Alphabet Soup for a Monday

I am the webmaster for three genealogical societies, the North Carolina Genealogical Society, the Virginia Genealogical Society, and the North Carolina Chapter of the APG. I also chair the Technology Committee of the NGS.

In each of these realms, I find myself empowered by open source technology, using the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) technology stack. This is a powerful suite of free tools that have been developed by volunteers, or in other ways made available for free use. Much of the technology involved in these sites is — as is commonly said, “Free as in ‘Free beer’ and free as in ‘Free speech.'”

A key technology that I’m using is Joomla. This is an open source web content management system designed to provide a dynamic website, changing as content and metadata is changed in the database. It relies on having LAMP underneath it, and builds web pages from the files on the Apache Server and the data in the MySQL database. While you can have page elements cached if they are frequently used, in general the pages are delivered by querying the database when someone comes to a page, then taking the data and some HTML and styling templates, and assembling an HTML page “on the fly.”

I am not the only person who uses Joomla for genealogy society websites. Among others, there is the Dallas Genealogical Society, the New England Chapter of the APG, and the Nebraska State Genealogical Society.

The most recent of the sites that I have put together is for the Virginia Genealogical Society. I launched the VGS beta website this morning. There is still a lot more to do with that site, but the look and feel and the core functions are available.

In mid December, I had updated the method of shipping calculation on both the NCGS site and the VGS site to use the US Postal Service Application Programmer’s Interface (API). This allows both sites to provide pricing based on what the USPS would actually charge to ship, say a book, from one particular location to another. The API takes into consideration the weight of the item, whether it is a letter or a package, the source and destination zip codes, etc., then returns a price that the Joomla site can add handling expenses to, and display to the buyer.

The shareware module to integration the USPS API with Joomla (from Parkbeach Systems) was probably the easiest of modules to set up, though it did require a brief call to the USPS to request the accounts be put on the production server.

This afternoon, a genealogist who was trying to purchase one of the books from the North Carolina Genealogical Society’s website noted that they were unable to make a purchase. I went over to the site and saw the same symptoms. I hadn’t changed anything since our last order for a shipping item (on December 31), but I dutifully spent hours searching the configurations for some anomaly, some toggle I had forgotten to switch.

Eventually, I needed some dinner and came home to have it. After that break, I came back and started Googling again for USPS API and told Google to sort results based on how recent they were. Up popped a tweet about what was happening, from @floodlight:

USPS decided to update their shipping rate API without telling anyone. #FAIL

Genealogy sites, gardening sites, mommy-and-me sites, all kinds of websites rely on this API, and the USPS decided it was high time that they made sure people knew that phrases such as “Priority Mail” were registered trademarks, so they put the code:


after every one of their registered trademarks. Since none of the developers of integrations with the API had accounted for this, or even knew it was about to happen, and since the USPS API sent the registered trademark symbol as a Unicode character instead of as HTML commands for the character (&reg; or &#x00AE; or &#174;) everyone’s USPS integrations filled up with junk and failed, sometimes in creative ways. Our site simply stopped offering a shipping option, though it demanded that users choose one …

By the way, the USPS website still does not mention this issue, though a quick search of the Twitter stream will show you it’s still on people’s minds:!/search/USPS%20API

So, this is how I spent my evening, fretting over a problem that didn’t need to be there in the first place. Folks: Document your APIs, communicate your proposed changes in advance, please.

The good news in all this is that once I realized that the API was to blame, and not some misconfiguration of my own doing, I went to the company that provides the API I’m using with Joomla, and they had already posted an updated version. Both sites are working fine in terms of shipping and the USPS shipping API.

So now, I can rest. Tomorrow I’m starting an Aikido class with my stepson, but perhaps I will get more of an opportunity to work on genealogy in the evening tomorrow, even with that going on, than I did today. We shall see.

Genealogy Resolution Roundup: 2011

I am not the only genealogist who has written a blog entry about goals for the new year.

I thought it might be interesting to take a quick, and frankly, nearly random survey of what other bloggers and journalists have said about their genealogical plans in the new year, or what your resolutions should be …

LEARN ABOUT YOUR PAST. Highly trained staff in the Main Library’s Genealogy & Local History Department is ready and equipped to help the beginner and the advanced researcher find a family’s roots. The department is one of the largest repositories of genealogical material in the nation. More information is available at

  • Megan Toth of the Syosset Patch in Syosset, New York lists “Learn Something New” as number 4 on her “New Year, New Resolutions” list, and the top item under learn something new is “Learn more about your family’s roots at Genealogy classes offered at the Syosset Public Library on Wednesday, Jan. 5 at 7 pm.”
  • Julie Cahill Tarr writes an organized and thoughtful piece on what she got accomplished in 2010, and what she would like to do in terms of genealogy in 2011. It was especially good to see her talking about helping “someone else with their genealogy.” She also plans to finish her ProGen study group and … wait for it … “Stop slacking on this blog.”
  • Randy Seaver writes a voluminous list of goals for 2011, while acknowledging he didn’t get everything done that he would have liked to in 2010. The list is organized into groups: Research, Data Organization, Genealogy Database, Education, Society Activities, Speaking and Teaching, Writing, and … finally Real Life, where he (or is it his wife on his behalf?) agrees to try to limit his genealogy work to 10 hours a day.

What are your goals for the new year?

Completed Transcription: History of Swan Johnson Family

I have posted a complete transcription of Lena Johnson Schlitemeier’s “History of Swan Johnson Family of Nance County, Nebraska (January 1936).”

The book exists only in the form of a typed MSS in the hands of the family. There are at least two versions; the transcription is of the most complete version, which was given to me and my mother by the author’s son in 1997 as we visited his farm is Nehawka, Nebraska.

Swan Johnson (born Sven Jönsson in Valby, Kristianstad, Sweden in 1826) married Kjerstin Wescelius in 1853. They had six children in Sweden, and then, in 1868, with the youngest child less than 6 months of age, they emigrated to the United States. They lived first in Chicago, Illinois, later on a farm in Bement, Piatt County, Illinois, and finally crossing the prairie to farm in Keatskotoos and Genoa, Nance County, Nebraska. This book tells a quite detailed story of three generations of this family. The author was the eldest child of the eldest child of Swan and Kjerstin Johnson. Lena Johnson attended Nebraska Wesleyan and the University of Chicago, receiving a Ph.B. in Education from the University of Chicago and an A.B. from Nebraska Wesleyan. She writes well and clearly, and though the document is not sourced, most of what I have been able to validate has been surprisingly accurate.