How to set up a website dealing with local history; some notes about starting up and running neighbourhood associations

Update: A related post is entitled:

How to set up a local history website; some notes about starting neighbourhood associations; value of letter-writing efforts; plus notes on committee of adjustment meetings


I would be pleased to work with any resident who might have an interest in setting up a website similar to the one you are now visiting. I would be pleased to share what I have learned in recent years about web design, writing, documentation, and connecting with audiences. Blogging is a great way to share information and experiences.

With many such efforts, the most important thing is to get started – take the first step, from which all else follows.

Blogging is a learning experience

Working at this site in recent years has been a tremendously valuable learning experience for me. In some ways the work is very easy and in other ways it’s very hard.

I’ve been really lucky in being able to find good web designers to work with. That has been a key ingredient, in getting the site up and running in the first place. I spent a lot of time preparing the site – working on the page design and site navigation – before it was launched. In retrospect, that was time that was well spent.

What’s been hard for me is being able to focus on getting the work done, that’s required to write the posts. Sometimes the work is very easy, but sometimes it takes a while to getting around to actually posting things. Sooner or later, however, the work gets done. Once I’ve posted something, I often think to myself, “That was easy work. It was getting around to it that was hard.”

There are so many things that a person can do, and it’s hard to decide what to get done in a given day. I’ve found it very handy to make a short list each day, and to check at the end of the day to see how I’ve done, after which I prepare the next day’s list. That has been very helpful.

Other people may be more efficient in the use of their available time, than is the case for me. Speaking for myself, what is a real plus is that having a website offers a person an opportunity to get better at what they do, just by working at it. That’s probably the number one lesson that I’ve learned, since the time that I set up this website some years ago.

A division of labour is helpful

Writing evidence-based blog posts and opinion articles requires a great deal of time and effort, in my experience. That being the case, I would recommend that, for community groups, a division of labour makes good sense.

By way of example, in many cases it may be better to have some residents focusing energy on taking part in committee of adjustment and similar hearings, and some focusing on succinct, well-written blog posts and articles related to such hearings.

Given the time and energy that is required for any form of community-based volunteer work, it is better for the work to be spread out as widely as possible.

I believe there’s also much to be said for a resident of a given municipality taking on the role, from time to time, of a foreign correspondent, reporting news from a community in which the reporter does not actually live.

Such a writer brings a level of detachment – in a sense, a different perspective – to her or his observations of the passing scene. In news reporting, such a level of detachment can at times be a highly valuable attribute.

It’s really valuable to know what’s happening in other communities, and around the world. At an earlier stage of volunteer work, I was active at the international level. I found that what I learned, as a result, made a huge difference in my work in those years, at the national and local levels in Canada.

Some other things that come to mind:

  • I’ve found it useful to have some background in news reporting and feature writing, including working to deadline and within specified length-of-text parameters
  • It’s helpful – and essential, in my view – to take great care by way of corroborating and verifying what gets published
  • Early in my writing career, I learned a lot from working with editors and writers with a track record for first-rate work
  • Having people comment on early drafts, and having a an experienced and capable editor go over drafts with you, pointing out how certain things can be done better, can be a great learning experience
  • Early in my writing career, an editor taught me how to say in a sentence or two what I had been taking several pages of double-spaced text (on an Olympia typewriter) to say
  • If there are factual errors in anything that I post, which has occurred on rare occasions, I much appreciate learning about them, and I make corrections at once
  • It’s useful to have some understanding of what evidence, and evidence-based practice, entails
  • Human agency takes many forms; for residents, in particular, persistence in fact-sharing is likely to have more impact than endlessly sounding off
  • We can say this another way: Human agency involves getting results; strategic planning and strategic thinking matter hugely, because they ensure that we achieve practical, measurable results – which stand in strong contrast to endlessly sounding off and getting nowhere
  • Through blogging, and attending meetings and following stories, as well as through extensive reading about history and other topics, I’ve learned many new things, including new ways of looking at events and trends – such ongoing learning is among the many potential rewards of blogging
  • I make it a point to take care to respect people’s privacy; for example, I get permission first, before I post, to my website, email messages (or direct quotes from them) and photos that are sent to me
  • In newspaper and magazine writing, as with texts at my own website, shorter paragraphs generally appear to work better than very long ones.
  • Sometimes, in order to more quickly and effectively gain understanding of a long journal article, that I’m reading offline, I convert it from a PDF file into text in Microsoft Word, and then break the longer paragraphs into shorter ones.
  • Such a procedure speeds up my comprehension tremendously.  From my perspective the convention, in much of academic writing, of cramming enormous amounts of words into single paragraphs sharply impedes reading comprehension.
  • An additional topic, with regard to community-oriented websites, concerns the avoidance of libel and defamation lawsuits

With regard to the final point on the above-noted list, an excerpt from the link in the previous sentence reads:

Based on what I have observed over the years, I strongly recommend that all communications from residents – written as well as spoken messages – be at all times strongly evidence-based, devoid of personal attacks of any kind, and expressed in language that is cordial, moderate in tone, and businesslike. Things can be stated directly, and with passion, while keeping within the parameters that I have outlined.

For residents associations or community groups, liability insurance, to address potential expenses associated with the hiring of legal counsel, in the event of defamation lawsuits that may be directed your way as a way to limit public participation, is also highly recommended.

Additional things I’ve learned about writing and community self-organizing are outlined at other posts

An earlier post addresses additional things that I’ve learned, through practical experience, about writing:

Enthusiasm for local history is not enough, by itself, to preserve and repurpose heritage buildings

I am a proponent, as a result of decades of anecdotal observations as a volunteer, of the value of “volunteer cooperation without hierarchy” (or with as little hierarchy as possible) as I’ve outlined at a post entitled:

History and Social Theory (2005) by Peter Burke and Two Cheers for Anarchism (2012) by James C. Scott warrant a close read

Some observations regarding the starting and running of neighbourhood associations

Neighbourhood associations work best when membership is inclusive; renters should always be included

Committee of Adjustment and Toronto Local Appeal Body (and similar appeal boards elsewhere)

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