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The USGenWeb Project (the full, proper name of the project) consists of volunteers working together to provide free genealogy websites for genealogical research in every county and every state of the United States. This Project is non-commercial and fully committed to free genealogy access for everyone.
Though many project sites were hosted on the RootsWeb server, The USGenWeb Project has never been owned by RootsWeb or Ancestry.com. Also, despite the similarity of their names, The USGenWeb Project is not affiliated with The WorldGenWeb Project. The USGenWeb Project has been proudly independent since its beginnings back in 1996.
The idea that would become The USGenWeb Project was born in March and April of 1996, when a group of genealogists organized the Kentucky Comprehensive Genealogy Database Project. The idea was to provide a single entry point for all counties in Kentucky, where collected databases would be stored. In addition, the databases would be indexed and cross-linked, so even if an individual were found in more than one county, they could be located in the index. At the same time, volunteers were found who were willing to coordinate the collection of databases and generally oversee the contents of the web page. Since that time, The USGenWeb Project has grown to include sites covering the entire nation. The national site provides links to state sites, which, in turn, provide gateways to the counties. The USGenWeb Special Projects are another important aspect of USGenWeb's offerings, gathering useful data you can access for free.
The following article was written on the occasion of The USGenWeb Project's 10th anniversary held at the Boston, Massachusetts 2006 Federation of Genealogical Societies. It is posted with the permission of Linda Haas Davenport. The article was originally printed in Evertons Publishers' Genealogical Helper.
- 10th Anniversary
Land of the Free ... Genealogy
- Linda Haas Davenport
Past National Coordinator USGenWeb Project
At a recent genealogy convention hundreds of attendees stopped by the USGenWeb Project's booth. For four days the volunteers manning the booth heard stories about how one of the Project's websites or county coordinators had been instrumental in helping to knock down a brick wall or how a long sought piece of information had been found on one of the Project's websites. Visitor after visitor not only said, "Thank you for what you do," most also said, "Thank you for keeping your information free."
As the National Coordinator of The USGenWeb Project™ I attended this conference and at a reception a gentleman at the table said, "I've been curious for a long time now - how has the Project avoided a take-over?" From across the table a lady remarked, "Or being bought out by Ancestry." The conversation quickly turned to a question that seemed to be uppermost in everyone's minds: How can the Project, in this day and age when most genealogy sites charge a fee to access their information, afford to offer its wealth of information for free?
The next day I stopped by the Everton booth to say Hi to Leland Meitzler and he said, "Linda! Just the person I want to see. I'm always being asked if RootsWeb owns the Project or the Project owns RootsWeb. Clear that up for me, will you?" The upshot of this conversation was the decision for me to write an article (for Genealogical Helper) on the history of the USGenWeb Project to celebrate its10th anniversary and along the way to hopefully clear up some confusion and answer the question - "How can they do it for free?"
Come take a stroll with me through the past as I explore the roots of The USGenWeb Project and the thing it is so intertwined with - Internet Genealogy.
For those of us involved in researching our families prior to 1995, we well remember how it used to be. We spent lots of time scheming and planning for trips to far away courthouses or the ultimate place, Salt Lake City. We depended on the U.S. mail to bring us information and hoped-for connections to our family lines. We spent our time (and money) sending queries to genealogy magazines, joining dozens of local genealogy societies, writing letters to strangers and rushing to the mail box each day with high hopes. Researching our family history was a very slow and time-consuming process. However, that was about to change and the instruments that would bring about the change were computers and the Internet.
For many years the large IBM mainframe dominated the computer industry. With its astronomical high cost, its requirement for "key punch departments" and support staff only the largest businesses and universities could afford a computer. However, that changed in the early 1970s when Wang and DataGeneral came out with smaller, more affordable "mini-mainframes" (or mini-processors). As mid-sized businesses purchased these computers the large back room key-punch departments gave way to a computer monitor on the average employee's desk. (This was the start of the love/hate relationship between people and computers).
In 1981 IBM released its "Personal Computer," but at a cost of $8,000+ it wasn't something the average person ran right out to buy. It wouldn't be until 1995 that the "personal computer" would become our well-known PC and, though still taking a chunk out of our budget, many of us would purchased one.
In 1969 what would later be called the Internet began when four computers in different locations were hooked together. In the beginning this network of computers was used mostly by the defense department (ARPAnet) and by universities (BITNET) and ran on IBM mainframe computers. (1) It would take several years and the development of many tools before the Internet, as we know it today, would be taken for granted by the average family historian.
Karen Isaacson, in her article in the National Genealogical Society Computer Interest Group magazine,(2) tells us that genealogy first appeared on the Internet in 1983 when a USENET newsgroup called net.roots, named after the popular Roots miniseries, was launched. She goes on to say, "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."
By 1987 CompuServe and Prodigy were popular places for family historians. These early bulletin boards allowed them to exchange information and chat about their favorite subject (much to the relief of their family members). These early meeting places, were in turn, about to be replaced by a more exciting tool - email lists. Eric Thomas (1) refined his LISTSERV software in 1986 and it quickly became the standard for email. LISTSERV made it possible for Alf Christophersen of Norway, and Marty Hoag of North Dakota State University, in 1987, to start the ROOTS-L mailing list, and with this list genealogy on the internet began in earnest.
Karen talks about those early days: "With the creation of ROOTS-L, things began to happen. John Wilson proposed a database of surnames people were searching in late 1988. 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." (2)
Family historians are and have always been a sharing group. It is the one hobby in which there is no competition. As we can see from the above history this sharing of information was carried over to the Internet from the very beginning.
The Pivotal Years
The amount of genealogical information available on the Internet grew slowly until several things came together during 1993-1995. In1993 AOL and Delphi began to connect their proprietary email systems to the internet and to offer a small amount of server space to their subscribers for personal webpages. In 1994 Netscape, the first user-friendly browser, was released. 1994 ushered in many local ISPs, and affordable dial-up modems hit the electronics stores. In 1995 Microsoft released its Internet Explorer browser and included it in the 1995 release of Windows. By 1995 several IBM PC clones were on the market and the price had fallen enough that purchasing one was feasible for many of us.
Internet Genealogy Takes a Giant Step Forward
In 1995 genealogy on the Internet took a giant step forward when two events occurred.
In early 1995, Larry Stephens, a family historian with the University of Indiana, was on a genealogy email list for KY. He was impressed with the list and wanted one like it for his state of interest, Indiana. Receiving permission to use the university's email server he set up the IN list. At the time, email lists weren't free and the number of messages that could be sent was very limited, but this wasn't the case for Larry's lists. As people heard about the IN list Larry started receiving requests to set up lists for other states and areas. Before long hundreds of email lists were being run, under Larry's direction, on the university's server. Through Larry's lists hundreds of family historians joined the on-line genealogy community.
In late 1995 Jeff Murphy, a family historian, uploaded a website for Muhlenberg County, KY and announced it on the KY email list. The people on the KY list were delighted at the prospect of websites with genealogy information and the list buzzed with excitement. It wasn't long before questions began to be asked about websites for the other KY counties, and people began to think that if Jeff could put a county website on-line, they could too. However, the majority of the people on the KY list didn't have a clue about putting together a website or writing html code. To answer this need Jeff put together a shell site and freely offered it to anyone who wanted to put a KY county site on-line. Jeff's offer was snapped up and by early 1996 most of the counties of KY had a website on-line. To bring some organization to the rapidly expanding KY sites Jeff put together a website for the state of KY and linked to all the KY county sites.
The news of the KY websites traveled like wildfire to other lists and the question of whether other states would become available became the topic of the day. The answer wasn't long in coming.
Bill Couch was on the KY list and his main interest was in the state of AR. Bill followed Jeff's example and in May 1996 uploaded an AR state site and a site for every AR county. It didn't take long before volunteers stepped forward to adopt an AR county site.
The Birth of The USGenWeb Project
We family historians have long been used to zeroing in on a county to find information on our ancestors so the whole idea of websites devoted to genealogy for a county was exciting. During late May and early June of 1996, Jeff, Bill and a few other people kicked around the whole idea of state and county sites and out of those conversations the concept of the USGenWeb was born: a web of inter-connected genealogy sites - a site for every state in the U.S. with each state site linking to all the counties (parishes or townships) within the state and to tie the whole thing together, a national site with links to all the state sites. Since it was to be a web of genealogy sites it would be named "US GenWeb." The name had to be changed to USGenWeb because US GenWeb was a copyright violation. The words "The" and "Project" weren't added until later.
Concept to realization took place in less than 15 days. The announcement of USGenWeb was made on Jun 16, 1996 and volunteers rushed to adopt the proposed new state sites. On Jun 18, 1996, Dale Schneider set up an email list on his personal server and subbed 18 people to the list. Those 18 people became the first state coordinators and not a one knew the first thing about webpages or html. John Rigdon designed a shell county site and Jeff a state shell site. John also wrote the necessary code for a query site and placed it on-line. The volunteers, using the basic shell and a minimal amount of html coding, added links to the query site and whatever small amount of genealogy information was found on the web and uploaded the sites.
By June 20th twenty state sites were either on-line or ready to be uploaded with eleven more "in the works." The national site had been placed on-line around June 15th. As each state was uploaded Jeff added a link to the new state's site. The new state coordinators began looking for volunteers to take over the county sites. It didn't take long before the USGenWeb's first major problem was encountered, Money.
Free server space was rare and many people who wanted to adopt sites couldn't afford to pay for server space. Although Dale Schneider was willing to host the new sites on his personal server he couldn't afford to do it for free. Fund raising suggestions were made, but for most people on the list freely sharing genealogy information was a way of life. Another way needed to be found and that "way" turned out to be RootsWeb.
When first approached by Jeff, some misunderstanding or miscommunication occurred, and RootsWeb wasn't willing to host the USGenWeb sites, but that was quickly cleared up. RootsWeb offered to host the USGenWeb sites on its servers for free with no limit on the amount of space for a site. With RootsWeb making server space available for free, volunteers could afford to take on a Project site and by the end of June or very early July 1996 there was a website for every state and county on-line - ready to welcome visitors. The state coordinators were responsible for finding volunteers to man the county sites and by the end of 1996 70% of the county sites were adopted by volunteers.
During June while all of this was going on, one of the people on the list was Linda Lewis and she was interested in a place to put all the bits and pieces and scraps of information the average family historian squirrels away "just in case." Joy Fisher, also on the list, was concerned about the future changes of html and web browsers since both things had changed so rapidly in such a short period of time. Joy already had on-line some books she had transcribed and they were in .txt format, both to conserve on precious server space but also so she wouldn't have to reformat them each time html and/or browsers were updated. By the end of June 1996 not only were state and county sites being uploaded, but the USGenWeb's first special project - The Digital Archives (a place to put all those bits & pieces, all in .txt format) was on-line.
Very few of the new state and county coordinators were interested in sites containing nothing but queries and links. Adding information became the order of the day: information from their own family history files, information donated by visitors, information on the state or county's history, information on state and local genealogy societies and whatever other genealogy or historical information came their way. In a short period of time 45GB of information was stored on the RootsWeb servers - an unheard of amount of web space at the time.
By early 1997 the USGenWeb was in full operation and the family historians on the Internet flocked to the Project's websites. By Jan 1997 RootsWeb had clocked 7,548,846 page views of USGenWeb pages. By Jan 1998 the total had reached 15,506,224 and by Jan 1999, 21,910,869 - not too shabby for a group only three years old.
The USGenWeb was born into a community that, from its very beginnings, believed in freely sharing information: first academic information, then internet information and finally genealogy information. Those first volunteers for the USGenWeb were unwilling to give up the idea of freely sharing with others and those who have come after them have embraced that same ideal.
From its birth in 1996 the volunteers of the USGenWeb Project have never looked back. Today the USGenWeb Project has thousands of sites, millions of web pages, a wealth of genealogical and historical information on line and welcomes several millions of visitors each year to its sites. Over the years six more Special Projects joined the Project and the Digital Archives now has numerous sub-projects. All of these sites and pages are manned today, just as they were back in 1996, by volunteers, around 2,000+ of them. Hundreds of pages of new information, transcribed records, photos, etc., are added daily by the volunteers of the USGenWeb Project. No one is satisfied with how far we have come, no one is resting on their laurels; there's simply too much stuff out there that isn't on-line, for free, yet.
The USGenWeb was one of, if not The, first project on the internet involving the continuing participation of a thousand or more individuals. In a sense, you could call it a forerunner of DMOZ, Wikipedia, and the other recent group projects.
Since the number of other participants who actively contribute on the query boards and lists exceeds 1,000,000, it is also surely true that this is one of, if not The, largest single-interest group on the internet.
To Answer Leland's Question About RootsWeb
As I told Leland at the conference - RootsWeb doesn't own the Project nor does the Project own RootsWeb. Admittedly the close relationship between the two entities these past 10 years makes it difficult, sometimes, to distinguish between the two, but they are two completely separate groups.
Karen Isaacson and her husband, Dr. Brian Leverich, were early internet users and family historians. Around 1995 they became concerned with the direction genealogy on the web was taking. Free server space was rapidly disappearing and existing genealogy information was disappearing right along with it; the first commercial genealogy site, Ancestry, had staked out a claim on the web; and John Wilson's surname list, the ROOTS-L list and Cliff Manis' hundred of genealogy files lost their space on the North Dakota University server. Karen and Brian decided that rather than lose all of this they would find space on their own servers for them. Karen and Brian formed RootsWeb and the files and lists were moved to RootsWeb's servers,
In 1996 when it looked as if the fledging USGenWeb would flounder because of lack of money for server space, RootsWeb stepped in and gave those early sites a home. Ten years later the majority of the USGenWeb Project's sites are still hosted, free of charge, by RootsWeb.
In mid 1997 Larry Stephen's lists were hit hard by spammers, so hard that a couple of times the university's computer went down. Larry needed to find a home for his hundreds of lists and Rootsweb agreed to accept the lists and they were moved to the Rootsweb servers.
From 1995 until 2000, Karen and Brian managed to support Rootsweb through donations but the time came when the USGenWeb Project, the lists and other sites on the Rootsweb server could no longer be supported by donations; and in 2000 Rootsweb merged with MyFamily.com (Ancestry). The understanding was, and is, that, unless there is a sound business reason not to, RootsWeb will continue to host the websites of the USGenWeb Project, the Project's Special Projects and email lists free of charge.
Today Karen and Brian again have a major presence on the web with their Linkpendium site (http://www.linkpendium.com) containing thousand of links to genealogical and historical sites set up by state and county.
Other Questions I Was Asked At The Conference
Why Hasn't the Project Been Taken Over or Sold?
The Project owns nothing that can be sold or taken over. The USGenWeb Project is an association of volunteers and each volunteer agrees to his or her website being a part of the Project, but the Project doesn't "own" the sites.
How Can You Offer Your Information for Free?
That has been explained above, but to summarize: It is the individual volunteers who spend the necessary hours to make information available on-line and offer it freely because of their love for the hobby of genealogy. All of the volunteers of the Project are first and foremost family historians and they themselves use the Project sites in their own research. The more information available the better it is for all of us. The Project is, on a very large scale, what genealogy is all about, and has always been about - freely sharing.
Why Are Sites So Different?
From its very beginning the Project's websites have been maintained by volunteers and each volunteer, while adhering to a few Project standards, has been free to design his or her own site. These differences bother some people but for most visitors the differences are enjoyable.
Why Are Some Sites Filled with Information and Others have Almost None?
Once again it’s because the sites are maintained by volunteers. Some people who host a county site live within the county and have access to a wealth of information, while others live across the country and have to find copyright-free material to add and/or depend on visitors to donate information to the site.
Some counties are relatively new, for example, OK didn't become a state until 1907. Other counties are small or sparsely populated and there aren't many records.
How Can I Volunteer?
Each state site has a listing of the counties within the state and if a county needs a volunteer to host the site a notice of "up for adoption" will be posted. Contact the state coordinator (name and email address will be on the main page) for information on how to adopt a county.
If your county of interest already has a site manager, contact him or her and ask how you can help.
If your interest is in the Archives or one of the special projects, contact the special project manager (name and email address will be on the main page).
To reach the states sites or the special projects sites, start at the national site (http://www.usgenweb.org). To reach a state click on the state name on the left of the page. To reach the special projects, click on the Projects tab on the top of the page and then click on the special project you are interested in.
Thank you for taking this stroll through the past with me. I hope you found it enjoyable and enlightening. The next time you find yourself on a USGenWeb site remember that everything you are looking at is the result of a volunteer's hard work and is being freely shared. If you find something to help you, please take a moment to tell the hard working volunteer thank you. It will be much appreciated.
- (1) "History of LISTSERV" http://www.lsoft.com/products/listserv-history.asp: 2006
- (2) Karen Isaacson. "RootsWeb and USGenWeb Working Together for Genealogy on the Internet." National Genealogical Society Computer Interest Group; Volume 17 Number 5 September/October 1998. http://www.rootsweb.com/~usgenweb/articles/6.htm. 2006
- Although there are many bits & pieces of information (along with lots of rumors and myths) on the early days of the Project, I've never been able to find a complete history of its beginning. Much of the information in this article was found on the web and in list archives. However, I'm indebted to several people who made available old emails, old files, shared with me their memories and read, corrected and made suggestions though out the writing process: John Rigdon, Larry Stephens, Betsy Mills, Joy Fisher, Ellen Pack, Linda Lewis, Brian Leverich and Karen Isaacson.
Organization is by state and county. Some state projects have state-level special projects.
The USGenWeb Project also sponsors important Special Projects at the national level. They are:
- The USGenWeb Archives Project
- The USGenWeb Family Group Sheet Project
- The USGenWeb African American Griots Project
- The USGenWeb Genealogical Events Project
- The USGenWeb Kidz Project
- The USGenWeb Lineage Project
- The USGenWeb Tombstone Project
Within The USGenWeb Archives Project, there are several sub-projects:
- The USGenWeb Digital Map Library
- The Pension Project
- The Online Census Images Project
- The Church Records Project
- The Immigrations Project
- The Marriage Records Project
- The Obituary Project
- The Special Collections Project
- The Court Cases Project
The following projects are outside of The USGenWeb Project. Both call themselves The USGenWeb Census Project but neither are affiliated with The USGenWeb Project.