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Berkshire Family Historian
June 2000

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Netting your ancestors

Eddie Spackman

Whatever your motives for researching Family History - whether it is for personal reasons, for the benefit of your children or for other reasons - you will want to make the results widely known and available. This will not only satisfy your own ego but also extend the chances of contacting relatives and others with the same interests. In the past it was rarely possible to publish your results other than by producing paper copies. Today anyone with a computer and a telephone line can use the technology of the Internet to put their research onto a personal website which can be seen by anyone world-wide.

Most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) - and there are now many of them - provide 'web-space' for their subscribers. This is usually about 10mb for each account and more than enough for most family historians, unless you want to show many images, video or sound clips, or if you wish to record information for thousands of individuals.

Many of us have been hesitant to publish on the web because of our reluctance to learn the language of the Internet - HTML (Hyper-text Mark-Up Language). Today, it is no longer necessary to learn HTML to create web-pages; you can use a word processor, web-authoring software or even a family history program.

The sort of information put on the Internet will vary from individual to individual but is likely to range from genealogical narratives of ancestors to pictures of grandparents and from lists of individuals to biographies. You may also want to include local histories of the areas where your ancestors lived. The information will need to be attractively laid out with links that will encourage the reader to move economically and swiftly around the site. The content must also implicitly invite them to read the information, and to respond (for this you will need to include an email contact address), rather than move elsewhere. Tables 1 is an example of the top of a page from a site I created using FrontPage Express; it contains some details of my great-great-grandfather Edward, a policeman in Hertfordshire, his wife Sarah Brown and their children and grandchildren.

The process of getting your family history onto the net can be described in four stages. Decide what you want to put there, then design and create a site on your own computer, next upload it to your personal web-space and finally, so that others stand a chance of finding the site, ensure that it is indexed by several search engines. Each stage is described in more detail below. There are references to various items of software. General computer software can be obtained from several sources: enquire at your local computer shop or look for advertisements in computer magazines. Family history programs are generally obtained by mail order from advertisements in magazines such as Family Tree Magazine or at family history fairs.

Screen Dump of 'Spackman Family' ancestry

Table 1

Designing your site

The first, and most important, step is to decide what to put on your site and how to lay it out. Everyone has their own individual interests. You may want to give the ancestry of individual members of your family, or provide information on the families you are researching. Alternatively, if you are making a one-name study, you may wish to list all the names you have found together with references to their baptisms, marriages, and burials. You will need to consider who your target audience is, choose an appropriate presentation and make it attractive to the reader.

There are several limitations to bear in mind. Perhaps the most important is the fact that download speeds over the existing telephone network are generally limited at most to 56 Kbps (about 8,000 characters or one very modest sized picture per second) so that a page with many pictures or lots of text and hyper-links should be avoided. If a page does not download within about 15 seconds many surfers will move away to look at another site. You should ensure that the files you create are stored in a folder (or directory) structure that is easy to maintain. It is a good idea to have a folder for the site and sub-folders for each of your topics. You should also use the default file - usually 'index.htm'- in each folder to prevent others seeing what files you have put in your online folders.

The website

A website consists of files written in HTML and may include pictures, sound, or even video clips in other files. The HTML is decoded by Internet browsers such as Microsoft Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator, Opera etc. to display screens of information provided by the creator. However the formats, fonts and layout seen by the viewer depend on the settings of the browser.

There are several ways to create the site. You can write HTML with a text editor, use a web-authoring package, create a formatted document with a word processor and save it as HTML or automatically generate a site using a family history program.

Writing HTML

HTML can be written with a Text Editor such as Notepad. It is claimed that HTML is easy to write but 'easy' is a relative term and why write HTML when there are packages that will do it for you? It is true that if you have the necessary skills to write HTML you have precise control over how your pages look and feel. You will also be able to write good code that is efficient and economic.

Web-authoring packages

Many people nowadays create their pages with what is called 'web-authoring' software. There are two types. The first is referred to as WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). It works like a word processor so that as you compose a page on screen it appears in much the same way as it will ultimately be seen when viewed from your web-site by a web-browser such as Internet Explorer. An example is MS FrontPage. There is also a cut down version called FrontPage Express which comes free as a component of Internet Explorer or may be downloaded from the Microsoft web-site. Netscape has an equivalent called Netscape Composer. More sophisticated applications are available. An example is Dreamweaver which is claimed to be the application of choice. It has many features but with a price tag of nearly 300 it is clearly a product for the professional. Potential users should expect to endure a steep learning curve when first using it. The other type of software is designed to work directly with HTML tags to ease the coding process. An example is HotMetal. During the process of creating a page for the web a composite of HTML tags and the user's text is shown on screen in a representation of the final product.

Using a word processor

Building your site using a word processor (such as MS Word, WordPerfect, Star Office etc.) will satisfy many family historians, especially if it is their first venture onto the net, and the site does not have many pages. However, you may find that the output is not always interpreted correctly by a web browser. Also, your word processor may not include the latest HTML features or correctly implement the latest HTML standards.

HTML generated by web-authoring software or by word processors can be improved by using a text editor to make the code more efficient - especially by removal of redundant code and to make the site look precisely as you want it to.

Uploading to the web

Usually web pages are first created on your own computer before being uploaded to a 'server', often on your own ISP, on the Internet. Files are uploaded using File Transfer Protocol (FTP). FTP can be run manually but nowadays it is usual to employ an FTP program. Examples are CuteFTP, WSFTP, FTP Explorer, and the MS Web Publishing Wizard. Many of these enable you to move files to and from the web in a way similar to moving files with Windows Explorer. Many web-authoring packages (including FrontPage - but not Front Page Express - and Dreamweaver) have built-in FTP facilities.

Search engines

It is little use having a site on the web unless others can find it. Search Engines, like Yahoo and Altavista, are used to find sites. You should submit your site URL address to several of these engines and there is usually a link on their home page to do this. There are also sites on the Internet which enable you to submit your URL to several engines at once. You should include META tags in your HTML. They provide keywords and other information on the content of your site which are used by search engines as part of the process of indexing your site. It is also worth searching the web to find recommended techniques for the construction and content of pages to maximise the chances of your site appearing high on the listings from expected common queries.

HTML converters and family history software

Always consider using software written specifically for genealogists. There are GEDCOM converters which take files in GEDCOM (Genealogy Data COMmunication) format to create web-sites. GEDCOM files can be produced from most family history programs. Also, web sites can be generated automatically by most of the leading family history programs. This only takes a few seconds on modern machines. Generally the site will be created on your own PC for subsequent uploading to your personal web space. However, FTM (Family Tree Maker) can only generate a site on-line at the FTM web-site and your information may then be included in the CDs which they sell.

Webpages produced by family history programs could be amended by using a web authoring tool but this would defeat the object of being able to instantly regenerate a site every time a change is made to the database. Table 2 is an example of a page produced by the Family History program PAF (Personal Ancestral File). It shows an 'indented text narrative 'for the same family as Tables 1. The superscript numbers provide links to source information for each individual. This site is at . PAF generates pages for selected individuals or for the ancestors or descendants of a specified individual. You could include everyone in your database but if you have thousands of individuals this will result in a large site taking up several Mbytes. PAF generates a site with a home page giving links to a Surname List and Name Index as well as a link to either a list of individuals, ancestors or descendants. Indented text narratives are provided for every person selected.

Screen Dump of 'indented narrative'

Table 2

Charts such as Drop-line Trees cannot generally be produced. Drop-line Trees with only a few generations are often very wide and this makes it difficult to create a design that will fit onto a PC monitor especially as most still have only 14 or 15 inch screens. It would be possible to create a chart as an image and insert that into the HTML. The image could be produced in several ways including scanning but it would probably be very difficult to get a satisfactory result.

Listings of family history programs and some convertors can be found in the March and June issues for both 1999 and 2000 of Computers in Genealogy published by the Society of Genealogists.

What now?

This is only an introductory article but maybe it will encourage more readers to think about putting their own family history onto the web. The guiding rule to a novice is to keep your site simple. You might look at a simple well designed site which has no frills and view the HTML code from your browser. With Internet Explorer use 'View' from the menu bar and select 'Source' to show the HTML code in Notepad. You could then edit the HTML to use your names and information and save it. A word of warning - be wary of breaching copyright and would you like to see someone copying your design?

Further information

If you have any problems in forming your website you will be able to discuss them with others at the new Research Centre. We are planning to hold Computing Workshops and one of these, 'Building A Web-site', is being planned for early in 2001. You can post your problems on the Discussion Group and hopefully someone else may be able to help. If you want further information have a look in computer magazines appropriate to your standard of expertise or look for a text book on HTML or web authoring. "Web Publishing for Genealogy" by Peter Christian (published by David Hawgood) is a beginner's guide with plenty of help and guidance. Useful articles directly relating to genealogy can sometimes be found in Computers in Genealogy - a Society of Genealogists' publication. A final word of caution. Do not include details of any living individual otherwise you will have to abide by the requirements of the Data Protection Act 1998.

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Berkshire Family History Society 2001

updated 20th August 2001