How I designed this site with little previous Web experience

By Martin Fischer

Personal genealogy Web sites range from simple one-page lists of surnames being researched to elaborate compilations of vast amounts of genealogical data presented in complex series of linked pages.

In planning my own family history Web site on the research I have done on my wife’s and my genealogy, my goal was to include the expected ancestral family tree charts as well as an easy-to-navigate presentation of interesting anecdotes, letters, historical research and old family photos.

I already had much of the content in the form of the research I had done off-and-on since the 1970s. I already had dozens of old family photos scanned into my home computer and organized into folders by surname. And I already had an Internet service provider, Comcast.net, through which I could “publish” my site.

Since I had no experience creating a Web site, the first thing I needed to do was select and, if necessary, purchase the software, and then learn how to use it. I already had some software on my home computer that could be used to create Web pages. Print Shop 15, Microsoft Word 2002 and Family Tree Maker 11 can each be used to create Web pages. Selecting one of these programs that I already had would have been the economical solution.

But my wife, Judith, a former teacher who has been in charge of computer labs in elementary schools, persuaded me to use Microsoft FrontPage 2003, which, unlike the programs we already had, is primarily a Web page design tool. At the time we purchased it in late 2003, using her teacher’s discount, we paid just under $200. But Amazon.com several months later listed it at just under $170.

After installing it on my computer, I gained access to the online FrontPage training courses at office.microsoft.com, where I worked through a series of six lessons, each one less than an hour long, to learn how to use FrontPage. I found these courses very helpful, although they are not absolutely necessary for those who are more experienced with using a variety of Windows-based programs. Our then-21-year-old daughter was able to create an attractive but fairly simple Web site of her own without taking the online courses.

The next step for creating my Web site was to sketch out on paper a rough design of its home page, which would contain links to other pages. FrontPage comes with several design templates that can be used for this purpose, but I wanted the flexibility of creating my own.

My design was inspired in a general way by the visual organization of some of the better newspaper Web sites. They usually have a horizontal “banner” at the top of the home page with the name of the newspaper. To the left is often a narrow vertical box with quick links to various online newspaper sections, such as local news, national and foreign news, sports, and business. To the right is often another vertical box containing advertising. In the middle are a photo and the start of a related news article with a link to a page containing the entire article. Below that first article are usually links to other articles, some with photos, but mostly without.

I gradually “roughed out” on paper a series of horizontal and vertical design elements for my home page. They included, among other items, a “banner” on top using an attractive, large typeface to spell out the name of my site; a vertical box on the left containing links to family trees; a horizontal package containing a map of Europe locating some of our ancestral home towns accompanied by a link to an article I wrote about which families came from where; a vertical box containing links to other family members’ own genealogy or business Web sites; and a package of old family photos with a link to a photo gallery of more early photos.

Each box contained a headline, an introductory paragraph or two and a “more” button linking to a page that repeated the headline and usually included a subheadline or different introductory paragraph, and the complete article.

For example, one box on the home page was headlined: “An age-old question: When was Ernestine Kober Fischer born?” The introductory paragraph said: “Her tombstone and obituaries say she was 100 when she died in 1924, but earlier documents raise less inflated possibilities.” When readers click the “more” button, they open a page containing photos of Ernestine’s tombstone and of one of her obituaries and a detailed article explaining the conflicting documents concerning her age.

In the process of creating the site, I found that I could not limit myself to working only in FrontPage. I needed to use other software programs to prepare some of the elements included in the site. (Later, as I become more familiar with FrontPage, I learned that much of this work could have been accomplished within FrontPage.)

I used PictureGear 5.1, a photo editing program, to crop and resize photos so they would take up less memory on the site. With Microsoft Paint 5.1, I copied a map of Europe from an online map site and used it to trace the international boundaries for my map, then erased the source map and added type for our countries and cities of origin. Family Tree Maker 11 enabled me to generate .pdf files of family trees that open up in the free program Adobe Reader 6.0 (or higher) when the appropriate links on my home page are clicked. (I understand that an alternative to using .pdf files for creating family trees on Web sites is something called Dynamic Family Tree Compiler, software that I have seen used on other sites, but have not myself tried. It is downloadable from http://www.dftcom2.co.uk/.)

While designing the Web site, I began to review nearly all of my genealogy research to try to answer questions that occurred to me while I worked. As I wrote various articles to include on the site, I found myself repeatedly going back to Family Tree Maker to check facts that I had recorded there, such as dates and places, kinship relationships between two individuals and other data. I also pored through several notebooks of research I had compiled over the years; official documents such as birth, marriage and death certificates, and citizenship papers; census records; translations of old Yiddish letters from the 1920s; and obituaries and other newspaper articles concerning family members. Some of this material had been stored in a file cabinet in my basement for more than 20 years.

The process of reviewing it all rejuvenated my knowledge of our family history and enabled me to fill in some blanks that I had not been consciously aware of before.

An example of this was the discovery of the names of two previously unknown children of one of my mother’s first cousins who were killed in Pinsk, Belarus, in the Holocaust. They were listed in a Nazi census of the Pinsk ghetto taken in late 1941 or early 1942 that I had obtained several years ago from Yad Vashem. The process of writing an article for the Web site about relatives lost in the Shoah forced me to scrutinize, compare and analyze such records much more closely than I had in the past.

Once I had gathered most of what I wanted to use to start the Web site, I worked for three or four hours a day over four days during a week off from work at the end of 2003 to do the bulk of the site-creation process.

I uploaded the site on Jan. 1, 2004. But that was not the end. Since then I have gradually added more material and fine-tuned the site, sometimes as often as once or twice a week, working an hour here, an hour there. My next step was to publicize it to those who might find it interesting.

First, I sent e-mail notices to every relative whose e-mail address I had and mailed letters to many who did not have e-mail. I also posted an e-mail to the subscribers of several online Jewish genealogy special interest groups that are affiliated with http://www.jewishgen.org/

Then, I joined the Jewish Roots WebRing at http://j.webring.com/hub?ring=jewishgene, which includes links to and descriptions of several dozen Jewish genealogy Web sites. (Subsequently I ended that relationship because of restrictions that were added by that site's managers.) Finally, I submitted a request to be added to Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet at http://www.cyndislist.com/. My site is listed there under “What’s New on Cyndi’s List” for Jan. 3, 2004.

Even though I had not submitted a request to Google to be included in their search engine, I found that soon after taking the above steps, my site was reachable through Google just by typing Fischer and Levin in their search box.

An almost immediate result of publicizing the site in this way was that a small number of corrections and clarifications of family tree data were sent to me by some relatives who had perused the .pdf family tree files. But help also came from an unexpected source.

 

Lars Menk of Berlin, Germany, who was working on a book about Jewish surnames, saw my notice on Gersig (the German Jewish special interest group). Menk, whom I did not know and who is not related to me in any way, provided me with the previously unknown names of a great-grandfather’s brother and their father; and the names of a great-grandmother’s parents; and their hometown in Poland. He also confirmed for the first time that their surname of Daust had originally been Daus.

 

More recently, a second cousin once removed whom I had never met, but whose name I had listed on a family tree on the site, contacted me by e-mail to introduce herself. She had typed her name into the Google search engine, and had been surprised to find that part of her family history was already on the Internet, on a family tree on my Web site.

 

Attached to her e-mail to me was a photo of me with my father and brother that was taken when I was about 6 years old. She had found it among her grandfather’s old photos that she was in the process of scanning into her computer.

 

In conclusion, here are a few tips for genealogists who would like to create their own personal family history Web sites:

 

§        Plan ahead. Create lists of content and rough sketches of the design for your site before you start creating the site.

§        Take your time. You don’t have a deadline, so prepare your site with care and deliberation.

§        Don’t be intimidated by the technology. Use the “help” functions provided by your software if there is something you want to do but are having trouble accomplishing. If you are using FrontPage and are continuing to have difficulties, then post a query to the user group at http://www.microsoft.com/office/community/en-us/default.mspx 

§        After adding a substantial element or modification to your site, don’t forget to save it. And after you have saved it, upload your site so the changes become effective on the site.

§        Periodically back up your work. Copy your complete Web site to a CD or DVD to ensure against an unforeseen computer problem that could destroy or damage your work.

§        You want your site to be seen. Contact relatives and friends and others who may be interested in it and may be able to clarify or correct your information.

 

Publishing a family history in a book may have the advantages of greater permanence and portability than a Web site, but it can quickly become obsolete as new marriages, births and deaths take place and as the author makes new genealogical discoveries. A Web site’s advantage is its flexibility and expandability. A site can be quickly and easily updated and revised as new family history information becomes available and as more articles are written and more photos taken.

 

Each family history is different, and each family history Web site is unique. I hope this summary of my experiences in creating the Fischer and Levin family history site may inspire other amateur genealogists to take the steps necessary to create their own sites. Good luck, and enjoy your Web site.

 

Postcript

 

By June 2005, my home page had grown both deeper and wider as I had added elements to the page. The depth was not a problem, but, increasingly, people who accessed my site had to scroll sideways to view it. Consequently, I did a total redesign of the home page, rearranging elements and resizing photos.

 

I sought advice via the Microsoft discussion group site. I learned I should start by setting the width of the page at 750 pixels and pay close attention each time I inserted a photo to prevent it from greatly adding to that width. The redesigned page included all of the elements of the original one, but is much more compact and requires no horizontal scrolling.

 

In December 2005, I did a similar redesign of the "Roadblocks" pages, rearranging elements to make them  narrower and deeper so that these two pages dealing with unanswered family history questions are easier to scroll through. In January and February 2006, I reread my entire Web site, correcting a few typographical errors and slightly revising, updating and improving the text.

 

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Experienced amateur genealogist Martin Fischer is available to conduct freelance family history projects including searching online databases, creating family trees, editing memoirs and developing genealogical Web sites. For more information, go to http://www.the-efa.org/, click on find a freelancer, and type Martin Fischer in the search box, or go to http://www.apgen.org/, click on search by name, and type Fischer and Martin in the search boxes.

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