Monthly Archives: April 2008

Intro to Content Management Systems

In the beginning there was HTML – hyper-text markup language.  If you haven’t heard of HTML, it’s the language of the Web.  It’s how you create the formatting for your content. Although HTML is still alive and well, any number of tools have been created to make page development almost as easy as creating a document in your word processing software. Even though these are easy to use, there’s still a lot of effort involved – editing the page, uploading it to the web server, checking, fixing, uploading and so on. And that doesn’t even count the cost of the software application itself . . .

There’s no need to be intimidated or discouraged. Today, there’s a better – and cheaper – way. Actually there’s several. These are called content management systems (or CMS) and they are web-based systems that organize and manage your entire site as well as provide sophisticated editing tools to make it easy to concentrate on the most important part of your site – your content.

The real beauty of a content management system is that it separates the site design from the content. Many systems offer several design options so all you have to do is xhooaw a theme. This frees you to concentrate on content. You can write and edit your articles without having to worry about managing the design elements. The CMS handles all that. It will also manage the indexing, linking, menus and other elements that make your site a useful knowledge center for your society’s membership. As you become more experienced – or find a volunteer with some design skills – you can customize a generic theme into your own unique look.

This article takes a look at several basic systems, describing how they can be used by a society or association to manage their sites.

General Web Site

General sites are used to present and maintain your organization’s information. This is generally a combination of static information (items like the society’s by-laws which are seldom changed) and dynamic information (news items, event calendar, etc.). Content management systems for general sites provide for multiple authors handling specific content types. For example, membership committee members might post and edit membership content while the reunion committee handles all reunion news.

Content management systems for general sites support all levels of sites – from the very basic to the most complex. There are several good open source systems (open source generally do not cost anything to use). Some of the more popular systems like Joomla can be found as hosted services where the software is set up and maintained by your hosting provider. Usually this is included in your hosting fee and is well worth the price if you’re not technically inclined.

General web site applications generally are the most flexible but will require a significant planning effort to organize the content within the site. If the site is to have multiple authors, you will also need to plan for permissions within the various content categories and develop a review and approval process for your site.

General site applications include:

Portal Site

Portals are designed as interactive sites where site members generate most of the content. These sites include features like message boards, polls and photo albums where all members are encouraged to participate. RootsWeb is a good example of a portal.

Portals are good choices when you want – and expect – active participation from your membership. It helps when your membership is comfortable with computer technology and wants to participate. Your role will be more a site manager and cheerleader than a content manager and web development experience is necessary to install and manage a portal site.

Portal applications include:

Blog Site

A blog (short for web log) has been designed to present articles in consecutive order much like a journal or diary. The most recent entry is the one at the top of the screen when you visit a blog site. Site content is further organized by the use of categories and tags (keywords) which help visitors find specific content.

Blog sites are the easiest and cheapest to get up and running. Many blogging services offer free starter accounts which can be upgraded to paid accounts as your content and needs expand. Most blog content is organized in a standard format making it easy to distribute your content – and migrate it should you decide to move from one CMS to another. Don’t let this simplicity fool you – blog sites have great potential.

Blog applications – hosted:

Just in case it isn’t totally obvious yet, we here at MCOHS are great blog fans.

Commentary: The ‘Big Bang’ Already Exploded

Leland Meitzler points us to an article by Jim Beidler [Genealogy's 'Big Bang' Theory]. Here’s a key point:

Simply put, societies have lost members to age and death, while the new folks who would have been inclined to replace them (pre-Internet) instead have chosen to do genealogy in their pajamas from home on their computer desktops.

In other words, the Internet is destroying genealogical societies and the conference business and the spirit of volunteerism that existed before the Internet. I must be living in an alternate universe [mine is VERY digital] because I see an expanding genealogical community thanks to the Internet providing opportunities that were impossible in those pre-Internet days.

Ignoring the impact of the commercial databases for the moment, all the “pajamas people” [I'm a proud member of that group!] have made massive amounts of free genealogical and historical information available to anyone with access to a search engine. Family photos, documents and family histories which once were buried in closets – or worse – have now been scanned and posted to photo-sharing sites, family web sites and blogs. Cousins are finding each other through these sites and sharing even more information using online collaborative efforts like WeRelate.

Online communities have blossomed thanks to online technologies like Internet phone and messaging systems, blogs and email. Individuals involved in these communities generously share their expertise – be it technical, legal, creative or knowledge of a specific area or group. And, because many of us are still working and/or raising families, this community offers the ability to span time and distance – commodities in short supply in many of our lives.

I have enjoyed a much more satisfying experience online than I ever experienced in my local society. I have found kindred souls who provide both support and friendship and many a great digital conversation [yes, even while wearing my PJs].

As for the special collections libraries, university libraries and county historical societies, it’s only a matter of time before their collections are digitized and available to all. And, with today’s affordable online video conferencing, even more of us can attend – and participate in – workshops and conferences from the comfort of our homes [I'd get dressed for that!].

Mr. Beidler should be rejoicing that so many young people are involved in today’s genealogical community and learning how to provide tools they can use to support their efforts.

They are the ones who will be carrying the torch forward . . .

This is a reprint of an article originally posted at Family Matters blog.

Put PDF to Work

For years the genealogy community has posted transcribed records online as text files. There were two big reasons for this – limited disk space and software compatibility. Disk storage was a premium for both the big sites like Rootsweb and our personal sites. Graphic files are much larger than text files and would suck up all the available storage space. Then there’s software. We all have our software preferences in operating systems (Windows, Mac or Linux) and office systems (Microsoft, WordPerfect or OpenOffice.org). If you transcribed an obituary in Microsoft Word on a Windows computer, chances were good I couldn’t open it on my Mac computer using the Pages word processor. What did all of us have in common? The ability to open and edit text files.

Times have changed and we have a lot more options now. Although some of the big repositories still require text files, the public prefers original records to transcriptions and formatted text to plain. Disk space is cheaper and Web hosting packages are offering more for less. And, thanks to the Portable Document Format (PDF) developed by Adobe, it doesn’t matter what software was used to create the document (or scanned original).

Consider the basic cemetery inventory – four or five columns of information on each plot within a cemetery.  Sure, people are thrilled to get their hands on that information.  But, what if you included a map, photos from the cemetery and hyperlinked names within the inventory to other available content for that individual?  How much value have you added to that simple inventory document?  PDF documents let you do that.

First you create your document – our cemetery inventory for example – in your favorite software. Add the formatting, colors, images, maps and hyperlinks you want to include. Then, using a PDF creation application, you convert your original to a PDF file. It will look just like your original – same fonts, same layout, same colors – but it requires a PDF reader application to view it. Reader applications are free and available for all operating systems. Both Mac and Linux come with PDF readers pre-installed and if your Windows computer doesn’t have Adobe Reader pre-installed, you can download it for free.

While we can all read a PDF document and follow any hyperlinks included within the document, we generally cannot edit the contents. Some documents can even be searched for specific text. What a reader can do with a PDF document depends on how the original was created. For example, a PDF document created from a word processing document like Microsoft Word will have functional hyperlinks and can be searched, while a typewritten original that has been scanned and converted to PDF will not. A scanned document is a graphic snapshot of the original and while it may look exactly like the word processing version, it has no editing capabilities. That is true even after it’s converted to PDF.

Just how difficult is it to create a PDF document? If you can print a document, you can make a PDF. It depends on the PDF creation software you use, but the creation process is that simple. So, let’s talk software.

PDF Creation Software

The most comprehensive – and most expensive – PDF creation application is Adobe’s Acrobat. Acrobat Standard costs $299 and other editions are even more expensive. It does have lots of features including OCR (optical character recognition – the ability to convert scanned text into editable text), but unless you’re doing serious PDF creation and manipulation it’s probably overkill. Acrobat is available for both Windows and Mac systems.

At the other end of the cost spectrum is PDFcreator. This open source (as in no cost) Windows option installs as a print driver. To create a PDF document, you just print it with PDFcreator selected as your printer. This means that any application with a print feature can create a PDF document – genealogy software immediately comes to mind. A very nice howto article is available at linux.com (don’t ask).

There are several other low cost options for Windows users. Both CutePDF and Foxit offer additional PDF editing functionality. CutePDF offers both a free and a pro ($50) version. The free version requires you to also have Ghostscript installed. Foxit offers several packages. The Foxit Creator ($35) creates a virtual print driver – similar to PDFcreator. Foxit Page Organizer ($59) is needed to rearrange, split or merge PDF documents and the Organizer Pro ($99) also includes annotation features. The Foxit Editor ($99) allows you to combine PDF documents and make changes to displayed text.

Mac users have PDF creation built into the print command. At the bottom of the print dialog window are several options for “printing” to PDF. The latest version of Mac’s Preview application includes some basic editing functionality, but if you need more, you can purchase PDFpen beginning at $49.95.

Linux users have several open source options. CUPS (Common Unix Printing System), provided in many Linux distributions, can export to PDF. PDF Editor provides basic editing tools.

You’ll also find that other applications are including PDF generation as a feature in their software. OpenOffice.org [an open source office suite that requires an article of its own to completely describe] provides PDF creation features in all its applications, as does WordPerfect Office ($120 and up).  Check your favorite applications to see if PDF capabilities are included in them.

UPDATE: Mac users have another option for manipulating PDF documents.  PDFLab is a freeware application with tools for merging and splitting PDF files.  MacApper has the details on this application and its capabilities.

Why a blog?

Thanks to Geneaphile for pointing me to these very interesting articles:

Both are written by the queen of blogging – Lorelle VanFossen – well worth the read.  And, if you’re looking for a good example of a Genealogical Society blog, stop by the California Genealogical Society and Library Blog.