Archival Quality Writing

Software developers are constantly improving the apps we use to manage our documents and publications. These advances have given us many useful tools to make our efforts easier. However, there is still one major area of concern – how to manage our digital document archives. As word processing applications have come and gone, we are often left with documents we can no longer view. How many of us are stuck with old WordStar, WordPerfect and even Word documents? There is one format, however, that has survived since the very beginnings of the digital age – plain text. Unfortunately, plain text is exactly that – plain. There are no font choices and you can’t include even the simplest formatting functions like bold or italic text. Who wants to be stuck with that?

Fortunately, software developers have come up with an option that will allow us to have archival quality text files – and have them with style! It’s called Markdown.

Markdown is actually two things. First, it’s a standard that uses certain plain text characters – like asterisks, hashtags and hyphens – to represent format settings. Second, it’s a collection of conversion programs which read the plain text file with these formatting “codes” and convert them into other document formats like rich text, HTML, PDF or even Word.

Here is a sample plain text file with Markdown codes:

Plain text with Markdown code.

Plain text with Markdown code.

 

As you can see in this example, plain text with Markdown coding is still quite readable. It’s much easier to read than the same text with equivalent HTML tags. It’s the simplicity and readability of Markdown that make it so interesting. Forty years from now, even if Markdown gets forgotten over the decades, someone can open and read a plain text document that includes Markdown code much easier than we can read this WordPerfect document that’s less than 20 years old.

An old WordPerfect document viewed in a text editor.

An old WordPerfect document viewed in a text editor.

No, you don’t have to dump your current apps, but now that you know what Markdown is you can start looking for apps that support it. One good example would be a journaling app and Mac/iOS users will find Day One [Mac - $9.99 & iOS - $4.99] saves your journal entries – and all your formatting – as Markdown text. Also for Mac/iOS users is Byword [Mac - $9.99 and iOS - $4.99], an elegantly simple text editor that supports both Markdown and rich text. The LightPaper [Android - $1.99] app is one of a number of text editors for Android tablets and phones providing Markdown support.

A number of note-taking apps for Mac are also getting updates to include Markdown support. VoodooPad 5 [Mac - $39.99 and iOS - $9.99] is a good example. And, because its native document format is Markdown, the app can easily convert your notes to rich text, Word, PDF, HTML and ePub formats. I found a free Windows app – MarkdownPad – which supports Markdown, and hopefully we’ll soon see more.

You may have noticed that many of the apps mentioned here are for mobile devices – phones and tablets. Mobile devices have limited memory and storage so the apps are more streamlined than their desktop cousins. Markdown editing screens takes a lot less code than traditional editors, making it a good choice for mobile apps. In addition, the screen-based keyboards can be a challenge for serious writing and formatting. Anything that can simplify the formatting process improves its usability.

This article in the Byword editor for Mac.

This article in the Byword editor for Mac.

This example shows what Markdown looks like while editing. As you can see the text is quite readable. Once the document is ready to publish, the program includes functions to save it in the format of your choice (rich text, HTML, PDF, etc.) – with the Markdown codes converted to the appropriate formatting. As technology moves forward, all that’s needed to update this app – or any of the older documents created using it – are new publishing functions to support converting to whatever new format has been developed.

Thanks to Markdown, the future of plain text looks quite bright. And, by supporting the efforts of developers who incorporate Markdown in their applications, we can help influence its acceptance and continued growth. Helping them will help us build an archival standard for digital documents that will insure the future of our research and publishing efforts doesn’t get left behind in the trash bin of old technology.

Working Smart: The Board Meeting

How often do your board meetings get highjacked by minutiae? Put Evernote to work and get most of those discussions out of the way before the meeting begins.

Why Evernote? First of all, it is an amazing tool for collecting and organizing information. It is so amazing that it has become one of the most popular support tools for genealogy research. As a result, many in the genealogy community are already using Evernote.

To get started, you will need a premium Evernote account set up for your society. A premium account will cost $45.00 a year, but will save everyone time, effort and grief. The account should be created using the society email address of the board member who will manage the account (webmaster@mysociety.org or groupmaster@mysociety.org, for example). Board members can then use their own personal Evernote account (basic or premium) to interact with the society account.

Using the society Evernote account, set up a notebook for board business and share it with each board member. Although any Evernote user can create shared notebooks, only a premium account can create a shared notebook where each invited user can create and edit notes.

Here are some ideas for using that board business notebook to streamline your meetings:

  • Post meeting minutes from the previous meeting in the notebook several days prior to the upcoming meeting for review and comments. Set a deadline for comments so that the final minutes can be posted prior to the meeting. Now, it will just take a few seconds during the meeting for the board to accept the minutes.
  • A smart phone with Evernote installed can even be used to record the meeting as an audio note. This could help the secretary compile the meeting minutes later. The premium account supports longer recording time than standard accounts.
  • Post a note requesting agenda items for the upcoming meeting – with a deadline. Use it to create and post the actual agenda several days before the meeting.
  • For complex items, have the responsible member post a report providing details, options, costs and concerns so the board members can come to the meeting already informed.
  • Use your society’s Evernote premium account to maintain a library of your important documents. Not only will this give your board members instant access to that information from just about anywhere, it also provides an off-site backup for those documents in case of a disaster.

These few ideas can make a big difference in how your society functions. But this is just the beginning. There’s a lot more Evernote can do to support your society’s operations.

Special Interest Groups

One of the challenges a genealogy society faces is the different interests and skill levels of its memberships. It’s impossible to be all things to all people, but you can offer them options. One of these is the special interest group (SIG). If there is interest in a specific research technique or more people want to learn about a new program or service, this might be best handled as a special interest group.

The beauty of special interest groups is they can be just about anything you want them to be. They could be groups that meet physically for presentations or workshops. They could also be a virtual group using social networks to share information. Today there are a number of networks supporting both open and closed (invitation only) groups with easy-to-use tools. Not only can you use them for scheduled get-togethers but they are also places were members can check in when it’s convenient for them.

Google+ Community

The DearMYRTLE community at Google+

Because Google has so many tools that support online research, it’s quite likely that many of your members already have Google accounts. This makes Google Plus a great platform for a special interest group. In Google Plus they are called Communities and you’ll find a number of interesting genealogy-related communities already there. For example, if you are interested in learning more about using Evernote, you can join the public Evernote in Genealogy community. Are you a RootsMagic user? If so, you might find the RootsMagic Users community quite useful. Then there’s DearMYRTLE’S Genealogy Community – a model community that takes advantage of a number of Google tools including Google Hangouts.

Hangouts is a Google service that is part text chat, part phone call, part video conferencing, part online meeting and part party. Any Google user can create a hangout at any time. It can be an online conversation between two people, a panel discussion or a formal presentation. And, it costs nothing to use. Combine it with a Google Plus Community site and you can have the basis for a very effective special interest group platform.

But.

There’s always a “but”.

Even if I was an experienced and knowledgeable Google Plus/Hangouts user (which I’m not), I would still build my group slowly – starting with basic steps and later working up to online conversations and even meetings. Since many of the members I want to attract to my group have limited tech skills, I will need to provide them a simple platform that won’t overwhelm them, then slowly add in new features.

Here are some recommendations learned from the Hard Knocks SIG:

  • Keep your group’s focus on a narrow topic – like Roots Magic or Local Research Sources rather than Technology in Genealogy.
  • Recruit experienced users to help answer questions and offer their own tips.
  • Present new topics by first selling their benefits. Give your members a reason to make the effort to learn it.
  • Google Hangouts supports text, voice and video conversations for up to 10 participants. A hangout can be initiated with just a couple mouse clicks. You can put this to work to provide personal tutoring.
  • Hangouts on Air are more formal and can have unlimited participants although only 10 can be speakers. These would be more appropriate for formal presentations or online meetings. Experiment with your staff to get comfortable using Hangouts on Air before putting it to use on your SIG. It’s also a good idea to have a “moderator” in addition to the host and guest speakers. That person handles any technical issues and passes on questions and comments from the audience to the speakers.

The combination of Google+ Communities and Hangouts has already built a number of impressive special interest groups. Join a couple to see how they operate. They are a great way to get comfortable with Google+ and see how you can put it to work for your society.

While Google+ is a great option for an online special interest group. It isn’t the only one. How does your society handle special interest groups? We’d love to hear from you!

How to Build a Virtual Research Library

One of the most exciting technologies to impact our research efforts is digitization – especially digitizing books. Every day, more books are digitized and posted online for anyone to read and/or download. Although books still protected by copyright have limited access, there are millions of books in the public domain that are freely available. How do these “old” books help us as a society? They give us the ability to build an impressive library of local histories and other historical publications that can support our members’ research efforts. Here are a few examples:

  • Military history. After the Civil War, many units – Union and Confederate – published histories of their regiments. These included descriptions of their campaigns along with personnel rosters and other useful information.
  • Journals. It wasn’t just noted naturalists like William Bartram, John James Audubon or John Muir who documented their work.
  • Tour guides. Magazines from the 19th century are full of articles describing all kinds of destinations. Find one of your area and you’ve got a snapshot in time.
  • Family history. You’ll be amazed at the number of genealogies that have been published.
  • Periodicals go back more than 150 years with publications like The Atlantic Monthly (still published as The Atlantic), Harper’s Weekly, Niles’ Weekly Register and more. Topics include news, travel, politics and more.

So, how does your society take advantage of all this research goodness? You build a resource page – or two or three – linking to the digital publications that relate to your area and/or your members research interests. Building the resource page is the easy part. Finding specific resources can be a challenge. We’ll start with Internet Archive. It costs nothing to use and contains collections of text, music, video, audio and software files from a growing number of partners including the Library of Congress, Boston Public Library, the University of Edinburgh, Library and Archives Canada and Project Gutenberg. Sure, you could just point your members in the direction of Internet Archive, but their eyes would probably glaze over just at the magnitude of stuff to be found here. Do some searching on your own to find what local resources you can discover and begin building your resource page. I did a search for “Florida history” in the American Libraries section and got 823 results. One of them was the Volusia County marriage licenses from 1856 to 1889 which you see below. Text items are available in a number of formats including PDF, ePub and Kindle along with the embeddable online reader you see here.

Resources101 How do you document links like this on your site? The easiest way is to use blog posts. If you’re using WordPress, start by creating a post category called Resources. Set categories panel Now you can create a post for the found publication that includes its title, source information, description and other pertinent information. Assign the post to the Resources category and add appropriate tags. Publish the post. Next, create a menu just for your library items.  You can use the menu’s ability to search for a specific tag or category to organize your collected publications.menu page example In this example, I’m using the basic link option to create a menu item listing every post tagged with “Florida” and “history”. I’ve also created tag-based menu items for Florida Guides, Memoirs & Journals, and Records. Since I anticipate adding Georgia publications at some point, I’ve got these items listed as sub-menu items under Florida. Later I can add a Georgia menu item with appropriate sub-menu items under it too.

Notice that I’ve created Historical Publications as a separate menu. Large menus can become very difficult to manage and my archive section is steadily growing. I’m giving the various sections of my archive (library catalog, cemetery inventories, publications, etc.) their own page and using the Widgets on Pages plugin to display the appropriate menu for that category. Here’s what Historical Publications looks like so far. archive category page Although WordPress.com users can’t use plugins, you can take advantage of the visibility feature in the Custom Menu widget to just display that widget in the sidebar on the Historical Publications page. The theme on my site has the main menu across the top of screen so the sidebar has plenty of room to display custom menus.

If you are using the WordPress email subscription feature, each new resource post will be forwarded to subscribers. I take advantage of the posts scheduling feature to spread out the amount of emails getting sent. You could also take advantage of your site’s commenting feature to encourage members to discuss the various publications included as resources.

By blogging found resources, not only are you making your society’s site a valuable research support system, you are also showing members and potential members that your society offers them much more than just monthly meetings.

Call for Presentations – North Florida Genealogy Conference

The North Florida Genealogy Conference will be held on March 21, 2015 in Orange Park, Florida. This one-day conference offers both presentations and exhibits at a very affordable price.

They have just released a call for presentations. Selected speakers receive a complimentary registration and are reimbursed for their gas costs. If you are interested in submitting a proposal, the SGES blog has the details.

Build an Archive on Flickr

I just stumbled onto the National Archives Citizen Archivist Research group on Flickr. The National Archives has built a group on Flickr and invited citizen archivists (that would be you and me) to share our scanned photos, documents and ephemera with the group. What a brilliant idea!

Flickr group example

Citizen Archivist group at Flickr

Flickr’s Group feature is really quite remarkable. It is a way individuals can share their photographs with others without giving up control of their stuff. You’ll find groups for events (they’re great for weddings or reunions), groups for locations and groups for just about any topic you can imagine. We genealogists will find the cemetery groups particularly fascinating.

Any Flickr user can create a group and these groups can be set up as public – open to anyone, public – by invitation only or private. When you join a group and share photos to the group, your licensing and privacy settings “go” with the photo. Sharing a photo to a group allows any member of that group to view your photo, add comments, notes and tags regardless of the privacy settings. In a private or public/invitation only group, a photo with a “private” setting will only be seen by the people who belong to that group. The sharing options will be turned off so they can’t be shared outside the group.

How can your society take advantage of this feature? First of all, Flickr is a fabulous – and affordable – way for your members to build an off-site archive of the photographs and documents they are digitizing. Every user gets one terabyte of photo storage at no cost. That’s roughly equivalent to 560,000 high resolution photographs. And, in addition to protecting their digital collections from disaster, Flickr offers a wide range of features for displaying and sharing all or parts of their collections.

Does your society offer any programs to help members digitize and archive their personal archives? If not, why not? Digitizing photos, papers and other ephemera and posting copies to an online archive such as Flickr not only provides protection, but can serve a number of other useful purposes too. The National Archives uses Flickr to learn more about certain images and collections by posting them and asking others to add comments if they know anything about them. And, the Citizen Archivist group I just stumbled onto is a great way to pull images from all across Flickr, giving the focus they so deserve. We can use the examples provided by NARA’s Citizen Archivst project to help our members digitize, protect and display their treasured photos and documents.

Attracting Distant Members

Distant members are people who are researching our geographic areas, but do not live here. They are an untapped resource offering many opportunities even for the smallest society. By taking advantage of free and low-cost online platforms, we can attract distant members and give them the ability to actively participate in the society. The tools described here offer some suggestions for making this happen.

Build a Digital Library

Digitizing  your society’s publications – especially the newsletters and quarterlies – and making them available online is a quick and easy way to attract distant members – and generate revenue by offering the digital publications for sale. Begin by creating a free account with the Scribd digital library platform. Start by posting copies of the newsletter. Scribd can be used to post digital copies of many types of publications from indexes and cemetery inventories to new member packets and how-to guides. Publications can be posted publicly or privately (requiring a direct link to access). It can also be used to offer publications for sale. Once you’ve set up a sales account with Scribd, you just upload the publication file, set a price and Scribd manages all the sale/delivery/customer service effort. There is no up-front cost, but Scribd collects a 20% commission to cover their credit card processing and sales management costs.

Use your Scribd storefront to offer digital copies of past issues of your quarterly for sale. Your more recent copies – those created as digital files (Word, In-Design or whatever format) – can easily be converted to PDF documents and uploaded to Scribd. Set a price, then start advertising them on your web site. Older copies would need to be scanned to generate a digital copy that could be uploaded.

A document collection hosted at Scribd.

A document collection hosted at Scribd.

You can also offer your members the option to choose digital or print copies of upcoming quarterlies. With the growing popularity of readers and tablet devices, a digital option is often preferred. The advantages of digital publications include full color at no extra cost, they are searchable and have functional hyperlinks. Encouraging this trend can also help reduce costs. For those who choose digital, the new version would be uploaded as a private publication on Scribd and an email providing the download link and instructions would be sent to the member. Another copy is uploaded publicly for sale and the price is set. Scribd has a document preview option and the publisher can define how much of the document – even select which pages – will be used in the preview. For quarterlies, using the table of contents for the preview gives visitors an index of sorts with minimal effort on your part.

You may even want to consider adjusting the format of your publications to make them more readable on tablets and e-readers. Most devices can read digest-sized publications (5.25″ x 8.25″) in PDF format very comfortably.

As the society’s digital library grows, so does it’s value to distant members (and non-members). For library holdings and older quarterly issues, providing a digital index to your holdings – and possibly even a research/copy service – could generate even more membership revenue.

One last benefit . . . the documents you post at Scribd also serve as an off-site backup of these precious publications.

Social Networking

Take advantage of social networking platforms such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter to connect with distant members. It costs nothing to create a society presence on these networks, but they will require frequent monitoring and timely responses. These can be good places to get conversations going – between users and the society, between society members and between members and visitors. You can’t control all of the activity and, except for dealing with inappropriate content, you don’t really want to. You want lots of conversation so your visitors will know your society is an active and involved group.

Florida State Genealogical Society page on Facebook

Florida State Genealogical Society page on Facebook

While Facebook is a great place for conversations, Google+ has features that make it a great platform for virtual special interest groups. One example of this is the Evernote for Genealogists community.

Online Meetings and Webinars

Google+ has another advantage that societies can put to good use – Hangouts and Hangouts on Air. Hangouts is a free and easy way to enjoy a group text conversation or video conference call with up to 10 people. Any user can initiate a Hangout at any time. Hangouts on Air is also free and allows an unlimited number of attendees, but only the first 10 can actively participate – the others can watch and post text comments/questions. And, Hangouts on Air are automatically recorded on YouTube so you’ve got a recorded copy almost immediately after its over. In addition to conversations, you can use Hangouts for collaboration (like a live document review), tutoring (with desktop sharing) and meetings.

It will require some time and effort to learn to use the platform and develop procedures for conducting online meetings and webinars, but that effort can be quite rewarding. Not only will it allow distant members to actively participate in society activities, it can increase the productivity of your board and committees.

Use your society’s blog to point members to interesting Hangouts to help them get used to the platform. Experiment with Google Hangouts and Hangouts on Air to see if there is interest (from the board and from members in general). Use it for more informal “gatherings” like user groups and workshops as well as for building a collection of webinars, instructional videos, interviews with authors and/or professional genealogists and any number of other online events.

If you would like to see a very successful implementation of Google+ and Hangouts on Air, take a look at the DearMYRTLE community.

The ideas presented here offer your society a number of ways to expand your horizons. Although the monetary costs to implement any of these ideas is minimal, they will impact the amount of time each board/committee member spends on society-related work. Fortunately, most of this effort can be done whenever and wherever it is most convenient for you.

Watch for future articles discussing these platforms and others in more detail.