Creating a Genealogy CD - A Case Study

by
Rod Sullivan, Ancestral Softworks
and
Patricia Geary, researching Geary, Little, Tucker, and Jewel

 

It makes a lot of sense to distribute genealogical research on a Compact Disk. A CD can hold massive amounts of data, without using massive amounts of paper. It can hold multiple formats - including Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF), HTML, digital images, plain old text files - pretty much anything that you can put on your hard drive. Unlike paper, you can include audio and video, in addition to genealogical narratives, scanned images, photographs, and written stories. And since a CD is compact, you can mail it to those interested in your research at relatively little expense.

One of the biggest challenges is to decide how to organize the information on your CD, and how to present it to your audience. Unlike paper documents, a CD offers opportunities to access the genealogical information in non-sequential ways, to jump from one topic to another (hyperlinks), and to travel from one section of data to another without flipping pages. As the author of the CD, this gives you a lot of room to be creative.

This article will walk through the process of creating such a CD for the Windows operating system, outlining the steps involved and the tools used. It will cover a few methods for creating a genealogy CD, using a simple illustrative example. Of course, other methods exist. There are many ways to create such a CD, limited only by time and creativity.

Organizing the CD - What to put on it

The first step, of course, is to decide what information you want to present to readers of your CD. If you've spent years studying the genealogy of a particular surname, you probably want to include the results of that research. You may want to include photographs of your ancestors, their homesteads, headstones, etc. Perhaps you've written biographies of your ancestors or family histories that should also be included.

With such a vast store of diverse information, it is import to present it to your reader in an easily navigable form. When the CD is inserted into a CD drive, a screen should automatically appear, presenting a small set of logical choices to the reader. This is called an autorun CD; the user will not have to figure out how to run it - it runs automatically. In addition, the CD will display an icon in file explorer, so the user can easily identify the CD that has been inserted into the drive.

To illustrate the mechanisms and tools required to create such a CD, We'll focus on the following content (your content will vary):

  1. A book containing a history and genealogy of the Wheelock family of Charlton, Worcester Co, Massachusetts. The book will be created by a tool called Ancestral Author and is stored on the CD in Adobe PDF format.
  2. A short history of the Wheelock family in the United States, with pictures showing places of importance in their early settlement of Massachusetts. This history will be created by an HTML editor and stored in HTML format.
  3. A front page that the user will see when (s)he inserts the CD. We'll try two different types of front page. The first will be an HTML page that pops up automatically when the user inserts the CD. The second will be a menu that will also pop up automatically. The menu will be created by a tool called Fast Menu.

About the Data Formats

There are two things to consider when choosing formats for the data you plan to put on the CD:

  1. the format should be suitable for presenting the information you want to transmit to your readers, and
  2. the format should adhere to a widely accepted standard, so it can be read/viewed/printed without specialized software or viewers.

The Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) is ideal for distributing genealogical documents electronically. First, it can be read on any computer with the free Acrobat Reader from Adobe (which can be downloaded here). Second, hyperlinks make it easy to browse the document on a computer. You can click on a name, and go immediately to the page on which that person appears. Third, you can make a very high quality printout on any computer. The document can be printed in part, or in whole, using layout and fonts that match what you see on the computer screen (WYSIWYG). The resulting printout could be bound into a book, if desired. One possible downside of using PDF is that the user of your CD needs to have the Adobe Acrobat Reader installed. Most PCs already have Acrobat installed; but just in case, you may want to distribute the Acrobat reader on your CD.

An alternative would be store the genealogy in HTML format, using a tool such as GED2HTML. This has nearly all the advantages of PDF, but has the distinct disadvantage that the genealogy can't easily be printed. Of course, the user must have a web browser installed on their computer to view the HTML, but most computers these days are shipped with a browser pre-installed.

There are several standard formats for images, but JPEG and GIF are the most widely used; both can be viewed in a standard browser. Most digital cameras use the JPEG format, and any scanner will be able to produce JPEG.

Creating the Data

In this example, the genealogy to be placed on the CD has been entered over many years using PAF. To create the PDF file, We used PAF 5 to export a GEDCOM using the ANSI character set. Then we used Ancestral Author to create a hyperlinked PDF document (named charlton.pdf) showing the genealogy of the Wheelock family of Charlton, Massachusetts. This family has several lines, each of which is documented in a separate chapter. In addition, several introductory chapters outline the role played by the Wheelock family in the early settlement of Charlton. For more information about using Ancestral Author, visit the tutorial here.

The Wheelock pictures are incorporated into an HTML page (named pictures.html), and merged with explanatory text . We used Microsoft Front Page to create the HTML, but any HTML editor can be used, including Microsoft Word 2002, which can export HTML.

Finally, We created a front page for the CD in HTML format (named frontpage.html). This page will automatically pop-up when the user inserts the CD, and will present two links for the user to follow:

  1. Wheelock History, Photographs, Points of Interest
  2. Genealogy of the Wheelock Family of Charlton, MA

The first item is a HTML hyperlink to pictures.html. The second item is an HTML hyperlink to charlton.pdf.

We also created an icon (named wheelock.ico) that will display next to the CD drive in the Windows file explorer. We'll talk more about creating icons later.

Setting up the CD Using an HTML front page

The key to making a Windows CD run automatically is a text file called 'autorun.inf' which is placed in the root of the CD. This file points to a program, and to an icon. When the CD is inserted into the drive, Windows looks for the autorun.inf file. If it is found, Windows follows the pointers in autorun.inf to the program, and to the icon. It displays the icon in the file explorer, and runs the program.

Unfortunately the autorun.inf file cannot point directly to a document (such as an html or pdf file). It must point to a program. However, Windows comes with a program called 'start' that will open an HTML page, PDF file, or any other document when the CD is inserted.

The following 'autorun.inf' file will automatically open 'frontpage.html' when the CD is placed in the drive:

[autorun]
open = start frontpage.html
icon = wheelock.ico

It tells Windows to run 'start' which in turn brings up 'frontpage.html'. This approach requires the DOS program 'start.exe' be installed on the users computer. Since this is part of the normal Windows distribution, it should be there. Another approach is to use a program called 'shellexe.exe' from www.WhirlyWiryWeb.com. This program achieves the same result, and can be distributed directly on the CD.

As stated earlier, 'frontpage.html' has links that point to 'pictures.html' and 'charlton.pdf'. 'pictures.html' shows several images which were taken with a digital camera and stored in industry standard JPEG format. They might just as easily have been scanned using a color scanner. To add visual appeal, the front page will also contain an image of the Wheelock coat of arms (file name coatarms.jpg).

Besides indicating which document to open, 'autorun.inf' tells Windows which icon to display adjacent to the CD drive in the Windows file explorer. The icon is optional, but it adds a nice touch to the CD. Several icon editors are available for free. The most popular is probably IrfanView. If you don't want to go to the trouble of creating your own icon, you can probably find one on your computer. Do a file search on the C: drive for *.ico. You may turn up something worth using.

Having identified all the files, it's time to show how they will appear on the CD:

autorun.inf
shellexe.exe
wheelock.ico
frontpage.html
pictures.html
charlton.pdf
coatarms.jpg
picture1.jpg
picture2.jpg
picture3.jpg
picture4.jpg

If you are going to put lots of data on the CD, it is a good idea to organize it more methodically than has been done here. One option is to group files according to their type. All the PDF files in one folder, JPEG images in another, etc.

autorun.inf
shellexe.exe
wheelock.ico

HTML
  |
  |- frontpage.html
  |- pictures.html

PDF
  |
  |- charlton.pdf

JPEGs
  |
  |- coatarms.jpg
  |- picture1.jpg
  |- picture2.jpg
  |- picture3.jpg
  |- picture4.jpg

To organize the files this way, the autorun.inf file will have to be modifed a bit:

[autorun]
open = shellexe.exe html\frontpage.html
icon = wheelock.ico

Click here to see what the cd will look like when inserted into the drive.

Setting up the CD Using a Menu Program

So far, this article has covered autorun CDs that invoke html files. This technique for creating an autorun CD has one significant limitation. You can't give the user of your CD an easy way to install the Adobe Acrobat Reader, since an html link can't automatically run an installation (or any other) program.

To get around this problem, We'll use FastMenu, from Pollen Software, one of the many menu creation programs available for autorun CDs. FastMenu creates a customized menu of your own choosing, which will pop-up when the CD is inserted into the drive. The autorun mechanism is the same as before: 'autorun.inf' will point to a program which pops up the menu as soon as the CD is inserted. But this time the program will be a menu, rather than 'shellexe.exe'.

FastMenu allows us to add a few extra items to the menu, one to install the Adobe Acrobat Reader, and one to exit the menu. The new menu will look like this:

  1. Wheelock History, Photographs, Points of Interest (HTML)
  2. Genealogy of the Wheelock Family of Charlton, MA (PDF)
  3. Install the Adobe Acrobat PDF Reader
  4. Exit

FastMenu comes with a wizard that walks you through the process of creating a menu. It first asks for a bitmap which will be displayed on the menu. We used the Wheelock coat of arms, the same image that was used on the html frontpage. If you don't have your own, you can use the default FastMenu bitmap, 'logo.bmp'. Menu entries show up as buttons. You will be asked  to characterize each menu button, one at a time, by specifying what text appears on the button, and what the button should do when pressed. Screenshots of the wizard can be seen here. It's helpful to organize all your files before running the FastMenu wizard. The files for this example will be organized as shown below:

autorun.inf
wheelock.ico

HTML
|
|- pictures.html

PDF
|
|- charlton.pdf

JPEGs
|
|- picture1.jpg
|- picture2.jpg
|- picture3.jpg
|- picture4.jpg

AdobeAcrobat
|
|- acroreader51_enu_full.exe

FastMenu
|
|- FastMenu.exe
|- fastmenu.ini
|- coatarms.bmp

This autorun CD has two new folders: AdobeAcrobat, and FastMenu. The first holds the Adobe Acrobat PDF Reader installation program, which can be downloaded here. The second holds the FastMenu files necessary to pop-up a menu when the CD is inserted. Copy FastMenu.exe directly from the FastMenu installation. 'fastmenu.ini' is created by the FastMenu wizard, and should also be copied into the directory. If you have your own bitmap, copy it into the FastMenu folder, otherwise, use the default FastMenu bitmap, 'logo.bmp'.

FastMenu does not automatically create the autorun.inf file. For this example, the contents of autorun.inf will look like this:

[autorun]
open = FastMenu\FastMenu.exe
icon = wheelock.ico

Here is what a user will see when (s)he inserts the CD into the drive:

Pop-Up CD Menu created by FastMenu

Burning the CD

Assume you'll have to burn the CD many times before you get the exact result you're looking for. The best bet is to use a rewritable CD for your initial attempts. We found, for example, that the file names had been referenced incorrectly in the FastMenu Wizard, and that the bitmap needed to be touched up. Once you get the hang of it, it goes quickly.

Summary

A CD is a great way to distrubute genealogical information. It can hold a large quantity and variety of media, which can be presented in ways that are easy to browse, print, and read. With a little experience, a genealogy CD is easy to create, can be updated regularly; and can be distributed to family, fellow researchers, and other interested parties at low cost.

Software And WebSites

The programs used in this project are itemized in the table below.

Ancestral Author

   Creates a PDF book from a GEDCOM file, with provisions to add title page, chapters, register style descendant reports, list of sources, index of names, etc. Free to try, $24.95 to register.

 

FastMenu    Creates a menu of buttons, each of which can run a program, invoke a document, or perform some other action. Free to try, $14.95 to register.

 

Adobe Acrobat Reader Free program to read and print PDF files. Since so many documents are distributed as PDF files, you should install this regardless of whether you plan to create your own CD or not. A distributable version that can be placed on a CD is found here.

 

ShellExe Free program to invoke documents in an autorun CD, by WhirlyWiryWeb. Scroll to the bottom. On the right you'll see a link called "ShellExe launches HTML files from AUTORUN.INF". Follow this link, and from there, follow the download link.

 

Ged2Html Free program to convert GEDCOM files to HTML pages.

 

IrfanView Free Image Editor (for non-commercial use). Can be used to create icons and bitmaps.