Starting From Scratch

You know your society needs a web site, but you don’t have a clue where to start. Here are some functional and affordable ideas that will help.

  1. Set goals. What do you want to accomplish with your site? Defining those goals will determine choices later on. For example, if you want to use your society’s site to attract and support “online” members (members who don’t live in your area but are researching ancestors who did), a directory of local research resources could be very useful. Do you want to use your site to reduce costs by distributing content now being printed and mailed to members? Offering RSS newsfeeds and/or email updates to keep all members informed about society and genealogy news not only reduces costs, but allows you to deliver timely information such as discounts or upcoming events.

  2. Recruit help. Do any of your members have blogging experience? If so, ask for their ideas and help getting organized. You need help in two areas – site management and content management. Site management requires a higher level of tech experience than content management, however once the site is built it’s mostly routine maintenance – backup, updates, etc. Using a hosted service or hiring a site management service may be your best option. The content on your site needs to be monitored with fresh content added regularly. Managing content will require much more time and effort. Good writing skills can be as hard to find as good technicians.

  3. Get training. There are a number of free and affordable training opportunities – especially for the more popular platforms like WordPress. Sites like Lynda.com and Udemy have online training for all kinds of programs, platforms and services. WordPress.tv has lots of free video lessons to help you get started with that platform.

  4. Create a content plan. This is an outline of the content you will post to your site along with who is responsible for providing that content and how often it will be reviewed. For example, your program chair may be responsible for providing information on each program/speaker while the education chair provides research tips and news about the commercial archives. Will you have a site editor to oversee the content managers, review content before it’s published and develop documented workflows on how to make it all happen?

  5. Build your site. Your planning and budget determines where and how the site will be built. Once the site’s up, it’s time to add content. Build user accounts for your content managers and let them get comfortable posting content as they build the static content and the initial news items. Get feedback from your staff and make adjustments as necessary.

  6. Announce the site. When everything is ready, announce the site. Let your members know how to find the site and what to expect when they get there. Even better, have handouts ready with the site address and a “tour” of the site content.

Building an effective web site is a major project. Once built it will require lots of time and effort to keep the content fresh and useful to your members. All this effort has its rewards. With an effective web presence, your society has a reach you could never imagine otherwise.

Blog Platforms: WordPress.com

WordPress is probably the most popular content management systems for building web sites. WordPress comes in two “flavors”:

  • an online service where you can create your site by creating an account and selecting a few setup options (WordPress.com)
  • an application you install, configure and set up in your own web hosting account.

The hosted WordPress.com offers both free and premium sites. A fully-functional site can be set up in a matter of minutes. If additional features are needed (such as a custom domain name, theme customization or more storage), they can be added individually or as part of a package. Using the hosted service, most of the site management functions are performed by WordPress.com. You can stay focused on your site content.

Setting up a self-hosted site gives the site manager more flexibility. There is a huge library of plugins that can be installed to provide additional functionality such as storefronts, editorial calendars and database backups. Along with that flexibility comes more responsibility for maintaining the WordPress application.

Note: This site is hosted at WordPress.com using a WordPress Premium package.

Turn Tumblr Into A Virtual Special Interest Group

Genealogy today is more than ancestral charts and family group sheets – much more. Today’s researcher needs to know how to craft the perfect search query, develop naming conventions for digital files and import a GEDCOM. And that’s just the beginning.

The online age has allowed us to connect with researchers in every corner of the world. Publishing is easy and affordable. Our computers can do much of the organizational grunt work for us. We just need to learn how all these things work.

That’s where special interest groups come in. They aren’t new, but taking them virtual is. Why bother? Because they are a whole lot less bother than trying to organize and manage a physical group. That’s one reason. Another is that distant members can participate in virtual groups just as easily as local members. There are no rooms to reserve or travel time. In fact, virtual special interest groups can operate 24/7!

Sample Tumblr

Tumblr is a free blog platform that’s also quite easy to use. It has been designed to make it easy for bloggers to share content they find from all over the web. By combining Tumblr with the Disqus commenting system, you have an almost instant social network. The beauty of it is that it’s always open and people can participate when they want, from wherever they are. Here’s how it works.

Tumblr Tag Cloud

This is a screen shot of the Genealogy 101 Tumblr that supports my local study group. You are looking at one of the static pages on this site – the tag cloud. It serves as an index to the articles posted on this site. Each article has a number of keywords – called tags – attached to it to describe the topics discussed. The tag cloud collects all those keywords and presents them here in alphabetical order. The larger the tag is in this list, the more articles there are associated with this topic. To view all the articles associated with a tag, all you have to do is click on it.

Tumblr Conversation

Here you see a Tumblr post and the conversation getting started based on the topic of this post. The Disqus commenting platform operates across a number of blog sites and platforms. This means readers only need one Disqus account to comment at a growing number of sites. And, their Disqus profile page keeps track of all their conversations in one place, making it easy to keep up and respond.

Group participants should be encouraged to subscribe to the group site via their newsreader so new postings will be delivered to their desktop. If you aren’t familiar with newsreaders and their use in genealogy research, stop by the Genealogy Toolbox Tumblr to learn more. When a topic appears that interests them, they can easily follow it back to the original site and add their own comments and experiences using Disqus. And, if your society develops more than one virtual SIG, Disqus makes it easy to keep up with all those conversations.

To get started, you first need to get comfortable with Tumblr. It’s free to use and you can have a blog up and running in a matter of minutes. Blog Platforms – Tumblr offers a quick video overview and links to a very useful (and short) guide to using Tumblr.

You are also welcome to take advantage of several existing special interest groups. They are open to all.

  • Genealogy 10 introduces beginning researchers to techniques and resources
  • Genealogy Toolbox discusses the digital tools needed for online research
  • Personal Publishing looks at digital storytelling with ideas, apps and platforms to help tell your family’s story
  • The Personal Archivist offers tips, resources and ideas for organizing, managing and digitizing family treasures

Take a look, try some experiments on your own and see if Tumblr and Disqus work for you. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Society Evernote: Policy and Procedures Manual

My society’s policy and procedures are maintained in a three-ring binder. Each board member and staff position gets one. I’m estimating that they cost approximately $120 to produce.

This could explain why the policy and procedures manual hasn’t been updated in years.

Unfortunately, reality (and technology) have changed significantly and many of those policies and procedures are now useless. When viewed in the sense of updating the existing manual, the update would be a significant effort. Fortunately, there’s a better, cheaper and easier way.

Move the policies and procedures to Evernote.

At the time the existing manual was created, membership applications were paper forms included in each quarterly journal. The applicant completed the form, attached a check and sent it to the society. The form requested name, address and phone number, but there was no mention of an email address or social network connections. Today there’s both an online application and a downloadable form in addition to the – updated – one in the quarterly. Thanks to PayPal, there are also more payment options. The society now has an email mailing list along with the address and phone lists. A lot has changed, but the workflow for handling applications has not.

Why waste the time and effort of forming a committee, researching and writing the entire manual? Instead, create an Evernote notebook for Policies and Procedures and turn loose the people who are doing these jobs to develop the procedures themselves. Give everyone involved access and use Evernote’s WorkChat feature to discuss options, recommendations and updates. With WorkChat, the entire conversation is visible to all.

Evernote offers a number of advantages. Because each note is easily edited, procedures can be quickly updated when new technology or environmental changes make it necessary. And, with more “eyes” on each workflow, you may well discover even more efficient or economical ways of doing something. Each note has its own history showing who edited it and when.

Another advantage is that an Evernote notebook (on a tablet or smart phone) is a whole lot lighter than a paper notebook and can go with you anywhere. If you still have board members who don’t own a mobile device, they can print copies of the notes from their desktop.

Your society’s board and staff can have easy access to the information they need whenever and wherever they are at a fraction of the cost and effort of a paper manual. It’s definitely worth a look!

Archival Blogging

I love blogging! It has so many advantages for the genealogist/family historian that I can’t imagine trying to research without including a blog in the process. Not only does it allow me to write the stories of my ancestors as my research develops them, it’s also easy to update those stories when new facts come to light. And, it’s amazing how quickly that collection of family stories grows! While even the idea of tackling THE FAMILY HISTORY is overwhelming, blogging “little” stories is a joy.

Blogs are also cousin magnets. Even if your blog stats show few visitors reading your posts, the search engines are keeping a sharp eye on even the smallest blog and will deliver a research cousin in a heartbeat when their search matches your content. There’s also the commenting systems included in most blog platforms which have turned blogs into community centers where people gather to share information and inspiration.

There is one issue that has been a concern – a rather serious concern. Most blog platforms have limited backup capabilities and trying to move content from one platform to another can be a nightmare. Then there’s the dreaded shutdown notice giving users a short period of time to grab their work before the platform is taken down.

How do you protect your work from crashes, shutdowns and old technology? Here are a few ideas for developing “archival quality” blog posts.

Writing Platforms

This article was written using the Byword [Mac – $9.99, iOS – $4.99] text editing app. It supports Markdown which makes it a lot easier to incorporate HTML code in the article for formatting and including links. It also includes an optional Publish feature – a $4.99 in-app purchase. With it you can publish your Byword files to WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger, Evernote and Scriptogram. Byword is just one of a growing number of editing and journaling apps that support blog publishing. Not only do they make it easier to write articles, you also maintain archived copies of them on your desktop. This can also come in handy when you decide you want to turn some or all of those articles into a published book.

You can also take advantage of a number of journaling applications like WinJournal [Win – $40] and MacJournal [Mac – $40, iPad – $3.99] as well as desktop blog editors like Microsoft’s free Live Writer and Blogo [Mac – $30]. With them you save your working copy on your desktop (or device) then publish a copy to your blog when you are ready.

There’s another advantage to using a writing platform for your blog posts. As your collection of stories grows, you’ll find it very easy to reorganize and repurpose those articles into all kinds of family history publications. For example, you could pull out all the articles on family members who served in the military to create a Memorial Day memory project. Use them to commemorate a special anniversary or honor someone who has passed away. You’ve done the heavy lifting – researching and writing each story – with your blog posts. Now you can enjoy the fun part of family publishing – turning those stories into beautiful treasures.