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Minnesota Local History Blog.

Advice and help with building history capacity.

The Minnesota Historical Society’s Local History Services helps Minnesotans preserve and share their history. This blog is a resource of best practices on the wide variety of museum, preservation, conservation, funding, and non-profit management topics. We’re here to help.

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Information Technology

From Ice Cream Socials to Social Networking

By: Joe Hoover | Information Technology | December 7, 2010
...Or how to get Liked instead of Licked on Facebook

icecream-social


There is a deep desire to be social. There is a deep and sometimes urgent desire to raise cash. There is a deep desire to eat ice cream. The ice cream social for over a century has, more or less successfully, has attempted to fulfill all those desires in one amazing event.

Ice cream, if you pardon the pun, was a hot commodity in the beginning of the 19th century as commercial Ice Cream Gardens appeared around America and England and offered a variety of sweet treats in a garden like setting and some even offered music. These gardens gave way to Ice Cream Socials as the cost of ice cream became less expensive and churches duplicated the ice cream gardens to use them as fundraising events.

No one back then called it an “Old Fashioned" Ice Cream Social. Ice Cream Socials in the good-ol'-days were innovative - marketing genius. I am unsure just when the words "Old Fashioned" were regularly added to "Ice Cream Social", probably when it ceased to be innovative.

However, ice cream socials as mentioned at the beginning, if done correctly could satisfy a community's social, monetary and sweet tooth needs. Note that Ice Cream Socials far out numbered Brussels Sprout Socials, Broccoli Socials and Castor Oil Socials combined. Something about a sweet treat just spells out success and a guaranteed ability to attract people (Lutefisk Socials however have always been a mystery to me).

An ice cream social was an easy if not tasty way for the community to show its support.

But an ice cream social was indeed a "social" event too not just a way to raise cash. Otherwise ice cream without the social is simply as fundraising oriented as selling Girl Scout Cookies or Fuller Brushes. "Social" provides a chance for the organizations members to come together and "Ice Cream" provides the key ingredient.

I know organizations where they actually loose money on the Ice Cream Social and still consider it a success. That is what is called a loss leader. You loose money on the event/product but gain it back in sales of another product or increased memberships or simply in the difficult to monetize - strengthen of community bonds. In military terms - you may loose a battle but win the war.

In building an organizations presence on Facebook, folks could learn a thing or two from ice cream socials.


Provide real content: It is not good enough to say you're having an ice cream social only to surprise them by making them sit through a two hour long seminar on the legacy value of leaving your organization in their will when they do their estate planning before they can get their miserable little scoop of ice cream and yet amazingly that is what organizations do when all they do is use Facebook  like a press release feed. Content is king with social media and historical societies and museums often lucky enough to have an embarrassing amount of content.  You want to lead them back to your web site. Social networking does not work until you start producing things on your web site that people want to go to.

icecream-cricket


Provide a sweet treat: It is one thing to get someone to "Like" you it is another thing to balance your posts so they don't "Unlike" you or even worse simply "Hide" you from their news feed. So what you provide not only has to be original content but the content you provide has to be relevant to your audience. But what is relevant? Relevant does not necessary mean good for you. Remember, Ice Cream Socials are way more popular than Brussel Sprout Socials. So it is content that is simple, tastes good, easy to eat, fun and appeal to a wide audience.

I am not saying that you should not go ahead and post your organization's fifty events at once or post your research article  Effects of the Disappearance of the Rocky Mountain Locust on Biodynamic corn Production in the late 19th Century American Midwest, just that the Facebook "News Feed" that appears when you log in posts does not list the most recent posts. Instead it is a complicated algorithm that aggregates posts Facebook thinks you will find most desirable  based on things like the popularity of the post - or of posts similar to it; Do your friends like the post?; Have you "Liked" a post from that organization before?; How many times has your organization posted in the last hour, etc, etc...

That is why it is important to space out your event postings and why things like "Object of the Day", "Guess this Object",  "Then & Now", This Day in History and. They are easy to view and easy to "Like"

icecream-hello


Be Social: I have never heard of an "Ice Cream Business Networking" event. An Ice Cream Social may not be the best time to pass out business cards and it simply may wind up annoying any potential customers, it is a time to kick back, relax and get to know your community through ice cream.

As with social media, now is not the time to put on your professional face. Carefully crated posts in the Chicago Manual of Style may win the hearts of traditional media for your press releases, but frankly it is dull, formulaic and frankly now is chance to give your brand a little personality. Many of the social media sites are a chance to get to know your followers (admirers).

Your Turn!

What are you doing to build community on Facebook and other social media sites? Are you really engaging? What are you doing right that others can learn from? What do you find most difficult in building and engaging with your community?

Phone books call it a day

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | November 13, 2010
The St. Paul Pioneer Press for Friday November 12, 2010, printed an Associated Press article by Michael Felberbaum, "Familiar phone books dying in digital age." As Internet penetration edges up in all parts of the state (see Electronic Access for Rural Minnesota), people rely on resources that are both more easily searched and perceived to be more up-to-date because people can often edit their own contact information.

Further, as the article notes, only about 11 percent of Americans rely solely on a landline, and cell numbers are not listed in phone books. Other estimates show that fully 25 percent of Americans only use cell phones. Thus a quarter of Americans would not be found using traditional phone books. It makes sense that phone books may disappear. Already New York, Florida, and Pennsylvania approved Verizon's request to stop printing residential listings in those states. Virginia is considering it. How long will it be before providers stop printing phone books in Minnesota?

While some may worry about this change and only see the loss of a resource, as some are fond of saying, "History is all about change. If changes ever stops, historical organizations will be out of business." Local historical organizations are always adapting, and this news story represents another call to arms.

Disappearance of phone books, though, poses a problem for local historical organizations. Phone books grew out of older "city directories" that enabled people to locate services and other people. Both have genealogical and research value to local historical organizations, and both existed together for a quite a while in some places. In some places city directories were dropped, but in some places they continue to be created. However, there does not appear to be a widely available tool to reach out and touch someone that has grown up alongside of phone books, as phone books did with city directories. Thus the problem is one of adaptation. Local historical organizations cannot migrate to a new resource with the loss of an older one.

In the past decade use of research libraries at local historical organizations has increased. With the convulsions seen among media formerly only in print formats, and phone books may be added to the list, access to these basic research tools calls into question whether the growth seen in the last decade will continue. Local organizations have put a lot of resources into developing strong research libraries to serve their growing clientele. In order to continue to encourage use, of course, adding resources is necessary. So how will local history research libraries compensate for the loss of phone books?

What might replace these mechanisms that allow us to connect certainly is hard to see. Perhaps to replace phone books as a research tool, local historical organizations will have to rely on the generosity of the constituents they serve who would be willing to download the contacts in their cell phones periodically or when upgrading. This begs many questions about privacy, of course, not to mention capturing people who don't know their descendants might look for them in the future. Or, perhaps historical organizations will have to begin to mine connections of members linked to them on social media forums. Or, perhaps local historical organizations will need to develop resources beyond directories that their members and others might willingly populate. There may be a number of alternative resources in addition that local history research libraries could name.

Local historical organizations have amazing resources for certain periods of time, but in order to connect these resources to future generations, it seems as though additional records need to be generated or found to represent those living in the first decades of the 21st century. How are local historical organizations embracing this change in the loss of phone books? What other resources are you beginning to collect?

Web Development Smackdown

By: Joe Hoover | Information Technology | November 12, 2010
Currently eight historical societies have posted reviews of their organization's web site redesigns on this blog.  Looking over the posts, there are some interesting takeaways.

For most historical societies this was not their first design but this was their second or third redesign. For a couple of organizations the redesign was necessitated by organizational and branding changes, but for most, web site redesigns appear to be about the need for better access due to obsolete software or advancements in back-end accessibility making it desirable to change the technology on how the web site is maintained. For the Edina Historical Society they gained more control, for the Morrison County Historical Society they improved the productivity and efficiency of updating their web site.

Common Themes


There are some common themes on what the organizations were looking for when building or redesigning a web site.

  1. Cheap/affordable - This is probably the hands down leader in what organizations are looking for. Whether it is the cost of the software, hosting service or in operational costs of maintaining it, finding a solution that fits in an organization's budget is critical.

  2. Easy - For many organizations especially those with no web skills, the ability that it be simple to add and update content this is also a top concern.

  3. Foolproof/security - no one likes when a site goes down, or having to deal with coding problems or - heaven forbid security issues if they site gets hacked.

  4. Control - For some organizations this is not important but for others it is either desirable or critical to have control over the both the updating of their web site and the branding of the web site.


Unfortunately these four common themes are usually not compatible with each other.

Cheap vs Foolproof vs. Easy vs. Control


Build your own
Handcoding your site while cheap and offering the most control is neither easy or foolproof.  Many have used or are using the WYSIWYG web editor Dreamweaver to update their web site and while it can still allow a great amount of control, the application is not cheap and even if it is set up correctly for some it still may not be foolproof or easy enough. There are other WYSIWYG editors some free or cheaper than Dreamweaver however the old adage “You get what you pay for” fits well here.

CMS it
While there are some great solutions such as making use of free open source Content Management System (CMS) software such as Drupal or Wordpress or low cost do-it-yourself software like ExpressionEngine which can make building a web site very affordable if you do it yourself, and easier to manage, these solutions still cost in time and require experience to set up correctly. Also, if  not set up right or updated when security patches are released they can pose a security problem.

Both "Building your own" and "CMS it" solutions require a hosting provider as well. There are also some very good deals with hosting services which will host your own web pages, but again they are low-cost, not free. However if you are paying $100 versus $10 a month for hosting that extra $90 buys you a whole lot of attention from your hosting provider should the server go down.

Let others deal with it
If you are not bothered by lack of control and like the ease and cost of having your city or county host your organization’s web pages on their site,  this could be the way for your organization to go. However, more than likely you will have to play by their rules and timetable. In the Edina Historical Society’s case the city did not even allow for linking to external sites, so linking to the organization’s Facebook page or other social media was out of the question.

Put your web in the cloud
If you don’t mind ads, there are many free services such as Wordpress.com (WordPress.com utilizes the same WordPress software but the hosting and managing of the software is taken care of by the team at WordPress.com. ) that you build your web site with their tools. There are even some sites like Weebly.com that will allow you to create a basic free ad free web site but the hope is that you will upgrade to to their more fully featured “Pro” account. These sites allow you to a build web site with no technical skills and are much more foolproof and secure than building your own CMS site - and for simple web sites these are great solutions and will can even give you more solutions if you upgrade to their paid services. However,  they do not lend themselves to a great deal of customization especially when you need a database or software solution.

The moral of the post...
There are thousands of ways to build the wrong web site and no way to build a perfect web site. And as Mary Warner said in her blog post, "There are gazillions of ways to structure a website." This unfortunately is the nature of the beast since every web site doomed to obsolescence as soon as it are placed online and that there is no prefect solution, that every organization has to balance out their own 'cheap', 'foolproof',  'easy' and 'control' needs when building their web site. However, one of the key things in building a web site is planning. That may be taking an inventory of your current site, looking at your organizations needs, surveying your customers, etc... I highly recommend if folks have not already is to look over our Web Site Worksheet and Web Standards Guide which were written to be resources in web site planning. It was great to see some of the organizations listed here do things like surveying stakeholders, useing wireframes and reflecting on their web sites traffic by looking through Google Analytics stats.

Are there other observations on common issues/themes between these sites and your sites?

Lake County Historical Society launches updated website

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | November 5, 2010
Lake County Historical Society launched their first website in 2000 with a grant from Iron Range Resources. When I started working at the Society in 2009 it was evident that since the website’s launch there was little or no maintenance done or resources dedicated for this purpose.

We currently have two independent yet connected websites. We have the Lake County Historical Society site  and our business website for the Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast.

The new sites were needed for a variety of reasons:

a)      To regain control over our domain names. We had been sold by Internet service providers so many times we couldn’t find out who the administrators were for our domains.

b)      To bring the society into the 21st century, the old site was filled with obsolete features, erroneous information, and the content itself was ten years old.

c)      To re-brand the organization itself and to create the image that we are a modern and active organization. This is done by having a site with administrative privileges so we can edit page content without the aid of our designers.

d)      This may be unique to our organization, but we needed to create two mirrored websites that allow for an easy flow back and forth between the B&B website and Historical Society site. It is very important to me to make sure that people looking at the Lighthouse B&B website understand the mission of the Lake County Historical Society and that we are preservationists, not operating a north shore tourist trap.

The Lake County Historical Society was very fortunate in the redesign of the websites. The Lighthouse B&B website was a donation from Creative Arc (a St Paul based company) CEO Paul Larson. Paul and his wife have been repeat guests at the B&B and as business was slow at the time, Paul offered his team to design a new site for us to keep his designers fresh. We accepted his offer and asked him to include the Society’s site as well because I knew before I met him I had to bring these two entities back together.

I invited Julie, the lead designer and her husband up to the B&B to spend the night so they could experience the B&B and gave them a tour of our museums and talked about how important it was for the historical aspect of the B&B to be present in the website.

We received a grant from the Two Harbors Area Visitors Bureau for the development of the LCHS site as it serves to bring tourists to our area and visitors to our local hotels.

 The B&B website was created entirely by Creative Arc from content in the old website and additional images taken by Julie and her husband during their stay.

For the LCHS site Creative Arc provided me with what they call a Basecamp website. On this Basecamp there was a wireframe of our site that I could log into and edit text content and photos. I have roughly over 100 hours into scanning, editing, researching content, writing, and uploading for the site.

We began by using the existing sites as platforms for the new ones. We knew what we wanted out of each site and the deficiencies of the previous sites.

For the B&B it was obvious, encourage people to reserve a room and come stay with us, and explain how their money would benefit the public through historic preservation.

The LCHS site needed to do demonstrate to people that we are active, and that we provide services to our members and patrons, and that by being a member of the Society their history is preserved and the community benefits.

I had a lot of experience with my own websites from when I was an aspiring musician so the only thing I had to learn was how to use the editing engine (Expression) provided by Creative Arc. I am still, and I believe always will be learning new things about administering websites as technology changes.

The B&B website is performing admirably for us generating new business. I am having a hard time calibrating the impact of the new LCHS website. I was hoping that it would drive people to become members but I fear the “Charges for research and reproduction” section might be scaring people away. If nothing else the new website at least demonstrates that we are cognitive of the need to maintain a fresh and modern web presence. It does not save time as I have to do much of the editing myself. It has come down to editing the calendar on a quarterly basis and our projects list annually.          

We have moved our entire web hosting to Creative Arc and pay them the annual fees for both sites. In addition if I need to make a change in the site that the ExpressionEngine can’t perform I pay an hourly fee to Creative Arc for each task. This seldom happens, so our website redesign has been cost effective.

Mel Sando
Administrator
Lake County Historical Society

Social media/Web Guidelines and Strategy Worksheets

By: Joe Hoover | Information Technology | September 10, 2010
As social media tools are becoming increasingly commonplace and valuable to historical organizations and museums it is important to keep the communication appropriate, relevant and inline with the organization's mission, which is why it is important to have a strategy before going in and to have guidelines on how to best interact when there.

The following strategy worksheets and guidelines were developed for by Enterprise Technology and Local History Services at the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) as templates for use by other history organizations. The guidelines were created both from experiences here at MHS and by glomming good ideas from the guidelines of others around the web, such as the email guidelines which were wholly adapted from the University of Saint Thomas' own email guidelines.

If you have not created your own, look at these as a starting point, if you already have your own, add these as tools to your arsenal.

Strategy Worksheet

Guidelines

Also of interest is the Web Standards Guide (PDF) that was created by MHS' Information Technology team last year which outlines good, better and best practices for designing and maintaining web sites.

Just what is a Mobile Museum?

By: Joe Hoover | Information Technology | September 8, 2010
Images of mobile devices including cellphones and calculators

Some words about "mobile"...

"Mobile Museum" is as widely talked about now days as it is widely misunderstood. Museums talk about mobile tours but without little clarification of just what mobile means.  Organizations stumble headlong into the world of mobile and others wish and plan to do so, and as the old saying goes - "be careful what you wish for"

Remember this - a handheld calculator can also be considered a "mobile" device, so define just what mobile is in your organization and if you’re working with a team of people make sure that everyone is in agreement as to what the definitions and perceptions are. Case in point, what is the difference between a cell phone tour vs. a mobile tour? Perhaps nothing, but it can be very different.

Take a tour

A cell phone tour can mean dial up to listen to a prerecorded message on an object or place. A mobile tour can mean that AND it can also mean downloading podcast episodes on your MP3 player and going for a walk. Maybe mobile means the "Mobile web browser" and you use your mobile phone's web browser to access a tour on a mobile designed web site. These web sites vary greatly some can look primitive and can only function on in a mobile phone browser only with the greatest of effort, others can be slick sites that are also considered "web browser apps" that mimic many (but not all) of the functionality of a "mobile app"

Which brings us to our next level of mobile tour - download a "mobile app" to your device be it a iPhone, iPad or iTouch (...or Android device) and proceed to go on a tour where the data on the mobile app changes and updates in real-time and not only do you receive information on your tour, you can add your own comments, photos and interact with others on the tour. Dynamic data is also something a web app can do, however, a mobile app also allows you to access many features of your mobile device like the camera, microphone, accelerometer, GPS, etc... A web browser app that operates from the web browser cannot. This allows your device to capture 2D barcodes, recording and uploading of photos, video and audio. It also can allow position recognition and know where you are in relation to a place or a museum object.

The worst mobile apps are the ones that do not take advantage of web connectivity and are bloated space hogging mobile applications that contact all the information within the app itself instead of accessing it as needed from a web database. Example: at 54MB the American Museum of Natural History's Dinosaur iPhone app is a good example. Many of the well-designed apps don't go over 2-3MB. There may be reasons to create a jumbo app, such as a critical need to work even if the web connection is down or maybe the tour is in an area without internet or mobile phone service. If the museum building itself cannot get internet/mobile phone reception that should be addressed before the mobile app is built in the first place.

From a marketing point-of-view, getting the person to keep the app on their mobile device long after the tour or museum visit creates a long term relationship which you can refresh with an update of the mobile app. Space hogging apps or one-trick-ponies that focus only on a particular tour or exhibit won’t stick around on the device for long.

Your mobile ready web site...

While it is a good idea that your organization's web site should be mobile ready, it is important to understand just what that means.

First, if you have heard of the mobile domain extension ".mobi" do not buy it. It is fairly worthless. Instead you have several other options. First, if your web site  is correctly coded using style sheets then you could reformat your web site using style sheets aimed at mobile devices and mobile specific JavaScript.

Secondly, you can just as easily (and cheaper) create a subdomain for your mobile content instead of using a new domain name with the extension .mobi. As an example,  see how the Walker Art Center handles its web site for mobile devices.
Mobile: m.walkerart.org
Non-mobile: www.walkerart.org
You already own/lease your domain name no need to get a second one when you can just create a subdomain for your current domain.

Lastly, many smart mobile devices have already built browsers to handle traditional web sites, so even if you do nothing it is getting easier for people to view it via mobile device. But even if you wish to go the extra mile and design your site for a web mobile device you probably don't (and should not) have to replicate all the content on your traditional site. Hopefully you have some type of analytics collecting web traffic data. Google analytics allows you to track mobile device use. You should see what pages get accessed via mobile (and where) and build your mobile site accordingly with the content mobile users want.

I leave you with a table created by Nancy Proctor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum that compares the platform to the type of content it supports, which serves as a reminder it is important first to define your objectives, then to define the technology you need.

Mobile device comparison chart

Merging Websites in Clay County

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | August 9, 2010
Our website was launched in May 2010. The website took over a year to design and create. Meghan Lannan, student at Minnesota State University Moorhead, created and designed the website for free. I began my position with the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County in January 2010, so I entered during the tail end of the project. I am taking on the role of updating the website frequently with upcoming exhibits/events and archival information.

We decided we needed a new website after we merged our two organizations, Clay County Historical Society and the Heritage Hjemkomst Interpretive Center, into the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. We wanted to brand our new organization name, and we felt a new website would help establish ourselves. In addition to branding ourselves, we wanted to make the website more user-friendly so visitors knew what was happening at the Hjemkomst Center museum.

We use Adobe® Dreamweaver® for the entire site, as well as Adobe® Flash® for our main page. I had previously taken courses in college on Dreamweaver® but was not too familiar with the program. Meghan showed me the basics of Dreamweaver®, so I was able to make updates to our website.

To track our website, we use Google Analytics®. This helps us know where are visitors are coming from, which page they visit the most and how many new visitors we get daily. This helps us determine what pages we need put more emphasis on.  For instance, one of our most visited pages is our “Events” page, so I make sure that page is updated daily.

The site is designed to be more user-friendly for visitors and includes information on upcoming events and our in-house and traveling exhibits, as well as a partial listing of research materials available in our Archives. Visitors can also find directions to the Hjemkomst Center, contact information and more. We are currently in the process of transferring all of our holdings from our old website to our new website. In addition, we will eventually have a page setup so guests can view and purchase items in the Heritage Gift Shop.

Brianne Carlsrud
Marketing Coordinator
Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County

Electronic Access for Rural Minnesota

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | August 9, 2010
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $43 million for six Minnesota rural communications systems to upgrade service to broadband, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Thursday August 5, 2010. While history has been and continues to be preserved in many parts of the state, faster access to that history now appears to be coming.

For those in Lyon, Pipestone, Rock, Lac qui Parle, Kittson, Marshall, Roseau, Cass, Crow Wing, Stevens, and Faribault Counties, what might you do with this service to increase access to your collections?

Updated Website for Otter Tail County Historical Society

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | August 4, 2010
We registered our domain name otchs.org in 2003. We had a previous website developed by a volunteer but wanted to have more control over the site and an ability to update it ourselves. I used Adobe® GoLive® to create our 2003 site. Adobe® Dreamweaver® replaced GoLive® in 2008. Since that time I have nursed our version of GoLive® along to do simple updates.

We purchased Dreamweaver® in 2008 but I didn't feel that I had the time to devote to learning the new program until I heard someone say how outdated our site looked. That gave me the push I needed to open the software and go through the training to get it started.

The 2003 site took about three months to build. The new site took six weeks. This included the work we did with a hired FileMakerPro consultant who created the pages that serve our cemetery search engine. The most time consuming aspects of the website are those places where we use the site to collect fees with links to PayPal.

On June 21, 2010 we launched our new website. The new site was created for two reasons. First, the software I used to build our old site had been discontinued for a few years and we had been nursing it along to get it to do updates. Secondly, we finally added a search component to the site.

Visitors can now search the over 86,000 names in our single largest database and request either or both internment information or an obituary lookup. Searches are tied to PayPal; which collects a $5.00 fee per lookup for OTCHS. This is a service people desire and should raise much needed revenue to help us continue our work collecting information on the people of Otter Tail County.

We hired Tim Cimbura, with Cimbura.com Technology out of Minneapolis, to set up our search screens.  We had been looking for someone with the skills and expertise with Apple, FileMaker and web development and through the Minnesota Association of School Administrators we found Cimbura.com Technology. All of the work Tim did for us was done from his home office. We used the telephone, Skype, and email to communicate. We have so many databases to share with the world but we lack the expertise needed to make them available. Now that we found Cimbura.com we only lack the funds to pay him to set up our next online search experience.

We may be unable to be on the cutting edge of technology but we are making an effort to keep our web presence looking tidy and offer web surfers a taste of what we have to offer. We hope it also encourages them to visit us in person.

Opportunities to become or renew membership, shop for a book from our gift shop, donate to our many important causes, request research, find out what events and exhibits we have going on and what we are planning in the near future, are just some of the things people can do and see on our website.

LeAnn Neuleib is keeping our Facebook page updated. All of these new internet sites and tools are cool and definitely something that people are using. We would like to have more Facebook friends. Make sure, if you are on Facebook, that you join our group or "like" our page. 

I would love to hear that you checked out our website and if you can think of ways to improve our web presence, and especially if you have the knowledge and skills to help us make it better, let me know.

~Kathy M.L. Evavold

New Website for Edina Historical Society

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | April 15, 2010

About a year ago, I sat at a Minnesota Historical Society workshop in Northfield to learn about web design standards from Shana Crosson, trying to create a website for our little city historical society with little time, almost no money and no web design skills.


 


It took almost a year, but we finally launched our web site in January 2010.  If you're in the same spot we were last spring, perhaps you can learn from (and improve on) our experience.


 


First  some background: the Edina Historical Society has about 300 members, an operating budget of less than $50,000 and a half-time director (me). We have more than 20 active volunteers but no one with any web design skills. (In fact, most do not use a computer.)


 


CITY WEB SITE


Prior to this year, the City of Edina generously provided a couple of pages on its website for  our organization and for our programs that we operate in two city parks. However, we seldom changed the pages because we had little control: we had to submit changes to city staff, who updated our content as they had time (sometimes weeks later). The city also had a number of format and technical restrictions, such as no links to outside sites, that limited what we could do.


 


About two years ago, we wanted more content to promote our programs, particularly our school field trip programs at a historic one-room schoolhouse. Because most of our visitors are schools from out of town, we needed an inexpensive way to reach educators throughout the state without dramatically increasing postage and printing costs.


 


We asked for more pages and the city agreed - if we paid for the redesign, estimated to be more than $1,200.  At that point, we decided to investigate establishing our own site that we could update as often as needed.


 


In the meantime, because our information was hard to find on the huge city site, we paid for a domain name to put on our marketing materials to get people directly to our pages.


 


SEARCHING FOR ALTERNATIVES


To find out what might work for us, I did what I usually do when we contemplate a new project: I call my colleagues at city historical societies to see what they're doing.


 


Richfield is lucky enough to have Joe Hoover, a web designer for the Minnesota Historical Society, as a board member and volunteer. He designs and maintains the site using more complicated software than I could handle, but he offered all sorts of free advice on what simpler software was out there, including WordPress that has been discussed in this blog.


 


My first reaction, to be honest, was to find some great volunteer like Joe to create the site for us. (Unfortunately, Joe wouldn't defect to join EHS.) My board members were sure that some talented high school kid could design a site in a few hours. Despite some volunteer recruiting efforts in the community and with the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, we didn't find anyone.


 


St. Louis Park and Bloomington each contracted different web designers to create a site for them. The cost was rather modest, but with a budget of $0, we didn't have that option.


 


So, I tried designing our site with WordPress, which I know many of you know and love but I had a hard time creating the site I wanted. Perhaps the problem had more to do with me than with WordPress. With just 20 hours a week to do everything from exhibit development to PastPerfect data entry to vacuuming, I didn't have much time to spare to develop new skills.


 


WHY WEEBLY


Through a Google search of recommended free web services, I found Weebly.  It was named one of the "Top 50 Sites" by Time Magazine in 2007 and had earned all sorts of praise about its ease of use from several other publications.


 


For you non-techies who don't know your HTML from your CSS (like me), Weebly is very simple. The WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) features make creating a web site as easy as creating a newsletter in Word or Publisher. Pick a template you like. Then simply click a button to create a page and drag and drop elements (photo, title, paragraph, etc.) onto the page. Moving pages around, adding pages, changing menus is just as simple.


 


Weebly continually offers new features based on feedback from users. For example, captions and alt-tags for photos weren't available when I first started designing, but were added soon after. Free features include a blog, photo galleries, reader polls, Google maps, Flickr slides shows, and many other features that I have only begun to explore.


 


For those of you with technical skills, there's a HTML/CSS interface to fine tune the template. I'm not in that group, but I have used a simple little feature that lets me insert HTML code for widgets such as "Follow us on Twitter" and other "share" buttons. (I found the code through a quick Google search).


 


Check out the Weebly site for the list of free features: www.weebly.com. For a small additional fee ($71.80 for two years), you get tech support, plus the ability to embed documents, add audio files, video player, password protected pages, up to 10 websites and detailed web stats.


 



GOALS AND RESULTS
Once I found Weebly, creating the site went relatively quickly. I had worked with a committee to plan our web content more than a year before when we thought we could expand our content with the city.  The driving force behind creating a new site was to build our field trip programs, the biggest source of our income. We also wanted to market new programs (history-themed birthday parties, summer day camp) for parents searching online for something fun to do with their children.

 


In addition, we operate a museum, with exhibits and a research library that is open to the public just two mornings a week. A web site now gives the public around the clock access. We have finished entering our photo catalog in our PastPerfect database; our next step is provide an online catalog. Weebly has the ability to handle that additional content.


 


Most of my time has been spent marketing our site, through links on other sites, newspaper articles, Facebook links, postings on alumni web sites, etc. I update the front page every week with news. I also write a blog that I update about three times a week. I write about history resources, new items in the collections, history of stuff that is making news, etc. From time to time, I also feature a "history mystery" in response to questions from readers about puzzling Edina landmarks, such as the bridge to nowhere or the rumored haunted mansion.


 


Through Google Analytics (another free service partnered with Weebly), I can track traffic sources, popularity of pages, number of visitors, number of visits and much more. In the first three months, we have had more than 850 unique visitors to the site. Site usage has doubled from about 250 visitors in February to almost 500 in March.


 


We do not have a form to ask visitors how they heard about us, but we do know that we have booked almost three full weeks of summer day camp this year, after struggling to fill one week during our inaugural year last summer, with little additional marketing beyond our website.


 


Many of our museum visitors tell us that they found out about us through the website. What's more these visitors seem to be much younger than our usual retirees. A 22-year-old reader brought in her mother to research their neighborhood. An Eagle Scout came in to work on a project. A new resident came in to buy history books about her new hometown. Several people have brought in donations for an upcoming exhibit.


 


I spend about five hours of my 20 hours a week on the website, and have created more work for myself with donations to accession, researchers to assist and program requests to fill. It's a good problem to have, and we hope additional contacts will translate into additional membership dollars.



To see what we've done (so far -- more content is coming) see www.edinahistoricalsociety.org. I'm happy to answer any questions and welcome free advice.

Marci Matson


Executive Director


Edina Historical Society




 



612-928-4577

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