Sep 052012

Three to four years ago my son (he’s the “techie” member of the team) and I decided to develop a digital system for our genealogical research and its documentation. At the time we stated that our intentions were “to (a) extend our abilities in genealogical research and web development, (b) to develop a web presence where members of the extended Brenner-Weaver families can gather for genealogical research and to share family stories, and (c) make a significant contribution to genealogy’s move from the desktop to the web (web 2.0 / genealogy 2.0).” Ultimately, we envision a wiki-based online system that my son would develop. Since I am retired and he is still gainfully employed, we have sought intermediate solutions.

Phase 1: Desktop.  A key step was developing a desktop storage system for digital images (photos, documents, web clippings, notes) and using desktop software to organize the results. The first major decision was to digitize all our accumulated data (photos and documents) and then to work only with the digitized forms of the data. Newly discovered data was to be digitized and stored as quickly as possible. As I began to survey photos and documents held by extended family members, I would scan the originals and then return them. As I surveyed a variety of organizational systems for storing genealogical data, my growing impressing was that most systems were developed out of a paper-based understanding of genealogical research. So many of the systems I surveyed depended upon colored folders or multiple binders to store forms and documents. There was an inherent logic in these systems as they had been developed out of the experience of practicing genealogists / family historians. But, for me, their logic seemed paper-based, often with a primary emphasis on family groups – store an individual’s data with his/her family of origin until marriage; then, with the affiliational family established by the marriage.

I settled for a simple system, filing all an individual’s data in a folder on my hard drive. Of course, I made sure that those files were all backed up in multiple ways. I settled on long file names to assist in the organization – “Surname, Given Name(s) (Married Surname) (Event).extension.” (As an example, the transcription of my 2g-grandmother’s affidavit that was part of her application for widow’s benefits related to my 2g-grandfather’s Civil War disability pension was filed as “Welk, Catharine (Brenner) (Affidavit – Pension Claim).odt.” It is filed in the “Welk, 17.6 Catherine (Brenner)” folder. The reference number – 17.6 – is the Ancestral Lines Pairing System number that I have added to the folder names of all my direct line ancestors.

After using early versions of Family Tree Maker, we settled on RootsMagic for our desktop software. We found RootsMagic to be a robust software with a helpful interface that served our needs quite well. We are currently using RootsMagic 5.

Phase 2: Designing the Cloud-based System. The second step was migrating our desktop data to the cloud. We developed an online presence using Darrin Lythgoe’s The Next Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding (TNG). Early decisions were based on extensive discussions about the tension between maintaining the integrity of our research results and making our results widely available. While I have posted one tree on Ancestry (to check out how well Ancestry’s “shaking leaf” function works), we have chosen to put our efforts in our TNG site, rather than to post the data to any of the growing number of cloud-based trees. An additional consideration is that I have not found many others who are researching our ancestral lines – the Brenners, Deeters, Miedings, Welks, etc.

We recently migrated this blog and our TNG site to a WordPress CMS system. As we progress, this blog plays a key role in telling the stories of our ancestors and articulating our analysis of data correlations.

An important decision was to develop a wiki-based online storage system to store and organize our images and documents. My son installed MediaWiki on our website and I began to learn MediaWiki markup language so I could develop the site as our Research Wiki. Here our data files are stored by Record Type (Baptism/Confirmation… Birth… Census… Death… Immigration / Naturalization… Land / Deeds / Other Legal… Marriage… Military… Location Files… Signature Files…). The Research Wiki also contains individual files grouped under the surnames of my son’s 8 grandparental lines (Brenner… Deeter… Gregg… Hill… Mieding… Smith… Spitzer… Weaver…). My great-granfather’s individual entry is as follows:

       Brenner, Lloyd (1867 – 1947)     (1.5)

see also, data stored in: BaptismBirthCensus Records (1870, 1880, 1900, 1920, 1930, 1940)… DeathImmigrationOther LegalMarriageMilitaryLocationSignatures
Did a thorough search for the 1910 Federal Census record for Lloyd Brenner in Youngstown, Ohio. No record was found.
1889-90 Youngstown, Ohio Directory (no image) Youngstown, Ohio Directory, 1889-90 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2000. Original data: Youngstown, OH, 1889-90. N.H. Burch & Co., 1889. subscription database, <>, accessed December 2009.

This indicates that I have 6 census records for him (both from his family of origin and his affiliational family), as well as Death and Marriage records. A click on those links will take me to that Record Type where the data is filed alphabetically by Surname (and, for Census records, by Year then by Surname). The Record Types with strikethroughs are ones for which I have not yet found data. This is also a place where I can indicate unsuccessful searches (1910 Census for Lloyd Brenner) and other data. When I enter a data record (either in the Record Type or in the Individual’s record) a citation of the source is also included.

Other Surname lines are filed under the one of  8 grandparental lines to which it is related:

Phase 3: Migrating to the Cloud. So, up to this point in time, our system has been operating in two venues – on my desktop and on our website. That has not been helpful. I have maintained RootsMagic 5 as the primary management software for our data. TNG has simply been a place to display a particular interation of that data. Periodically I will export a GEDCOM file from RM5 and import it into TNG. And then it just sits there. I had separated out “pruned” database of direct line ancestors and their affiliational families (about 700 individuals) for publication on TNG. My full RM5 database of about 5000 individuals (which I have called my “research” database) has remained on the desktop. I am now getting that full database ready for publication on our TNG site. This has meant a thorough cleaning and re-organizing of my Master Source list and my Places list. I have organized my Master Source list with a series of broader categories (Book… Cemetery… Census… Church Records… Civil Records… Court Records… Family Bibles… Family Trees… Immigration… Military… Newpapers… Person… Researcher…). As needed, I can add categories as I go. I am just about ready to export the full database to a GEDCOM which I will import into TNG. At that point, I will manage my data using TNG, rather than RM5.

I have also used the Research Wiki to store source citation templates. I have enjoyed using RM5’s Source Templates and may continue to count on them when I am in a pinch. I will, however, continue to expand my own source citation templates on the Research Wiki. That makes everything a simple copy and paste operation.

I still have data files on my hard drive and in Evernote that have not been migrated to the Research Wiki. That will be the next great task – that is, getting all those files moved. I am still debating whether I want to store my photos primarily in the Research Wiki or utilize an online service, such as Picasa. At this point, I leaning toward sticking with the Research Wiki.

Phase 4: Genealogy 2.0. Once I have migrated my RM5 database to TNG and have moved all data files from my hard drive to the Research Wiki (and, of course, backed up all the files), I will then be able to do my work in the Cloud. Instead of a hybrid of genealogy 1.0 and 2.0 systems, I will have completed the move to a genealogy 2.0 system. I will store all data and citation information in the Research Wiki and do all data entry (with full source citations) directly in TNG. This will probably necessitate my installing TNG and MediaWiki as “localhost” on my desktop. This will give me access to the data when I have not internet access, as well as a backup. I will also update my Gedstar Pro (Android tablet and phone) and GedView (iPad) apps with the latest GEDCOM so that I will have my data available whenever I need it.

One of the features introduced to later versions of TNG was the possibility of integrating Wiki pages for individuals. My son has added this module to our TNG site. I had previously begun to develop Wiki pages for individuals in the Research Wiki. I did this in anticipation of the development of our own Wiki-based application. I have only done this for one individual (my 2g-grandfather, John Brenner) with a Profile page (basic information about the individual), Notebook (extended information, stories, etc), and Research Journal (a check-list of record types to track where research has been done and/or needs to be done). I am in the process of replacing the individual Research Journal with another tracking system. (That will be the subject of a follow-up post.)

Phase 5: Completing the System. As mentioned above, I have developed the Research Wiki with the goal in mind of my son’s developing our own genealogy research and data management application. Since he works full time and has other enduring commitments, I don’t expect that application to be developed soon. It may not be until he approaches retirement. If and when he decides to begin developing code for such a system, we have a good start. If, on the other hand, he chooses not to pursue it, our current system can be further developed within the confines of WordPress, TNG, and MediaWiki. It will serve our needs well for the foreseeable future.




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