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An Introduction to Creating Local History Web Pages

Guidelines No. 4         Issue 1.2:         June 2007

Web pages are a new and excellent way for local historians to publish their work. This may take the form of a research paper, a database, a photographic collection or simply miscellaneous notes. It is now possible for any local historian with a computer and an Internet connection to create on-line documents that can contain full colour illustrations and can be viewed or printed anywhere in the world. The same approach can be used to create documents which can be distributed on CD-ROM.

It should be remembered that Web pages can be much longer than a conventional printed page although it is often more efficient to break the material in a very long page into a number of shorter 'linked' pages. A web site could be just a single web page but it is usually a collection of linked web pages. These very basic guidelines are intended to assist local historians who are familiar with word processing to start producing material in web format.


1. Introduction
2. Getting Started (with the software you have already got)
• 2.1 Using your Word processor
• 2.2 Using your Text Editor such as Windows Notepad
3. Software for the Creation of web pages
4. Some suggested Dos and Don'ts when creating web pages
5. Resources on the Web
6. Concluding Remarks

1.    Introduction

The hardest thing with a new project is often to take the first step and so the second section of these guidelines provides some practical advice on how to actually produce your first web page (using nothing more than your existing software). The construction of a web site (i.e. a collection of linked web pages) is outside the remit of these particular guidelines but there is much advice available on this topic on the web, in books and in computing magazines. Also once you have some experience of creating your own individual web pages it is a relatively small step to link them all together to form your own website. You will also need to seek advice elsewhere on how to load the documents on to the web. However, for the time being you can of course view the pages you create using your Internet browser software on your computer.

Section three of the guidelines give some examples of the huge range of software available for the creation of web pages. Some of these programs are completely free of charge (apart from the cost of downloading them from the Internet) while commercial packages can cost several hundred pounds.

The fourth section tentatively suggests a few Dos and Don'ts regarding the production of web pages for local history material.

The fifth and final section provides links to useful resources on the Web for tutorials, general advice and for snippets to enhance your web pages.

2.    Getting Started (with the software you have already got)

2.1    Using your Word processor           [top]

Many word processors today allow you to save your documents as web pages. For example, with Word 97 the file drop down menu may well give you the option of "Save as HTML" (more about HTML later). If you don't see this option then it was probably not loaded when Word was installed. You can use the on-line help in Word for instructions on loading it now using your original Word program disk. If you are still unable to use the "Save as HTML" option do not worry as you can still try Notepad as described below.

However if your word processor does allow you save HTML files then choose a fairly simple existing document such a letter and save the file as a web (HTML) page. Make sure that you note file name and path (e.g. C:\My Documents\webpage1.htm). Next start your Internet browser software (e.g. Internet Explorer 6) but do not connect to the Internet. Instead type the name and path of your file (e.g. C:\My Documents\webpage1.htm) into the browser "Address" box and press "enter". You should now see the document load into the browser. It is likely that the formatting will not be very different from the way your document looked in your word processor. However, files produced this way tend to contain a lot of superfluous material and are not very efficient. It is much better to use one of the special software packages described in Section 3.

2.2    Using your Text Editor such as Windows Notepad           [top]

This is the way that all web pages used to be created. A web page is in fact merely a text file and in its simplest form contains the text you wish to display and instructions on how the text is to be displayed (normal, bold, left justified etc. etc.). A good way to view the inner workings of a web page is to load any page you like from the Internet and then view the underlying "source code" in the file that you have loaded. How you do this will vary between browsers but in Internet Explorer 6 select the drop down menu "View" and then select "Source". If you are using Microsoft Windows this will open the Notepad text editor program and load the file into it so you should see all the text that appears on the page and the instructions that control how the text is displayed. This will work for any page but to start with it may be advisable to look at a fairly simple page such as at www.gsia.org.uk . You will also see some lines at the top of each file which provide information about such matters as the contents of the page and who the author is. However you do not need to know about these things at this stage.

You can of course edit the file in Notepad and modify the text to something of your choice. Indeed this is something that you should definitely try. If you then save the modified file somewhere on your own hard disk you can load the saved file into your browser where you will see your modifications. Congratulations you have produced your first web page!

The rules which define how your text is displayed is a computer language called Hypertext Mark-up Language (or HTML for short). Happily, you do not need to know the details of HTML if you use one of the many available software packages to create your pages. However, it may be useful to give just a very simple example of the way in which your text elements and the corresponding display instructions work. Consider the following which could appear in an HTML file.

<p> <b>This is a complete paragraph that I want to appear in bold type</b></p>

Items like <p> and </b> are known as tags. The <b> tag means that from now on (until cancelled) the text is to appear as bold. In fact it is the </b> tag that turns off the bold formatting. When there is a leading "/" in a tag it means that it is an "end tag" . The <p> and </p> format the text to be a single paragraph i.e. a blank line preceding and following the text.

In a similar way font type, size and colour can be controlled, images inserted and most importantly the links to other pages inserted. However, to recap, all this will not normally concern us if we use a package like the ones described below.

3.    Software for the Creation of web pages           [top]

As we have seen above it can all be done with a text editor (like Notepad) but this is far too tedious so the answer for most people is of course some form of 'web authoring' software. These allow you to create web documents very much in the same way as you might use a word processor. What you use is really a matter of personal preference but as there is so much choice it may be helpful to mention some of the possibilities.

The "top of the range" professional package is Dreamweaver 4.0 from Macromedia and it will set you back £259 but it has all the features needed for the development of professional sites. There are other packages in this price range such as Adobe Go-Live 5.0. However, these are all really far too complex for beginners.

Next come the mid range packages such as Microsoft Front Page at about £100. Front Page used to have (and may still have) a 'feature' whereby web pages created with other packages were modified when loaded into Front Page for editing. It did this without asking the user to confirm the changes and not surprisingly annoyed many users. In same price range are Claris Home Page and Adobe PageMill. These packages will have all the features you will probably ever need but then so do the vast number of "freeware" web authoring tools, which as the name suggests, you can download and use legally without paying any money.

A good place to look for freeware (and shareware - where you pay a licence fee to the author only if you continue to use the software after a free trial) is at http://www.tucows.com.

Earlier versions of some of the main packages (with the exception of Microsoft products) can sometimes be found on the 'free' cover disks on computing magazines. These versions may be a year or so out of date but they will provide all that you want and so the £3 to £5 cover price represents excellent value.

Similar software often comes bundled with 'one-off' magazines designed to introduce you to a particular topic. One example was 'Web pages made easy'. This came with suitable "free" software to create and upload pages to web. The magazine itself contained about 100 pages of advice and advertisements. At about £4 including the software it would be well worth considering by a beginner.

As with most things it is probably a good idea to ask around and find out what other people use. [I still use in 2004 mainly Dreamweaver 1.2 of circa 1998 which was 'free' on the cover disk of the December 1999 issue of .Net magazine. This was a real bargain as I have not seen a full version of Dreamweaver on any other magazine disk before or since.]

4.    Some Suggested Dos and Don'ts when creating web pages           [top]

The following notes are a personal view and are specifically for local history material. Other applications may require a rather different approach.

  • Do try and keep things simple and uncluttered. White or very pale pastel backgrounds are much preferred compared with dark patterned backgrounds which will annoy most of your readers (but not you who spent so long happily producing it!). Your readers are hopefully far more interested in the content of your pages than special display effects.
  • Do keep image sizes small (use the standard JPG format for photographs with an image size of say 420 x 280 picture elements (pixels) and a file size of 30 to 50 kilobytes). You might consider showing a very small "thumbnail" image which the reader can click on to load a larger version of the image at his discretion. However, this is not a good option for someone who prints out the site to read as they will only get the small "thumbnail" image. A way round this is to prepare a separate page which the reader can download for printing purposes.
  • Do take care with the selection of sites to link to. Try and restrict them to sites which you expect to be around for some time so that hopefully you will avoid too many broken links.
  • Do try and test your pages by loading them into at least the latest versions of Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator.
  • Don't use animated text (the novelty soon wears thin).
  • Don't use special effects such as Flash, Shockwave or JavaScripts as not all your readers will have these available. In any case they will slow down the loading of your site with very little real benefit.

5.    Resources on the Web           [top]

Needless to say there is much to be found on the Web in the way of tutorials, advice and components to enhance your web pages.

One of the best search engines is www.google.com. which can used for nearly every search.

You simply type in keywords into the search box such as "tutorial" "HTML" (without the quotes) and press enter. These two words will give you over a million "hits" but Google is very good at displaying the most relevant pages at the top the top of the list of "hits."

The definitive reference for the WWW and the languages used on it (such as HTML) is the World Wide Web Consortium site www.w3.org. They also have excellent tutorials at their www.w3schools.com site. The many books available on this subject to buy or borrow through libraries should not be forgotten.

If you want "snippets" of code to enhance your pages you can try searching in Google using keywords like "HTML" "resources" or try sites like www.htmlgoodies.com. However, you are strongly advised to use these enhancements sparingly!

6.    Concluding Remarks           [top]

It must be stressed that these notes are aimed at local historians who are complete beginners at creating web pages but would like to make their material more widely available. They do not cover the creation of a website. Nor do they cover uploading your file to the web as the procedure will depend on your Internet Service Provider. Their support pages will normally explain how this can done. The Internet can provide an audience for your work that you could previously only dream about. Moreover, if you already have the equipment the cost will be negligible. The only thing is you won't make any money from it. But you were not expecting to were you? We hope that you will give it a try or at least encourage colleagues in local history societies to do so.

Feedback on these notes will be welcomed. Please send them to the Author at ray.wilson@coaley.net or the Chairman.       [top]