Friday, November 20, 2015

The Future of the Genealogy in Hertfordshire Web Site

For me today is a rather special anniversary. Thirty years ago this morning my eldest daughter Lucy went shopping in nearby Aylesbury. About three hours later a policeman called to say that a young lady carrying my daughter's bank book had died. The resulting post-traumatic stress led to my abandoning some very interesting research and taking early retirement from a university career. I have decided to take this anniversary to reviewing what I can do with what is left of my twilight years. 

This decision clearly affects the future of the Genealogy in Hertfordshire web site, including the Guide to Old Hertfordshire, the associated newsletter, and the private reference library of Hertfordshire material I set up to help me answer questions.

So first to review the history of the site and the current situation. 

My research before I retired included setting up a data base of historical information and once retired I got involved in more research, which included the book The London Gunners come to Town (about Hemel Hempstead in the First World War) and the collection of a vast amount of material for a book on the history of Bernards Heath, St Albans, which was never completed beyond a booklet A Short History of Bernards Heath. In 1998 I took over the day to day running of a bulletin board concentrating of Hertfordshire family history which had been set up by Craig MacKenzie of Hertsweb

Almost exactly 15 years ago a software bug crippled the board and with Craig's help and advice I unveiled the current web site as a replacement on the evening of 14th April 2001. About an hour after I had gone to bed another policeman called, this time to report on the death of my other daughter, Belinda. These tragedies are the reason why people using the site have been encouraged to make a donation to a mental health charity, now called the Herts Mind Network.

It is important to realize that in 2001 there was very little genealogy, local or family history available on the web, particularly relating to Hertfordshire. The design aim was to provide a help area to answer user's questions, pages of general advice on family history research, a wiki style section for the history of places in Hertfordshire (Wikipedia was only founded in 2001 so was not considered when setting up the site), and information on mainly offline sources (cd, microfilms, microfiche, books, newspaper and maps). A map-driven interface, Guide to Old Hertfordshire, was later added.

The site has grown significantly over the years and now consists of about 1 gigabyte of text and pictures. Over the years it has attracted a very large number of visitors and is well connected with over 100 Wikipedia pages linking to the site, and with even more links from other web sites and listed in various books and magazines. The site originally carried a page for recent updates but a separate Newsletter was started four year ago and typically gets about 7,500 views a month.

Despite this success there are serious technical problems in continuing to update and expand the web site. The software used to maintain it is now obsolete and it was never designed for such a large number of pages. It will not run under the latest versions of Windows and fails to interface correctly with modern servers, making automatic update impossible. These problems complicate maintenance, and ruling out any significant restructuring of content. In addition the site was designed before the coming of laptops and smart phones, and uses an early version of html, which can complicate security and user access with modern devices. 

Web Sites
The explosive growth of other genealogy web sites and online data bases in recent years has also caused difficulties. Some years ago the tutorial was partially withdrawn because it had become out of date, and it is now impractical to keep the general advice sections of the site in line with the frequent changes on major sites such as familysearch, ancestry and findmypast. It is also impractical to record the existence of all new online resources which turn up almost daily. Many of the old answers to user questions also look very out of date, as they were restricted to the genealogy resources available at the time. 

St Albans
As the site has expanded the information on the towns and villages has increased in an uneven way, with many pages on places such as St Albans, Tring and Watford. Some of the smaller places still have very little information and some significant towns have untidy and partially updated pages which urgently need attention. In addition local historians have set up newer web sites dealing with the history of places such as Preston and Brookmans Park  in considerable detail, and there seems very little point it trying to duplicate the coverage of such places. 

Use of the Help Desk has changed as most newcomers to the family history research now start by using one of the major online sites and have direct access to the key records and family trees in digital form. This has resulted in an overall drop in questions received, although there are now more from serious historians and from people using the site as a picture library. In addition more of the questions I do answer are handled by email without being reported on the site or in the newsletter.

Brick Makers
Grove School
At the same time the site has developed specialties of its own with projects such as the work on Hertfordshire postcard publishers and photographers, brickmaking in the St Albans area, and detailed reports, such as the one on Grove School, Watford.

Donate Here
An additional issue has been the raising of funds to help the mentally ill in Hertfordshire in memory of Lucy and Belinda. For various reasons the level of donations has fallen dramatically in 2015 and I now collect far less in this way than I spend from my old age pension on subscriptions to commercial genealogy web sites. 

Finally I am now much older, at 77, and find running the site as it is now increasingly stressful. Because of what happened to my daughters I need to keep my stress under control and over the summer started to cut back on the time I spent running the web site and looking for other less stressful ways of relaxing. In addition the possibility of having to move to more suitable living accommodation may force me to downsize my large library of Hertfordshire material, which I built up to support the web site. 

To summarize: the use of the site, and the whole world of family and local history, has changed significantly over the last 15 years.and there is a need for a considerable rethink. Some areas of the site are now redundant or badly out of date, others are better covered on more specialist web sites elsewhere, while other historical information is only available on this site and needed to be preserved.

So what are the options?

Because of the state of the supporting software, and my increasing age, the option of just continuing updating the site and patching up gaps in the coverage is no longer practical. The site would simply come juddering to a halt when anything happened technically, or to my health, to prevent further updates. Finding a different software platform and transferring the existing pages and pictures would be a major exercise and would not correct the many problems with the contents. A complete restructure, with new information added, to meet current needs would be a major (and expensive) undertaking and I am personally not in a position to undertake it. 

In the short term the best way forward would be to start "mothballing" parts of the site by adding warnings to selected areas to say that they are no longer being kept up to date and that, for example, broken links to external web sites will not be repaired. This would preserve all the historic information on the site, but would warn people who found the site using search engines that some information may be out of date. In the longer term the aim would be to mothball the complete site. I would also stop answering questions from beginners, but encourage serious questions about material already on the web site.

W. Brown's Account Book
In certain some specialist areas, where the site contains information of particular historical importance, updates will continue for the time being. For instance I have been doing work on the Victorian photographers of Hertfordshire which can help in dating historic photographs and there is are some significant updates in the queue. I will also be doing some more work on William Brown's account book, in preparation for a talk I am giving next year, and it would be appropriate to add details to the web site.

In the long term it may be appropriate to relocate some of the information onto other sites. For instance information about a particular town or village could find a home on a web site run by the appropriate local history society while some digitized old engravings could end up on Wikimedia. In addition some of the unique documents in my supporting library could be donated to HALS while some of the commoner books which are readily available in the Hertfordshire County Library and elsewhere (see Locating Books) might be sold off on ebay.

I plan to spend the time between now and Easter  (i.e. up to the 15th anniversary of the web site and of Belinda's death) looking at the options and any suggestions regarding the site and the future of the information it contains would be very welcome. I will report what is happening on this newsletter and will also have to think about the future of the newsletter itself.

Donate Here
Chris Reynolds
20th November 2015.

P.S. Donations are still being collected to help the mentally ill in Hertfordshire.

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This is the newsletter for the Genealogy in Hertfordshire Web site. Comments on this blog are moderated and may be transferred to the web site where appropriate. If you have a local or family history query you want answered you must use "Ask Chris" - See box in right hand column. Anonymous comments cannot be answered.