THE FUTURE OF MEMORIES
BY DENISE OLSON
A Monthly - Weekend With Shades - Column
While I am totally addicted to researching my family history, I'm not too fond of the "formal" family history. Sure, these documents include all kinds of great information to help me make connections with my ancestors, but they are also very dry. The rest of my family might look at the photos included in the history - "might" being the key word here - but not much else. Like me, they enjoy their family history education in small doses that include photos, letters, journals and good stories. To that end, I take advantage of all the creative digital tools I have to produce fun and fascinating slices of family history to share. That's the future of my family memories . . .
In the coming months, we'll look at all kinds of fun and fascinating ways to share our family history. From blogs, to photo books and calendars, to slideshow presentations on digital frames and iPods, to videos and DVDs, there are so many ways to get your family excited about their ancestry. This month we start with the basics - the tools you'll need to get started.
My creative toolbox is quite simple and inexpensive. I'm including several online tools for several reasons. Not only is it easier - and cheaper - to share these stories with family members living hither and yon, but it might even attract research cousins I haven't yet met. My toolbox includes:
- a blog site
- a photo storage and sharing site
- a video sharing site
- photo editing software
- movie editing software.
A Blog Site
The blog site is the backbone of my toolbox. It provides the platform for stories, photos and videos that even the most digitally-challenged member of my family can navigate. Instead of trying to distribute CDs or DVDs, I just send an email when something new is posted and they can come get it themselves. And, when they want a copy of that story about Uncle Jim from two years back, they can quickly search the site and find it themselves. Sure, I have my share of totally helpless kin but even they are easier to manage thanks to my blog site.
You don't have to be technically savvy to build and manage a blog site. Basic editing is quite simple and, as your confidence increases, you can begin to explore some of the more advanced options. Oh, and you have several choices of free blog platforms to use so money isn't an obstacle either. Blogger is probably the easiest way to get into blogging. It's a Google property so if you're already using Google (Gmail, Google Reader, Picasa, etc.) you can use your existing username to create your Blogger site.
As you see here, the Blogger editor is quite simple. A simple toolbar offers basic formatting and tools to include links, photos and video. Add a few labels (keywords to organize your topics) and you're ready to publish. As soon as you click on the Publish Post button your article appears on your blog site. The most recent post always appears at the top of your blog page and Blogger automatically creates and maintains an archive of your previous articles organized by date. Blogger offers several design choices - called templates - to add personality to your blog. You can choose a stock template or you can spiff it up with your own color scheme and fonts. Blogger offers all kinds of gadgets to spice up your blog. These can be used to add links to other sites (like your photo and video collections) and other goodies like your local weather forecast. It's fun to experiment - and easy to return to just the basics if that's what you prefer. My advice is to start simple and, once you are comfortable with the basics, start experimenting. Just remember - your stories and photos are the focus!
Blogger isn't the only free blog platform. You have several options, each offering their own features and style. Take a look around and see which best suits your needs and skill-level. Other free hosted blog platforms include:
I am a huge Flickr fan and highly recommend it to anyone with a large photo collection. There are free accounts available, but if you have a large collection I suggest spending $25 a year for a Pro account. This gives you unlimited storage and lots of tools for organizing and sharing your photos. With a Pro account you can upload your current digital photos and high-quality scans of your old family photos as a backup that not only protects you against hard drive failure, but also fire, flood and other disasters. Flickr gives you the option to keep any part of your collection private - only visible to you and your family.
Flickr provides tons of tools for sharing. One of these tools quickly became my favorite when a family member wanted me to scan, blow-up and print several old family photos for her home. I didn't have the time - or printer ink - to manage all that printing so I just uploaded them to Flickr and showed her how to order her own prints at whatever size she wanted. She could either have them sent directly to her or to her local Target where she could pick them up the same day. I was off the hook and she was quite happy. I can also use the sharing features to pull photo collections from other family members into my newsreader. Whenever new photos of our grandchildren are uploaded to their Flickr account, they pop up in my newsreader too.
That's just the beginning of the things Flickr can do for you. Other features include a blogging tool where you can post a photo - and your descriptive text - to your blog. You can create "badges" on your blog site to display groups of photos from your Flickr collection. Want to create a photobook, calendar, Christmas cards or other photo-related gifts? No problem! Online businesses like Lulu. Blurb, Moo and others cooperate with Flickr so you can build your creations directly from you Flickr collection.
Like blogs, there are many options for photo-sharing. These include:
Video Sharing Site
We all have made a visit to YouTube at some point. It can be a wild and crazy place, but it can also be a very useful platform for posting and sharing videos. Even short videos can be huge files and both free and premium blog hosts have space limits. YouTube not only gives you the space, but they give you the tools to embed your video on your blog site. Embed means you can view the video on your site while it remains physically located at YouTube.
You may not think you're going to be making any movies any time soon, but it's very easy to create video slideshows of your photos with music and even narration. And, since just about every digital camera does video as well as still photos, you may want to dip your toes into video sooner than you think. Even if you never create a single video, that shouldn't stop you from including videos on your blog. I've included video of Otis Redding singing one of my favorite songs while reminiscing about my high school days. And then there was the post ranting about Florida's plan to drop Suwanee River as the state song that included an incredible performance by Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis. Yeah, that will grab anyone's attention!
In addition to YouTube, you'll find these sites also offer hosting with embedding and sharing features:
Photo Editing Software
If you're just getting started in photo editing, stick with something simple. You will need something that both organizes your photo collection and provides tools for your basic editing needs - straightening, cropping, color and exposure adjustment and red-eye removal. Mac users have all those things in iPhoto. Windows and Linux users can take advantage of the free Picasa software. In addition to an online photo-sharing platform, Picasa is also a desktop application to organize and edit photos on your computer. Both of these applications are a great place to start and will work well with online platforms for creating family treasures from your photos.
More adventurous users will find software like Adobe's Photoshop Elements (both Windows and Mac), Paint Shop Pro (Windows) and Pixelmator (Mac) provide more flexibility at an affordable price. These apps can support some serious digital scrapbooking with tools to create backgrounds and embellishments as well as manage your photo-editing needs. They do cost more and require a longer learning curve, but the creative possibilities are endless.
Video Editing Software
The good news is you don't have to spend money to get started with video editing. Mac users have iMovie included in their iLife suite and Windows XP and Vista include Movie Maker. Both are surprisingly easy to learn and you'll be amazed at the results you get. Although I'm quite happy with iMovie, I can always move up to Adobe's Premiere Elements (Windows and Mac) or Apple's Final Cut Express (Mac) should I ever get more adventurous.
As you can see, your toolbox is very reasonably priced. You can get started with no upfront costs and minimal training. Even when you're ready to move to more sophisticated tools, you can find ones that fits your budget. Your biggest investment will be your time and creativity. Experiment with the options mentioned here and find the tools that best suit you. Take some time to learn how to use the systems you choose and be ready to party next month when we start building some exciting family history projects.