National Genealogical Society Computer Interest Group
RootsWeb and USGenWeb
by Karen Isaacson
The Internet, and genealogy on the Internet, have both been around far longer than many online genealogists realize. On Distributed Communications Networks by P. Baran, one of the first papers describing how the Internet would be built, was published by RAND as P-2626 in 1962. If you're interested, you can read the abstract or order a copy online at http://www.rand.org/cgi-bin/Abstracts/ordi/getab.pl?523207-525148. In 1969, four computers were linked together, and the network was born.
Not much of genealogical interest happened for awhile, though. About a decade later, newsgroups and the USENET were begun. There was so little traffic that I used to read all messages in all groups in a few minutes over lunch, and still had time to take a walk. By 1983, the newsgroup net.roots, named after the popular Roots miniseries, had been launched, and with it, genealogy on the Internet.
What, you may be wondering, does all that ancient history have to do with RootsWeb and USGenWeb? Easily explained: we're genealogists, interested in determining the roots of things, and RootsWeb and USGenWeb are the logical descendants of those early efforts.
The Internet, until a few years ago, was an aggressively non-commercial place. There was no spam, there were no advertisements. Customer support was usually conducted via email rather than in the newsgroups, and people even felt slightly queasy about using email for such commercial purposes, believe it or not. Access,if you could get it at all, was "free"_from an employer, from a university, perhaps (later) from a community-based Freenet. There was a culture of volunteers working together, to make resources freely available to the general community. There was no World Wide Web. The tools used by most netizens were email, FTP, and perhaps telnet.
I'm not sure when mailing lists first started appearing. LISTSERV, one of the most common programs for supporting mailing lists, was started in late 1986. In 1987, Alf Christophersen of Norway, and Marty Hoag of North Dakota State University, started the ROOTS-L mailing list, and gatewayed it with soc.roots, the Usenet newsgroup (renamed from net.roots shortly before.)
With the creation of ROOTS-L, things began to happen. John Wilson proposed a database of surnames people were searching in late 1988. When he was unable to maintain it, I took it over. The RSL, or RootsWeb Surname List, now contains nearly half a million surnames submitted by over 60,000 Internet genealogists. This probably makes it the largest cooperative genealogical effort on the net, in terms of participation. The RSL is available on line at http://rsl.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/rslsql.cgi.
About the same time, Cliff Manis got permission from Marty Hoag to start a library of genealogy files on the NDSU FTP server and, with help from various ROOTS-L participants, made hundreds of files freely available to anyone on the network. That library is still available, though it's getting to be an interesting period piece, its value overtaken by wonderful new resources such as the USGenWeb archives. If you would like to visit it, it's now available at http://www.rootsweb.com/roots-l/filelist.html. My favorite is called genealog.interbbs, at http://ftp.rootsweb.com/pub/roots-l/genealog/genealog.interbbs.
What is genealog.interbbs? A complete listing (dated December 1991) of BBSs with Internet access. There are all of thirty or so listed.
Times change. The Internet has broadened to include the world at large. AOL, CompuServe, and the other online services provided access, and the world arrived with a roar in our quaint little academic cul de sac. We didn't (quite) say, "There goes the neighborhood," but I do confess that there was some nervousness about the hordes of new folk. Would they wipe their feet? Keep their voices down? Would they get it?
The transition has been, at times, rocky. But I think it's now safe to claim that those wonderful attributes and attitudes of the old Internet, people pulling together, people working together to make resources freely available to the community, have survived. They have more than survived, they are thriving now as never before, and with wonderful results such as RootsWeb and USGenWeb.
It didn't happen overnight, though. One problem, of course, was financial. Isn't it always? In the old Internet, resources such as mailing lists and archives were typically provided by a friendly university. ROOTS-L was at NDSU. The genealogical methods mailing lists, GENMTD-L, was launched at Georgia Tech. But the staff and equipment required to support these "free" resources rapidly grew, and, in a time of shrinking budgets, often overwhelmed our hosts, who then, though with regret, had to ask us to make alternative arrangements.
My husband, Dr. Brian Leverich, and I have been active in genealogy on the Internet since 1986. By late 1995, we were concerned about the future of genealogy on the Internet. We weren't worried about it having a future, it clearly did. But we were worried about what that future would be like. Would all data be under lock and key, and only available in "pay per view" mode? Would mailing lists, like magazines, have to charge their subscribers a fee? When ROOTS-L had to leave NDSU and find a new home, before eWorld/Apple offered to host us for free, it looked like we would have to find $3000 a year to pay to have the list hosted. For someone embued with the old Internet ethic, these were daunting prospects. But what were the alternatives?
An alternative, and the one we chose, was simply to do it ourselves. Brian had told me over and over, while I agonized about what was to become of ROOTS-L, that we could host it ourselves, on our equipment. I was skeptical. But we both thought it possible that the community would voluntarily chip in enough to cover hardware and bandwidth, and that resources such as the ROOTS-L mailing list could continue to be freely available.
Thus was born RootsWeb. We wanted to call it roots.com, but that name was already taken. It was scary, but exciting, and in the early days of 1996, not too expensive. Since that time our load has increased more than ten-fold, and our costs have similarly increased. And at least to date, with help from thousands of individual contributors and recently with the corporate sponsorship by Palladium Interactive (publishers of Ultimate Family Tree), the community has chipped in to make a reality of our collective dream: a community-supported Internet site that makes genealogical data and research facilities freely available to all Internet genealogists. Folks interested in helping RootsWeb can visit: http://www.rootsweb.com/rootsweb/how-to-subscribe.html.
When did RootsWeb and USGenWeb begin their partnership? With Linda Lewis, and her "TimeToDo" project (which evolved into the USGenWeb Archives) in June of 1996. But it could have happened earlier when Jeff Murphy, the founder of USGenWeb, approached us early in 1996 about providing web space for web pages for every state. Unfortunately, we didn't "get" it, it sounded like a duplication of the web pages ROOTS-L had already assembled for every state, which can still be found at http://www.rootsweb.com/roots-l/usa.html. Jeff meant USGenWeb, and wandered off elsewhere to build the project.
USGenWeb, like RootsWeb, is an example of the old Internet culture transitioning successfully onto the new Internet. Thousands of volunteers are working together to provide websites and free information about every county in every state in the United States. They have an ambitious project to transcribe all of the US Federal Censuses and put them on line. They have another exciting project called the Tombstone Transcription Project, for transcribing cemeteries. Everyone is pitching in together, working to create something of value for the entire community.
Although RootsWeb initially missed an opportunity to host the project, we got a second opportunity later, when the ISP hosting USGenWeb had difficulties supporting it. We currently serve not only the usgenweb.org, .net, and .com domains, but also the homepages for about 40 of the state pages, and thousands of county homepages. We also provide a home for both the Census Project and the Tombstone Transcription Project. We host thousands of mailing lists for USGenWeb counties and states, and thousands of query boards using the new GenConnect system. There are 750 MB of material in the USGenWeb archives. It's been wild, it's been fun, it's been challenging (understatement), but it's been rewarding and satisfying to see the community working together, to support the RootsWeb server, and to provide resources, both through RootsWeb and the mailing lists, and through USGenWeb and its archives. I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.
Want to keep up with what's happening at RootsWeb? Myra Gormley and Julie Case are editors of our new e-zine, the RootsWeb Review. It comes out weekly with news about RootsWeb, announcements of new mailing lists and web sites, stories of people who connected through RootsWeb, etc. It's free. Just send a message to RootsWeb-Reviewfirstname.lastname@example.org, and put the word "subscribe" in the body of the message.