Howells, Cyndi. Planting Your Family Tree Online: How to Create Your Own Family History Web Site.

Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 2003. 259p., softcover. Index, illus. $19.99. ISBN 1-4016-0022-0.

More than twenty years ago, using only a very simpleminded computer as a glorified typewriter, I put together a thick volume of lineage on part of my wife’s family, the result of more than a decade of close research. Because of my very limited budget, the production values were poor and fewer than two hundred copies were printed and mailed. And it took nearly all my free time for a year. Today, I would be able to compile all that data in a computer program, produce text files for further editing, present the final version in an attractive, readable, completely cross-indexed format, and upload the whole thing to a website where it could be visited by many thousands of other researchers from around the world. I could correct and update the information as new data came to hand. And I could do it all with little or no out-of-pocket expenditure. Is it any wonder genealogists have so enthusiastically adopted the World Wide Web as their medium?

Any genealogist who isn’t familiar with “Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet” hasn’t been paying attention for far too many years. Cyndi Howells owns and operates a website indexing (as of today) more than 270,000 online resources, and which gets several million hits each month. She’s also a member of the NGS Board of Directors and the author of several other books on Internet genealogy. So: Do you need your own genealogy website? Cyndi thinks you do. “Trust me, you need one.” Publishing on the Web is the least expensive and mostly widely accessible method of disseminating to others what you’ve learned.

Howells notes that she could have subtitled this volume “All the Things Cyndi Learned the Hard Way,” and the reader should be thankful for her experiences. Through reviewing the sites that make it to Cyndi’s List, she has become more aware than most of us of what really works online, and what really, really doesn’t. Her approach combines “high concept” and style on the one hand with practical, hands-on advice on the other. Though she doesn’t try to teach the very basics of computers or the Internet (there are scores of books that do that reasonably well), she walks the reader step-by-step through the process of “planting” a website: Finding a hosting service (your ISP probably provides space for free), choosing your tools (there are some good free choices here, too), the differences between writing your own HTML code and letting your genealogy software produce it for you (a somewhat contentious matter, actually), enhancing your site with photos and digitized documents, and the growing problem of proliferation of inaccurate data because of unthinking copyright infringement. There are a lot of decisions to make first, though. Do you want to construct a full-featured site, with sections on local history as well as purely family matters? Or would you rather just submit your own database to be included in an online lineage-linked database? It’s a matter of maintaining control. Should you start now? Or wait until you’ve “finished”? That’s print-thinking. When you can continually change and update, why wait? Your research is always a work-in-progress anyway.

The author recommends a mission statement as a guide to keep you pointed in the right direction and Chapter 10, “Guarantee Success,” discusses a number of common website do’s and don’ts (like avoiding border-type backgrounds that don’t wrap properly). Then she confronts the problems of presentation (artsy vs. readable), site navigation (non-scrolling menu bars are a Good Thing), establishing a baseline structure for your site, and deciding what content to include. (You don’t have to build the entire site all at once.) Then it’s time to create the basic pages (keeping in mind that you don’t have to accept your software’s defaults), probably using a WYSIWYG editor to produce the HTML until your sophistication increases. And for all of this, Howells provides many addresses to online resources that provide additional instruction and advice. She can be rather opinionated about design, as in the matter of blinking text: “If it moves, delete it.” And “Frames are evil.” (I definitely agree about animated text, and I abandoned frames a while back for CSS.) And also unexpected music files that play automatically (a real annoyance when you’re surfing the Web in a public library). Personal opinions or not, she’s usually right.

Finally, she tells you how to upload your work, how to carry out the necessary trial run, and how to publicize your site. Don’t forget, too, that running a website of any kind is an active, ongoing process. (Few things are sadder than a Web page whose “Last Updated” date was three years ago.) You’re making a commitment in time, if not in money. Establish a maintenance routine and update your site regularly. Check and update the dead links you’ve included to other sites. (There’s a word for this: linkrot.) If necessary, you can solicit help in doing all this from other family researchers — especially those you’ve met through your site.

I’ve read numerous books on website design, as well as having planned and set up several sites for other family members (and not just in genealogy), and this is easily the best thing I’ve found — print or online — for the genealogist interested in establishing a presence on the Web.

Published in: on 16 April 2010 at 10:23 am  Leave a Comment  

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