – one that keeps our blogs front and center where they belong. It’s the Disqus commenting platform. Disqus makes it possible to comment at Tumblr, Blogger, WordPress (self-hosted), SquareSpace and a number of other blog platforms using one Disqus account. And, that’s just the beginning. With Disqus, commenters can:

  • include rich media like photos and embeds
  • carry on real-time conversations
  • comment on-site or through your Disqus profile
  • receive notifications – new comments or replies
  • follow interesting individuals as well as blog sites
  • export and keep their comments.

How can a society take advantage of Disqus to engage members and attract new ones? First of all, add Disqus to your society’s blog and use it to ask your members to share ideas, tips and suggestions. Other ideas include:

  • build a blog network among your members by encouraging them to use Disqus on their blogs. Even members who don’t blog can have a voice by creating a Disqus account and getting into the conversation.
  • schedule live online discussions using Disqus.
  • use Disqus to hold online show-and-tell events so members can show off favorite family photos or interesting artifacts.
  • hold an online book launch party with the author available to discuss the book and answer questions.

Repurposing Content

One of the wonderful thing about blogs is they are designed for redistribution. Every blog platform I have seen formats post content so it can be distributed using what is known as really simple syndication (or RSS). Not only does this make it easy for news reading services like Feedly, Pulse or Flipboard to collect and display content from multiple sources, we can do it too!

WordPress users can use the built-in RSS Widget to add the latest items from another source to your blog’s sidebar.

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Here you see the RSS widget’s setup panel and the repurposed content that appears in the blog’s sidebar. The setup panel is where you enter the link to the feed you wish to display, then select options for the content. At the Society Journal site, you see there are two RSS widgets displayed in the sidebar.

Self-hosted WordPress users can take advantage of the Widgets on Pages plugin to display even more content. In the example below, my genealogy society uses the plugin to display the latest posts from the same Genealogy 101 Tumblr blog used in the example above. The difference here is that we can take advantage of the extra space a page provides to include more of the content from each post.

Widgets on Pages

How can your society take advantage of these features? In this example, I am using a Tumblr blog to quickly capture useful research tips, sources and news and then make it available here and on my society’s site. I’m using Tumblr because it is much easier than WordPress for “reblogging” articles found across the web. I then use Tumblr’s RSS feed address to set up the widget on my WordPress blog. Now, when new content is posted to the Tumblr blog, it will appear within minutes at the widgeted sites.

Do you have members who are blogging? Why not create a page on the society site to spotlight their latest posts. Not only do you give them more visibility, you may even inspire more bloggers.

By using the tools WordPress offers and taking advantage of all the news feeds available, you can display some amazing content on your society’s site with little effort. See what repurposing content can do for you.

Joys of Geneablogging

This week I’m celebrating 11 years of blogging. Blogging has changed a lot over the years, but one thing hasn’t changed – the ability to make connections. Thanks to blogging I’ve met a number of cousins who also share a passion for genealogy. Many of them have generously shared their research. I also have personal relationships with experts in all areas of genealogical research who are always ready with a helping hand. And I can walk into a genealogy conference just about anywhere and be surrounded by old friends – even if I’m seeing them for the first time.

Blogging is easy and affordable – many blog platforms are free. Two things make them effective cousin-bait. First, they are very search-friendly. Search engines can find even the most obscure blog post, especially if they include tags (keywords) for surnames, events and locations related to the story. Second, just about every blog platform includes a commenting system allowing readers to leave notes. Comments are often where connections are made.

From a society perspective, encouraging members to become bloggers also builds an online community for your membership. The combination of writing, reading and commenting helps build relationships and expands your research support system beyond your monthly meetings – even beyond your local area since your distant members can easily participate.

The problem with the commenting systems built into blogs is that each is different. Because comments are also spam magnets, most bloggers require commenters to log in before posting a comment. This can be a frustrating experience and can discourage commenters. However, there’s a new commenting system called Disqus that can solve many of these issues and provide a platform that both bloggers and commenters can enjoy.

Disqus comments on Tumblr.

Disqus comments on a Tumblr blog.

Here you see Disqus comments on a Tumblr blog. Tumblr doesn’t have its own commenting system so Disqus makes this delightful blog platform even more fun. As you see here, comments can quickly become conversations. Not only that, but Disqus supports rich media as well as text. You can include an image, video, Soundcloud audio and even tweets in your comments.

Comment with image

A Disqus comment with included image.

It gets better! Disqus commenters have their own profile at the Disqus site and can view, reply and manage conversations at multiple blogs from one location. Disqus will even notify you when your comments generate replies or others join a conversation. You don’t have to wander from blog to blog to see if anyone has added a comment. It’s all collected and delivered to you. You can even follow other Disqus users if you wish.

Disqus user profile

A Disqus user profile

The combination of a Tumblr blog connected to Disqus gives your members a mini social network where they can document their research, share family photos and stories and connect with others for support. The primary advantage of these platforms over social networks is that the user enjoys more control and has fewer distractions.

How can your society benefit from all of this? First of all, you are helping your members take advantage of the many benefits of geneablogging. You are also building a network of bloggers who can help you get the word out about your society and upcoming events while demonstrating that you have an active and involved membership.

Coming soon – a society guide to geneablogging with Tumblr and Disqus.

Flickr 411

Are you using Flickr to encourage your membership to digitize their photo collections and post copies online for safe-keeping? [See The Flickr Archive.] If so, there are a number of Flickr-related projects the society can sponsor that will help your members learn more about their family history. My favorite is something I call Flickr 411 and it was inspired by Flickr Commons.

Flickr Commons Florida page

The Florida State Archives at Flickr Commons

The Library of Congress kicked things off Flickr Commons in January 2008 with a pilot project to collect more information about the photographs in their collection. They posted a number of photos on Flickr and invited the public to come view them and, if they knew anything about a photo, they were asked to add tags, comments and notes using the tools built into the Flickr platform. A report on the program released in October included these statistics:

As of October 23, 2008, there have been:

  • 10.4 million views of the photos on Flickr.
  • 79% of the 4,615 photos have been made a “favorite” (i.e., are incorporated into personal Flickr collections).
  • More than 15,000 Flickr members have chosen to make the Library of Congress a “contact,” creating a photostream of Library images on their own accounts.
  • 7,166 comments were left on 2,873 photos by 2,562 unique Flickr accounts.
  • 67,176 tags were added by 2,518 unique Flickr accounts.
  • 4,548 of the 4,615 photos have at least one community-provided tag.
  • Less than 25 instances of user-generated content were removed as inappropriate.
  • More than 500 Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) records have been enhanced with new information provided by the Flickr Community.

Today, more than 90 institutions from around the world share their collections in The Commons. The British Library has posted more than a million photos and graphic images – most of them as public domain images.

How can you do something similar? Easy – just build a Flickr group, invite your members to add photos they would like to learn more about to that group, then start advertising the group publicly to attract visitors. Encourage those visitors to add any information they may have about individual photos. You’ll be surprised at the results.

Using a Flickr group for this project offers several benefits. First of all, your members maintain full control over their photographs. They decide which photos they want to share and can move them in or out of the group at any time. Plus, in addition to the standard comments feature found on all Flickr photo pages, groups also offer a discussion forum. This is a great way to get a conversation going.

The key to this project is promotion. Give your group(s) prominent visibility on the society web site – with links – along with articles describing the project and success stories as they happen. Include information about the project in your newsletters and on your social media sites. Remind members about it at meetings too.

This project will only cost you some time, but the benefits – to both the society and your members – can be tremendous. Your members will discover that Flickr offers more than just an affordable way to protect their photo archives while the society expands the benefits of membership to potential online members researching ancestors in your area.