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AN (ALMOST) UNEXPURGATED HISTORY OF ROOTSWEB


by Dr. Brian Leverich, Co-moderator,
soc.genealogy.methods/GENMTD-L
RootsWeb

This article first appeared in the RootsWeb Review, Volume 1 Number 2, 24 June 1998.

Long, long ago and in a really distant galaxy (about 1976 at Harvard), a young man was trying to finish a project on one of the old S-100 bus machines, whose power supply was overheating. His friends found him with his face and head fully buried in the machine's cabinet, alternately blowing on some heat sinks and sucking on the ceramic material encasing some big stabilizing resistors. This same pervert was also engaged in interconnecting computers in novel ways, doing something that was called "networking" in the academic journals but at that time looked more like a cybernetic group grope.

Less long ago and in a less distant galaxy (about 1980 at the RAND Corporation), there were two newly married, recently escaped from graduate school folks who would read every post made to Usenet every day.

On a vacation in 1986, Karen started looking for her grandfather's birthplace. She dragged Brian along for the search. That was the start of the addiction.

Being thoroughgoing Internet geeks, K & B started hanging out in net.roots. Then Alf Christophersen launched the ROOTS-L mailing list in December 1987, and that was yet another place to hang out.

Karen began maintenance of the RootsWeb Surname List in 1989, when everything was done with file archives and such.

By something like 1993, the Web had gotten started and Steven Woods had created the first Web-based search engine for the RSL.

Shortly afterwards and largely to persuade RAND to let them dabble on the exploding Web using the corporate Web server, K and B and friends launched the RAND Genealogy Club. They created one of the earliest genealogy Websites, a site which grew so popular that it soon was generating significantly more traffic than the official corporate Website.

In the Fall of 1995, K and B drove and camped their way up to Alaska with their German Shepherds. On the way back they decided they'd had enough of Los Angeles. Back at home, they sold their house in the suburbs and moved to a cabin on the North Slope of Mt. Pinos, 60 miles from the nearest wide spot on any road.

Along with getting indoor plumbing, they had Pac Bell install a high-speed digital line. Moans from the telco's sales and engineering staffs were blithely ignored.

About that same time RAND's management was beginning to suspect something was not quite kosher on the Web server. Looking at the visitor counts, it was straining even management's credibility that that many people actually cared what RAND was.

Sensing a problem in the making, K & B registered the name of RootsWeb.com and started serving the RSL and other genealogical material out of their mountainside cabin in February of 1996. They were amazed when a Dutch site spotlighted them and they got 3,000 hits in one day. In May of 1996 K & B got their first T1. A big day was 50,000 Web hits.

While RootsWeb was getting started, Apple's eWorld was having difficulty hosting ROOTS-L and its sister lists. There was a major crash at eWorld in July of 1996, and RootsWeb began list serving for ROOTS-L. K & B consumed 197.3 gallons of coffee and 4.73 stomach linings moving ROOTS-L to our servers.

RootsWeb began accepting voluntary contributions from its users at that point, because the costs were beginning to exceed what K & B could afford from their own pockets.

In the Fall, Winter, and Spring of 1996-97 RootsWeb continued growing, adding support for the USGenWeb Archives and for many USGenWeb counties.

RootsWeb discovered a call-girl ring was being operated out of one of the Websites it hosted in January, 1997. The Website was closed immediately, though there are unconfirmed reports that B archived the GIFs somewhere at RootsWeb.

In May of 1997 RootsWeb adopted 1,000 Maiser mailing lists, after that server was destroyed by a spam attack from the sleazes at Atlanta's Benchmark Printing. Another 227.7 gallons of coffee were consumed and 6.38 stomach linings destroyed.

At the same time the Maiser lists were settling in, RootsWeb had its final round of attacks by a cracker who had been breaking into its systems for months. Things culminated in a sort of surreal exchange of e-mail between the cracker and B, and that seems to have ended the problem.

In August of 1997 RootsWeb adopted the dozen or so large lists still being served by eWorld. During the following Fall, Winter, and Spring RootsWeb continued to grow.

February of 1998 brought the worst of the El Nino storms, and B spent most of one week living in a dark, unheated network operations center as he tended the generator that kept RootsWeb online.

In April of 1998 Palladium Interactive, publisher of the extraordinary Ultimate Family Tree software, became the corporate sponsor of RootsWeb. Palladium's sponsorship enabled RootsWeb to continue to grow.

The RootsWeb Review, edited by Julie Case and Myra Vanderpool Gormley, published its first edition on 17 June 1998.

At present, RootsWeb hosts more than 2,700 Websites and 3,600 mailing lists. RootsWeb now has a dozen servers and five T1s worth of bandwidth, and handles more than 1,300,000 Web hits and 3,000,000 pieces of e-mail on a typical day. RootsWeb expects to be adding several more main servers and a sixth (and possibly seventh) T1 within the next few weeks.

If you would like to help RootsWeb by becoming a member, sponsor, donor, or patron, please visit: http://www.rootsweb.com/rootsweb/how-to-subscribe.html

ROOTSWEB AND USGENWEB:
WORKING TOGETHER FOR GENEALOGY ON THE INTERNET


by Karen Isaacson

This article first appeared in the National Genealogical Society Computer Interest Group's "NGS/CIG DIGEST," Volume 17 Number 4, July August 1998.

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, newgroups 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 e-mail rather than in the newsgroups, and people even felt slightly queasy about using e-mail 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 e-mail, 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 more than 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 online at http://www.rootsweb.com/rootsweb/searches/rslsearch.html.

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 ftp://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. Prodigy, 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 list, 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 its 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 $3,000 a year to pay to have the list hosted. For someone imbued 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 been earlier: Jeff Murphy, the founder of USGenWeb, approached us early in 1996 about providing Web space for Web pages for every state. 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 Web sites and free information about every county in every state in the United States. They have an ambitious project to transcribe all of the U.S. Federal Censuses and put them online. 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-Review-request@rootsweb.com, and put the word "subscribe" in the body of the message.

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