The USGenWeb Phenomena



Carmen J. Finley, Ph.D., C.G.

[NGS/CIG DIGEST, Vol. 16, No. 5
(National Genealogical Society Computer Interest Group, September October 1997), p. 1.
Reprinted by permission of Carla Ridenour, Editor.]

Mobilizing nearly 3,000 volunteers to create a U.S. county-centered Internet genealogical resource in less than a year is hard to believe, but this author lived through it and has witnessed the success of USGenWeb.

Celebrating its first birthday officially on June 1st, the USGenWeb came into being after Jeff Murphy decided to create a home page for his Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, ancestors in late 1995. Jeff's dedication to his personal project was obvious. Early in 1996 other folks in Kentucky said, "Hey, this is a good idea. Why don't we do it for every county in Kentucky?" The Kentucky Comprehensive Genealogy Database Project was born April 1,1996. Almost immediately, folks in other states began to take notice and the USGenWeb project was formed. To say the enthusiasm grew like wildfire would be a gross understatement.

The concept was simple. Anyone who wanted to host a county page had to provide at least three basic things: (1) information about local resources, (2) a place where people could post their queries and read those posted by others who were researching that county, and (3) develop a "lookups" page where people could share their resources--books, CD-ROMs, or skills.

Local Resources

All counties have a section on local resources and the variety is endless. The names and locations of local genealogical and historical societies, libraries, and court houses is almost universal. A list of standard secondary sources is commonly found. The location of county towns, cemeteries, churches, and waterways might also be listed. It is not uncommon to find early maps, many of which have been supplied gratis by Gold Bug Historic Maps & Software. For example, the Augusta County, Virginia, page has early maps showing the county boundaries in 1738, 1770, 1776, and 1791. Another map "gem" included is the early plat map of Beverley Manor showing the property first patented to early owners.

Specialty lists of vital records, census records, military and pension records, ships' passenger lists, archives, and manuscript collections held by libraries in the immediate area can also be found on many county pages.

Links to web sites created by other persons on their kin who lived in the area are common. Many counties also have created links to neighboring counties and/or to parent counties so it is easy to "search the territory" for more clues.

Among some of the more unique things found in the area of local resources is the Pennsylvania Trading Post. Developed by Mary Harris, coordinator for Chester County, Pennsylvania, genealogical books or materials for sale or trade are listed. Potential buyers can also list books they woule like. Mary has also added a listing of Chester County homes in found on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Joe Patterson, the coordinator of Cumberland County, PAGenWeb page, has created special discussion groups for Pennsylvania Dutch and other specific interest groups in his county. He also offers a pictorial tour of Carlisle where you can view some of the historic homes in the area.

A number of counties have links to local newspapers online where recent issues of one or more county newspapers can be read. Bonnie Palmer has created newspaper abstract sections which start as early as 1855 for Rusk County, Texas. Here you can also find a page devoted to the history of the Cherokee in that area.

Chat rooms are beginning to spring up where a number of people who have common research interests can discuss common problems in real-time. (Northampton and Luzerne Counties, Pennsylvania, and the Georgia State page, for example)

In Iroquois County, Illinois, Loretta Barlow has a "Key to the City" page which gives information on place names found in early documents but not necessarily shown on maps. Here can be found obituaries from the Daily-Journal in Kankakee and 18 months of archived obits.

A particularly nice section developed on Scottish research can be found on Lynda Smith's Cumberland County, North Carolina, page. Shari Handley, who hosts both Somerset and Wicomico, Maryland, sites has done an interesting variation on her "County History" section. Rather than giving a broad, general history, she features specific aspects of county history (a town, a family, a person). These articles are changed quarterly and the old articles are still available through her archived files.

There is, of course, wide variation in the kinds and amount of information found on the different pages. The above is not all-inclusive but gives a fair sampling of the variety that can be found. Some of the volunteers are less skilled at HTML coding and graphics than others. This author considers her page as pretty much "plain vanilla" but filled with good information. A page that is both crammed with content and pleasing to the eye is Pam Reid's Gloucester County, Virginia, page.

Queries

Queries can be posted on every county page. There are two methods commonly in use by the county coordinators. There is an autobot system where a simple form is used. The advantage of using this system is that the names are automatically included in a national index and the query is automatically formatted in HTML code and returned to the county of origin. This makes it very simple for the county coordinator to cut and paste the query to his/her query page. The only disadvantage of this system is that there is usually a delay of a few days between the time of submission and the time the query is posted. The delay is preferable to the weeks or months it takes with any query submitted to a genealogical journal or newsletter. It is also FREE.

The other system commonly in use is a simple e-mail message to the county coordinator, which has the advantage of speed. It goes directly to the county coordinator without going through the autobot system. However, what it gains in speed it loses in inclusion in the national indexing system..

Queries are now coming into the USGenWeb system at the rate of about 12,000 per week nationally. Some county coordinators have added a cross indexing system which allows the user to look quickly for a surname of interest, click, and go directly to the query where this surname is found. A nice feature for the user, but whether or not a given county has it really depends on the time the coordinator can devote to creating and keeping it up.

Another closely related feature found on many county pages is the surname index, which instead of being keyed to the queries is simply a list of surnames and the e-mail address of persons interested in researching that surname.

The query section is, without doubt, the most popular feature of the project and there is a virtual "feeding frenzie", revealed by the counters on the pages. An evaluation form now in the early stages of development also shows that queries are a favorite.

Lookups

The lookups page, which was designed to allow people to share their resources, has not been without its problems. Again, the concept was simple. If someone has a book, a CD-rom, or special skills they are willing to offer to others, their e-mail address is listed. A visitor can e-mail the person who has offered to share and ask him or her to look for specific information on their family.

Early on, the copyright issue was discussed. How much can one "share" without stepping on the toes of the publisher who owns the copyright? Weeks of long agonizing discussion led to an official policy which places limits on how much information can be furnished. On the Augusta County page there is a disclaimer: "Due to concerns about copyright infringement, we cannot quote long passages from copyrighted sources. However, if substantial information is found, we can tell you the nature of the information and do our best to help you locate a copy of that source."

In addition, books under copyright protection are not listed unless there is explicit permission from the publisher. Material which is out ofprint and in the public domain is fair game!

Individualization

While all pages have certain things in common, the volunteers who host county and state pages have a great deal of latitude to develop special interests as long as there is a relationship to what the family historian will find helpful.

A particular bias of this author is that there is an obligation to help educate genealogists and promote information on proper research. A section called "Sharpen Your Research Skills" has been added to the Augusta County page. This is simply a collection of links to other sites with special topics on how to do things better--from general hints to more specific items such as deciphering old handwriting, photographic preservation, getting the most out of land records, origin of family names, citing sources, taking tombstone rubbings, and writing better and more productive queries.

The System

So far the discussion has centered on the county unit as the purveyor of good genealogical information. That is proper because that is where one has to look for family information. However, the county unit came into being only after a system was developed starting with the national level, which filtered down to the state level and finally to the local level. Key players in this system include John Rigdon, who is the overall USGenWeb coordinator, and Linda Lewis, who established the USGenWeb Archives. While it is impossible to hand out bouquets to all the hard working volunteers who have helped make this system work, it would be remiss not to mention Dr. Brian Leverich and Dale Schneider. These are the two who provide much of the web space that many USGenWeb page coordinators call home. Brian is the systems administrator at Rootsweb Genealogical Data Cooperative which is host to many genealogical endeavors in addition to USGenWeb. Dale also hosts many sites and is the sponsor for the WorldGenWeb, which, by extension offers a home to countries outside the United States. One easy address gives you access to all:

http://www.usgenweb.com/

From this USGenWeb locator page the state of interest can be selected and from the state page, the county of interest. There is also a link to the WorldGenWeb.

The USGenWeb Archives

Not long after the recruiting of volunteers to establish county pages began, a companion effort was started to develop the USGenWeb Archives. Under the direction of Linda Lewis, who also coordinates VAGenWeb as well as several county pages, the archives came into being. What goes into the archives? Primary documents go into the archives. This includes wills, land records, vital statistics, census records, and other primary records, organized by state and county. The archives now contain the equivalent of about 200,000 printed pages. Considering the vast amount of material that could potentially be included here, this is still modest, but growing fast. Anyone who has transcriptions of primary records can contribute to this resource. The Internet address for the archives is:

http://www.rootsweb.com/~usgenweb/usfiles.htm

Special Projects

Once the basic structure of USGenWeb came into being, other special projects began to emerge. As a new coordinator of Augusta County, Virginia, I thought it would be great if Chalkley's "Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish in Virginia: 1745-1800" could be available online. This three-volume series of about 1,500 pages contains the transcriptions of nearly all court records in Augusta County during that time period. How to do it? The first step, of course, was to find out if there was a copyright problem. The Genealogical Publishing Company in Baltimore reported that Chalkley was out-of-print and in the public domain. The next step was to find people who had the skills and time to take on such a project. Posting a notice of intent on the lookups page brought forth a number of volunteers. This project, now under the direction of Trudy Lusk, who is doing the major input, has been online since mid-November. As of this writing about one-third of the first volume is completed, and the pages are receiving visitors at the rate of about 2,000 per month.

Another online book transcription is under way at Shari Handley's Somerset County, Maryland, site. "They Lived in Somerset: 17th Century Marylanders" by Wilmer O. Lankford contains an alphabetical listing of 5,404 men, women, and children who appear in various records of the county and are keyed to the records where they are found.

Next, the idea of transcribing census records was born. Under the direction of Ken Hollingsworth, this project is now getting under way. Ken, along with the help of James Streeter who maintains the census web site, has worked out a scheme for assigning work to volunteers and are keeping track of who is doing what.

Not long after that Pam Reid, who hosts the Gloucester County, Virginia, page proposed the Tombstone Inscriptions project in a salute of Memorial Day. She is serving as the coordinator of this nationwide project which collects information on cemetery records.

How Many People Are Using USGenWeb?

As might be predicted, the amount of usage any individual state or county receives is directly related to how long the page has been up and running, as well as early migration patterns. As of mid-June, KYGenWeb, where the project really began, was nearing 195,000 visitors; Virginia and Tennessee, which lie along major early migration paths were pushing 145,000 visitors; New York was approaching 140,000. Georgia has had 90,000 during the first five and a half months of 1997. High volume county pages include Chester County, Pennsylvania, which saw a lot of early immigrants and has been visited more than 25,000 persons by mid-June. Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, with nearly 24,000 since January 1997, and Cumberland County, North Carolina, with 18,000 in a seven and a half month period are also high volume counties. Of course, by the time this article is printed these figures will be out of date.

Testimonials

In recent months an evaluation system has been under development. While it is not yet in place nationwide, it has produced enough data to test the waters on how the genealogical community is reacting. Here are some responses to a question about how things can improve:

Even the General Public Has Noticed

It took only a few months before people began to notice what was happening. Articles began appearing both online and in newspapers across the nation.

September 1996 -The Best of the USGenWeb Project, Journal of Online Genealogy

September 4, 1996 - DeKalb County on the Internet, Smithville (TN) Review

December 23, 1996 - Plugging Into Your Roots, US News and World Report

January 16, 1997 - The Detroit News, Genealogy: You Can Find Family Roots on the Internet

January 19, 1997 - Tracing Your Family Roots Online, Morning Sun [Gratiot County, Michigan]

January 1997 - Corky Knebel - Montana State Coordinator, USGenWeb Project, Billings Gazette

19 February 1997 - Erath County Texas GenWeb - Kathryn Coombs, Journal of Online Genealogy

May 1997 - On Line: USGenWeb Project, On Board [Newsletter of the Board for Certification of Genealogist]

Tech Life - Searching for Roots of Your Family Tree? Internet can make it easier, Philadelphia Inquirer

Most of these can be read in their entirety at:

http://www.dsenter.com/faqs/usarticl.htm

How Can You Help?

If you have even so much as one transcribed primary document--will, deed, Bible record, marriage record, death certificate--it will be gratefully received by the USGenWeb Archives. Simply go to the state of interest and look for access to their archives. Or if, by chance, that state has not yet established its archive director, contact the overall Archives Director, Linda Lewis at <linda@usroots.com>.

Both the Census Records Project and the Tombstone Transcription Projects need volunteers. For the census project go to:

http://www.usgenweb.com/census/

For the tombstone project go to:

http://www.geocities.com/~pamreid/memorial.html

There are also still a few counties that need to be adopted. Check out those states of interest to you and let the state coordinator know.

In Summary

The USGenWeb project which began slightly over a year ago, has developed rapidly and spread like wildfire providing a new research tool for anyone with Internet capabilities. It found a void and quickly filled it. Enthusiasm is high among the volunteers who willing to give of their time. It is impossible to guess where this project will be in another year.