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  • Genealogy and Technology: The Internet: A Virtual Canvas for Your Ancestry

    Rhonda R. McClure

    If you do a search through any of the general search engines on the Internet for genealogy sites, using the term genealogy, you will find roughly eleven million hits. If you dig a little deeper in those hits, you will find that a majority of personal family web pages among the results are titled something innocuous like “My Family” or “Genealogy.”

    Build It and They Will Come

    To borrow that well-known line from the movie Field of Dreams, the reality is that just because you build a website does not mean that visitors will come. There are some things to keep in mind as you begin to design your family history web page. After all there are eleven million other pages out there with genealogy on them that you will be competing against.

    The first thing you need to do is to decide what will be the focus of your site. Who are you trying to entice to it? Are you hoping to find any relative that may be out there regardless of the line that you share? Are you hoping to attract those who share one of a handful of surnames that you are presently working on? Did you want to offer a site that would be more of an aid to others, by including transcriptions of information that you have amassed over the years? Is it possible that your focus is on a specific locality rather than a surname or family?

    Before you begin designing a web page, first decide which of the above scenarios apply to your situation. It could be that you have a completely different idea, but regardless, you do want to have an idea before you begin to actually create the site. Having a plan in place may help determine what software you use to create the site as well as what you place on the front page and how you arrange the sub-pages of the site. A good way to plot out your site is by laying it all out on paper. Use a separate sheet of paper for each future web page and figure out where the navigational buttons and links will be located, and where each button or link will take the user. Determine how many different areas your site will need. This process is commonly called “storyboarding.”

    Once you have an idea of what will be on your site, then the next step is to begin creating those pages. 

    “I Can't Create a Website!”

    Everyone has to start somewhere, regardless of what they do. None of us was born magically knowing how to do what we do. As children, we had to learn how to do almost everything. There is no way of knowing how many times we fell down before we mastered the ability to walk. As we grew and went to school, it is possible that there was a struggle to master something like algebra or calculus. In college most of us didn't breeze through with straight As. Throughout our life we have found ourselves in a learning position.

    Each of us has spent time learning how to research our ancestors. For some reason this is accepted as just something we do. Bring up the Internet or our computers though, and we are full of excuses as to why we can't or won't learn how to use it. It is understandable that a machine as intricate and powerful as the computer has become could seem impossible to master. However, I have learned that it is just a matter of how we think or approach the problem. Whether it is learning how to use a genealogy program, how to search the Internet, or how to create a personal family history web page, there is learning involved.  When it comes to creating a family history web page though, there are many useful programs that make the design of the page easier than may have been imagined.

    Genealogy Software Options

    One of the hardest things when designing a family history website is to get the arrangement of the individuals correctly into the genealogy report or chart. Of course, genealogy software programs that have been organizing entered data and generating printed reports as part of their regular features are now creating web pages of some sort.

    When the Internet was first available to genealogists, there was no easy way to create a web page of your family history. Then a few developers wrote small programs enabling the incorporation of GEDCOM files to web pages. Today, genealogy software programs are considered inferior if they do not offer options to create a web page from within the program. The more popular software programs include

    • Family Tree Maker
    • Personal Ancestral File
    • RootsMagic
    • The Master Genealogist

    All of these offer a way to generate the initial pages for a family history website. Some are more powerful or offer more control over the final design of the website, but all of them will do what I consider to be the most difficult part — the organizing of the individuals and the linking of those people from one page to another. 

    Genealogy Software programs

    (Genealogy software programs are considered inferior if they do not offer options to create a web page from within the program.)

    Once that has been done, you can then use other software designed specifically for working with web pages.

    Of those genealogy programs mentioned above, all but one will create the pages and allow you to then alter them before uploading them to the Internet. For those individuals who are truly intimidated by the Internet and the idea of creating a web page, Family Tree Maker has streamlined the process in such a way that you can only post a web page to the Family Tree Maker site. During the initial creation of the family history home page, you may select your design from a number of templates that are offered, which include various backgrounds and fonts to help further personalize your site.  However, you cannot publish these pages elsewhere on the Internet, at least not at the time of this writing.

    The other genealogy programs mentioned will save the files on your computer. You can then decide if you want to alter them using one of the software programs discussed later or just simply upload the site to your personal web space.

    Web Design Software

    If you can use a word processing program, then you can use web design programs, such as Microsoft FrontPage or HotDog Page Wiz . These programs are designed to give you a WYSIWIG (pronounced wizzy-wig), which stands for "what you see is what you get," view of the web page.  Just as a word processing program shows you changes in a font or the placement of a picture, so too will the web design software. Knowledge of HTML is not necessary.

    Through the menu and tool bar, you can change the way the page looks, and some programs will allow you to create impressive special effects on the page.  No doubt you have see them on some of the sites you have visited — dancing leprechauns, the scrolling "banner" creeping across the screen, or the music that lets the world know you are online at 2 a.m.

    Perhaps it is because it is so easy to add all of these bells and whistles that so many genealogy websites feel cluttered or busy.  This actually leads us to the last aspect of the creative part of your website.

    Design is Everything

    Just because you can doesn't always mean you should.  Now, if your web page is devoted to your Irish ancestry, it is possible that the dancing leprechaun could be considered appropriate.  I have, however, visited family history web pages only to leave them some thirty minutes later still confused as to the focus of the site.

    Focus was the first thing we talked about. Knowing what you want to share. However, if it is hidden or overshadowed by all the fancy bells and whistles that you discovered in your web design, then you have achieved nothing — in fact, you have defeated the very purpose of having a website in the first place because no one can find the information you have to share. If you have chosen some really interesting colors and fonts to use on your site, making the site almost unreadable by some who visit, you have also prevented the information you have from being read by others.

    While the design software is supposed to be WYSIWYG, showing you what it will look like, in reality it is just an idea of what it will look like. What you see in the web design software program is not necessarily exactly how it will look to others who visit your website.

    The browser software that you use to view the Internet actually doesn't see the web page. Instead it sees and reads HTML code and converts it to the pictures, text, and colors that you see.  This conversion to what is shown on the screen is based on the capabilities of your computer — what fonts you have installed, how many colors your monitor can view, the resolution of your monitor, and so on.

    It is a good idea to keep your design as simple as possible.  Using the standard fonts and perhaps limiting the color choices to 256 or 16 million will mean that most of those who visit your site will see the same thing that you did as you were designing it.  One way to get an idea of how the site looks after you have uploaded it to your server space and made it public is to visit your site from a friend's computer or at the public library.  Depending on the hardware and software limitations on these computers, your site may look different from the way you thought it would.

    Graphics Should Enhance, Not Detract

    The problem with graphics is that it is easy to get carried away with them. It is fine to use some graphics, but they should enhance the site. Pick a theme for your background, and add bullets and buttons.  For each graphic you wish to add beyond this, ask yourself first if it helps share the information posted to the site. If the image is a picture of the tombstone of the person whose genealogy is on that page, then the answer is probably yes; if it is just a cute cartoon that you found somewhere, then the answer is more likely to be no.

    The graphics should help those who visit your website to get a feeling for the research and the focus of the page. They should not be there just because you have them and can add them.  A few well-placed graphics can give your site a wonderful, inviting feel that encourages the visitor to explore it further. 

    Don't Forget the Information

    Above all, the most important thing about your site is the information you are sharing. If you are creating a family history page showing the ancestors or descendants of an individual, then be sure to include the sources for the information that you publish. Help to teach those new to genealogy the best way to share their information so when they get started on their own web page they will remember what they have seen at other sites. Even if they never get a how-to book on publishing to the web, or more importantly, read about publishing their family history to the web, perhaps they will emulate what they saw on your site and include sources.

    Envision Before You Publish

    While the technology of this may be new, the first step requires no technological skills whatsoever. Remember before you begin to create anything that you will want to have a plan. Envision what you want the site to look like and then begin to figure out how best to make it happen. It is likely that you will combine your genealogy program's web page feature with one of the web design programs to create the pages that you now envision. And by using the web design software you do not need to actually know how to write the HTML code.  Above all, remember that the beauty of publishing to the Internet is the ability to make changes as frequently as you need or want.

    Where to Turn for More Information

    Below are a few of the published resources that you may want to look for online and at your local library to learn more about creating your own website or using some of the programs mentioned.

    • Buzbee, Bruce. Getting the Most Out of RootsMagic. (Springville, Utah: FormalSoft, Inc., 2003)
    • Cyndi's Genealogy Home Page Construction Kit
    • HTML Help by the Web Design Group
    • McClure, Rhonda R. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, 2nd Edition . (Indianapolis, Indiana: Alpha Books, 2002).
    • McClure, Rhonda R. The Official Family Tree Maker Version 10 Fast & Easy. (Cincinnati, Ohio: Premier Press, 2002).
    • Niederst, Jennifer. Web Design in a Nutshell. (Sebastopol, California: O'Reilly & Associates, 2001).
    • Williams, Robin and John Tollett. The Non-Designer's Web Book. 2nd Edition. (Berkeley, California: Peachpit Press, 2000).
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