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Building a Better Blog

I know what you’re thinking…this gal’s had this blog for six weeks, so what can she tell me about blogging? Well, let me offer my defense in advance. I may have only this particular blog for six weeks, but I’ve also had another one for six months. Between the two I’m using both of the more popular free blogging tools, Blogger and WordPress. Both now and prior blogging myself, I spent a lot of time reading dozens of blogs on a variety of topics, including blogging. You can learn a lot by lurking and comparing sites! I’ve also had a “presence” on the web (at least Web 1.0) with a non-blog site since 1996, and in that time I’ve learned a little bit about what readers like and don’t like. So, I’d like to offer my observations on building a better blog, whether it’s about genealogy or any other topic.

RSS Feeds – Why Full Feeds Matter

RSS feeds are a great way to get more readers of your blog. That’s what we all want, right…someone to actually read what we write? But, I’ll let you in on a little secret – if your blog isn’t allowing the RSS feed reader to view the entire post, you may lose a subscriber. For instance, sometimes I try to catch up on some blog reading during my lunch hour in work. But, my employer’s internet security blocks most blog sites, especially any hosted by Blogger or WordPress. However, I am able to use a blog reader even though I can’t actually “visit” the blog’s site. But, when a blogger doesn’t allow a full post to be seen by the reader, why subscribe? The post starts off with a tantalizing sentence or an intriguing idea, and just as the post gets interested it stops in mid-sentence or has the elusive “…” and ends. I will have to visit the site to view the whole post. Ay, there’s the rub! I can’t always visit the site! Since it doesn’t “cost” anything, why not make your blog post readable in full to all readers? Blogger Full Feed

If you use Blogger, in your Dashboard go to Settings. Under “Site Feed”, the first option is “Allow Blog Feeds”. If you choose “Full”, your subscribers that use a reader will be able to see and read your entire post without having to visit your site. If you choose “Short” or “None”, your subscribers will quickly unsubscribe because the main purpose of site feeds is the ability to “read” many sites without actually visiting the main site page each time.

Wordpress Full Feed

If you use WordPress, from your Dashboard click on “Options” then “Reading”. About halfway down the page you’ll see “Syndication Feeds”. Where it says “For each article, show:” you want to choose “Full text” in lieu of “Summary” to allow subscribers to read your whole post.

Allow All Readers to Comment

One of the highlights of blogging is when a reader posts a comment to your post. It’s nice to know that people are actually reading what you write, and the fact that they found it interesting enough to comment on it is rewarding. Some bloggers choose to review comments before allowing the comment to appear on the site. This is done mostly to prevent “spam” comments or ones that are otherwise unfriendly or rude. This is a personal choice for the blogger. But, one thing that all bloggers can do is open up the possibility for more folks to write a comment by allowing “Open ID”. You can still review the comments first if that’s your choice, but “Open ID” allows readers to comment even if they don’t use the same blogging platform as you do.

Blogger Comments

For example, if “Open ID” is not enabled and your blog is hosted on Blogger, a reader can not post a comment to your blog unless they also have a Blogger/Google account or you allow anonymous comments. Again, enabling “Open ID” doesn’t cost anything and it just makes it easier for readers to comment.

In Blogger’s Dashboard under “Comments”, there are several options. Allowing “Anyone” does just that. “Registered Users” is the Open ID option, which allows people to comment even if they don’t have a Blogger blog but have one on WordPress, Livejournal, or other sites. If you have “Users with Google Accounts” selected, you may “turn off” a potential poster if they don’t already have a Google account because it’s a hassle to register merely to post a comment.

On WordPress, under “Options” and the “Discussion” tab, you can choose the setting for comments. Most WordPress blogs don’t require a “Wordpress” account, only the commenter’s name and email (which isn’t shown on the blog publicly, but the blog’s owner receives the email address via email if they choose the option of email notification of new comments).

If you are a blogger and you want to gain more readers and allow more readers to comment on your posts, these two simple things can help with those goals. Now back to our regularly scheduled genealogical discussions…

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When I first got started in genealogy, I thought the Soundex was an amazing thing. It helped me find many incorrectly written names, often simply mis-pronounced by the foreign speaker or mis-understood by the American census taker. But, the Soundex only gets you so far…some errors are just too much to overcome. For example, the Soundex assumes that the first letter of the surname is correct, but what if it’s not? Thanks to computers and indexing, finding someone on the census is a lot easier than it used to be.

Zawodny Census Names

An example of a family that was hard to locate in the census is my Zawodny ancestors. As Polish surnames go, the name of Zawodny isn’t all that hard or unreasonable! But if you try to find them in census records, good luck. You’ll find three different names! The family first arrived in 1902, so the first census year is 1910. This is how the family’s entry compares for 1910, 1920, and 1930:

1910 – Savonia, Joseph, age 28. Wife Mary, age 20.

1920 – Cawodny, Joseph, age 39. Wife Laura, age 36.

1930 – Zavodny, Joseph, age 50. “Sister” Laura, age 44.

As you can see, only the 1930 surname would have been found using a Soundex search. The wife’s name changes, most likely because her Polish first name Wacława doesn’t really translate into an English name, at least not the same way that Jozef becomes Joseph.

Another favorite family in census records is my Piontkowski ancestors. While the 1920 entry of “Pontdowke” and 1930′s “Peontkowski” show up in the Soundex, the family’s whereabouts in 1910 had me stumped. Finally, I found them – listed under “Kilkuskie”.  Not really an intuitive search, but the first names, ages, neighborhood, and other information all matched. The best part about their entries are the ages – while the husband’s age is or at least close to what it actually was for those census years, or ages 39-49-59, the wife seems to grow younger each decade. Perhaps it was unfashionable back then for a wife to be five years older than her husband, but her ages show up as 37-52-54 while her actual age was 44-54-64!

So, how do you find someone when the surname isn’t right and Soundex searches fail you? The old standby prior to computers was to search for the known address. In the case of these two families, they each had a different address for each census year. If a family moved frequently, even though they stayed in the same neighborhood, they’ll be difficult to find unless you know through some other means, such as a city directory, what their actual address was during the census year.

One method that I used to find these records when “last name” searches failed was to search with a combination of the first name, approximate age, and country of birth. It helps if you know at least the county or city where the family lived, because you may get over a hundred men named “Joseph” born in “Poland” or “Russia” around 1879. But, by carefully checking the other family members, you will find the family if they are there. You can also combine a search using these elements with a spouse’s first name, or a parent’s first name if you are searching for a child. Try using Steve Morse’s searches if other search sites have you stumped.

This post is an excerpt from a future article on Searching US Census Records.

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One of my goals this year is to get organized, which includes all of my genealogical files as well as the rest of my house and my life in general. As any genealogist can tell you, especially one who hasn’t filed their “finds” in a while, this can be quite a time-consuming undertaking. Anything researchers find that can make your life easier later is worthy of sharing with others. So, Donna’s Organizational Tip of the Day — use extract forms to record information! Most of us have seen various free extract forms for census records, but what about ship’s passenger lists? You could create your own, but someone named Lisa Perkins has already done the work. An Italian genealogy site has a wonderful collection of Manifest Extract Forms that are freely available in both PDF or html format.

What are they? Extract forms are used to record information “extracted” from record sources. Because the information recorded on passenger lists varied over time, four different forms are listed for four time periods: 1893-1906, 1907-1918, 1919-1925, and post-1925. While there are no forms for lists prior to 1893, you can easily create your own. Before 1893, however, there is far less “personal” information included on each passenger. Depending on the year of arrival, you can gain a wealth of information about your ancestor, including their place of birth. Also interesting are the questions about their appearance such as height, hair color, and eye color. If you don’t have a photograph of an ancestor, at least this can help you imagine their basic appearance.

Why are they useful? Forms such as these are useful for several reasons. First, they can help you get your information organized so you don’t have to search through various papers or images to find what you are looking for. In fact, you don’t even have to print out a copy of the actual list unless you need it for another reason, such as illustrating your family history book. Using the extract forms instead of saving the actual files can save you “filing cabinet” space, whether you file papers or file images on your hard drive. The forms are also useful in noticing facts that may have been overlooked in your initial “find” such as that interesting column entitled: Ever been in the US before? When and where? Because of the hard-to-decipher handwriting on some lists, and the jumble of names thrown together, this can easily be overlooked.

Check out the Manifest Extract Forms site, download the forms, and get your information organized!

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