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April 14, 2010

NovaSite! Archive

NovaSite! Recognition PlaqueThe Extended Craxford Family Genealogy Magazine

Sam and Spook are ardent admirer's of authors who create genealogical web sites. Then after visiting Alan Craxford's creation, we asked him to provide our readers with a “how to do it” explanation. Some detailed information about himself too. So below in Alan's own words. Enjoy!

I live in the north east of England, am married with grown up offspring. My background is in Medicine but I am now retired.

In computing terms I would have to describe myself as a dedicated amateur - having never earned money from my activities! I was exposed to computers in the early 1980s, my first kit being a TRS-80 model 1. I have always been interested in what happens "under the hood" of software and when the first "proper" PCs came around I soon found Word Perfect for DOS (in my opinion and many more, still the best word processor ever!). I dabbled with their database management system (Data Perfect) and with a member of their UK support team I was shown how to customize the suite using their macro programming language. We built a networked hospital information system which communicated with a number of doctors offices - and this (1987) almost before the days of Windows and the Internet. I am also fascinated by databases and relational database theory. My second degree from the Open University is based on information technology subjects.

The Extended Craxford Family Genealogy MagazineMy sister took the first tentative steps in researching our family's history about ten years ago, spurred on by the hint of a one hundred year old tragedy contained in an old letter to our father from one of his cousins. When her collection of file cards and post-its became unmanageable it seemed logical that I should take over and commit the material to computer. That was over six years ago and our initial intention was to limit ourselves to our own, somewhat unusual, surname. I settled on the Millenia's Legacy Family Tree software. As the database grew, so did the interest from other members of the family - and people linked to us by marriage. Our widened horizons required a presence on the internet both for communication and dissemination of our results. This coincided with the launch of the BBC television series "Who Do You Think You Are" and a burgeoning of web based historical data sources.

I was fortunate to discover quite early the web based genealogy presentation software "TNG" (The Next Generation). Based on a MySQL database and the PHP scripting language it accepts a genealogical-standard GEDCOM file from Legacy and presents the information in a feature-rich way. On top of hat, TNG has developed into a fully-fledged genealogy community with its own forum, message board and wikiwith active participation from the software's author. The TNG network now has over 1400 associated members' databases comprising nearly 8.5 million names.

Because the scripts have open access, TNG is fully customizable and has given me the building blocks to create my own genealogical magazine. In terms of mark up, I am self taught and for the first couple of years I fumbled my way without any thought of programming convention or browser standard. I used a single display (in AOL) and so long as the page appeared "right" there I wasn't concerned with how it might look on someone else's system. It was a TNG upgrade which first brought the idea of xhtml standardization to my attention. The database and presentation pages continued to work; the magazine didn't! I discovered the W3C validation checker and to my horror, the first page I checked disclosed 364 errors. I soon learned about structured coding (tags in the correct order, nesting, use of cascade style sheets) but with over 120 pages in the magazine the task ahead was daunting. Indeed it took nearly six months, and input from several members of the community, to have the articles displaying correctly AND validating with W3C.

I had been aware of award schemes amongst the genealogy community for some time but these were mostly of the "if you visit me, I'll visit you" type. At the beginning of last year I came across the UWSAG symbol and learned of the award community. Feeling that I had "done my bit" by achieving the xhtml standard, I took my first teetering steps and sent off a couple of award applications. It rapidly became clear that to achieve anything would require far more effort, planning and forethought. I read the criteria and the disqualification criteria. I learned of cross-browser compatibility, alternate screen resolutions, privacy guidelines, copyright declarations, bandwidth theft, of secret words and of "fake" awards. I discovered the need for and differences between alt, title and meta attributes. Over many months, the deficiencies in my coding have been slowly unearthed and rectified. In all this time I have generally received sympathetic advice, generous help and an unstinting forum for discussion from the majority of their administrator and assessors of the programs to which I have applied.

I am very proud and quite humbled to display our results. With this in mind we have now enshrined this in the site's application policy: "We acknowledge an over-arching principle behind the application for a web award beyond the achievement of a fancy icon. The programs represented all possess strict assessment criteria and fail large numbers of applicants. We do not apply for buddy or reciprocal awards. We are attempting to achieve and maintain the highest levels of quality of web design, content, presentation and accessibility. We are submitting our site to critical and independent peer review in the hope that we can confirm its strengths and good points, unmask its weaknesses and advance our knowledge generally of programming and the advancing needs of the milieu of the internet."

However, I never forget the underlying purpose of our web site. To quote one commentator: "To search within the heritage of one's past is to find the future of one's journey." Although a full-time hobby, it satisfies both my computing and research interests and needs. We now have a family and a readership which truly spans the globe. I believe we are on our way to achieving our mission statement: "We, the present, hold the spirit of the past in trust for the aspirations of the future."

The Brothers Grinn
(Denny Lancaster and Bernie Howe)

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