A quieter, gentler non-blog, blog

I’ve been in another world – a quiet, gentler one – for the past few days, building a Web site for Westport’s town records. It turned out to be both challenging and fun, which is good since I don’t get paid for this. (The work is done for the Westport Historical Society.) Also good because I am sick of reading so much about wars and lies.

This was fun because I couldn’t help but read things as I worked on the project and in doing so I found the records raised more questions than they answered. But it’s good, in a way I find hard to explain, to see familiar landmarks – such as a specific rock in the river near a small island – being referenced in reports that are two centuries old. And it’s interesting to see how the town cared for the poor by compensating individuals who took the poverty stricken into their homes and sheltered, clothed, and fed them. This, and much more, emerges from the sometimes cryptic – and always sparse – wordings in the official record.

You also learn that announcements for town meetings were posted in a few local stores and at the town hall, there being no newspaper. Keep in mind, this is the way they reached people spread over more than 60 square miles! Quite a difference from the newspapers, radio, television and Web of today. Makes me wonder, though, if we’re really better informed on things we need to be better informed about.

The challenge comes from the sheer magnitude of the project. What do you do with more than 200 years of town meeting reports to make them accessible to Web users? Fortunately, they have already been typed into Microsoft Word by others over the past five years. But they are in a handful of huge files. What I wanted to do was put up a year’s worth at a time. The solution was “Movable Type.”

Yes, that’s the blogging software I am using here and yes, I’m still on a tear about it because I see it as tremendous democratizing force, allowing lots of folks to easily put content on the Web in a lot more than just the usual blog format. You just need to understand what’s there, then forget about blogs and bend the tools a little to fit your needs.

I did that. I have what amounts to a blog home page here - but it actually is not updated when a new blog item is entered. Instead of having the entry post in the normal fashion, I have it go only to the archives – and then to just two – an individual archive and a category archive. The category archive serves as a menu page to find individual stuff. And yes, the home page does get updated automatically when I add a new category because the categories appear as links there. It is those links – and the search engine - that are the critical connections on the home page. The rest of that page is semi-permanent, being held in a template. To change it, I change the template.

But the other pages are all created with a minimum of hassle by Movable Type. To add a new year of records all I do is copy and paste the text into a form and click the “save” button. It takes me about three minutes per year. But think of what Movable Type is doing. First, it’s managing input pasted from Microsoft Word which could be a problem, but most of the time isn’t. Second, it’s creating a new individual entry and dropping the content into the appropriate template – oh and adding the correct “previous” and “next” links to the top and bottom of the page. Third, it’s adding a link to the new individual item on the appropriate category page. (This is actually a menu – each category covers a decade, so it contains links to 10 pages. ) Finally, if a new category is used it also creates a new category page and puts a link to it on the home page and on every category page.

Even if I had the template, my guess is it would take me 30 minutes per year rather than three minutes per year to put up the records. And searchability is a bonus.

Bog features left out? The usual blog is oriented to the date something is posted – that aspect is all but ignored here. And the usual blog has comments which seemed inappropriate in this context, so I eliminated that aspect as well.

Bottom line. This is one more example of the versatility of Movable Type. I think it is a tremendous boon – especially to creating Web sites where you want others to be empowered to manage and maintain the content.

Westport History home page
Westport Town records home page
Movable Type home

Posted by Greg Stone at July 24, 2003 07:27 AM