A decade of growth: technology

In the seventh floor reading room in 2012.

When it comes to technology, change comes quickly. In one decade, devices can transform almost beyond prediction. Back in April 2008, I could not have foreseen how technological advances would transform NEHGS.

Many advances came before my time. As Brenton summarizes: “We’d had a website since ’96, but it was a billboard. And in 2000, we launched the first searchable website, which had the Register on it.” Over the next five years, Brenton and his colleagues really worked on how best to add content to the website. By the time I began volunteering in 2006, NewEnglandAncestors.org had begun to take on its modern form.

The homepage was almost static. Other than switching out two small pictures and some text, everything looked the same from month to month throughout 2008.

When I was hired, NEHGS had just launched a new version of NewEnglandAncestors.org. This site then featured about 330 databases, and less than thirteen percent had content from outside New England. Even so, Brenton then wrote, “We are proud to have a wonderful team who scan and digitize new databases every week.”[1]

The homepage was almost static. Other than switching out two small pictures and some text, everything looked the same from month to month throughout 2008. Now, banners on the homepage are switched up every month to draw attention to the most important things going on at NEHGS.

AmericanAncestors.org was launched in 2010. At this point, the 392 databases included nearly 3,000 genealogical and historical collections. Although the vast majority of these databases pertained to New England, the percentage of those databases with outside content had increased to more than twenty percent.

The big news that year was the new NEHGS Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/nehgs/). Yes, social media was here to stay. Now, we have nearly 40,000 Facebook fans. We also have accounts with Twitter (@ancestorexperts) and, as of June 2016, Instagram (american_ancestors). NEHGS has nearly 5,000 followers on Twitter and over 900 on Instragram. And this blog launched in 2014; it now has 3,695 subscribers. Social media helps NEHGS stay connected with our members as well as sharing news and items of interest.

Late in 2014, we updated AmericanAncestors.org to accommodate “millions of new searchable records.” This version allowed for a mobile-view, simplified browsing, advanced search options, and streamlined navigation. Essentially, the website offered much more with much easier access.[2]

Late in 2014, we updated AmericanAncestors.org to accommodate “millions of new searchable records.”

According to Claire Vail, NEHGS’s Director of Digital Strategy, “Since 2014, we have continued to refine and improve the website’s functionality and appearance based on user feedback.” Just recently, her team “introduced several changes to search, including the ability to search each database via a page that presents only the relevant fields for searching that database. These new pages also include the database description, search tips, sample images and citation information. So, everything you need is conveniently located on the same page.” That is good news, considering AmericanAncestors.org now features 451 databases with 1.4 billion searchable names!

Thanks to the added content and streamlined design, the number of website users keeps growing exponentially. Back in September 2008, the website saw almost 25,000 unique visitors within a month. By September 2017, that number surpassed 41,000. Last month, there were about 60,500 unique users on AmericanAncestors.org. As Claire told me, “I think it’s safe to say monthly traffic, on average, has tripled since 2008.”

With all these changes, staffing also changed. Back then, we had an IT director and a couple of part-time staffers manning the website. Now, in addition to the IT director, the website team features a Director of Digital Strategy, Associate Director (of Database Search and Systems), Front End Developer, Database Coordinator, Web Content Specialist, Database Services Volunteer Coordinator, and Digital Collections Administrator. Over half of those key roles are held by females. This is all in addition to the virtual army of volunteers that make our ambitious scanning and indexing projects possible.

Changes in the presentation of online information allowed our education team to multiply the online offerings and to vary their formats.

Ryan Woods (current Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer) was the Director of Education in 2008, and he acknowledges just how far our online education programming has come in the past ten years. Soon after he started in 2007, he announced an upcoming program on the NEHGS website. As he related the story, a fellow staff member wondered why he had not informed her of the event because (to paraphrase) “The website is not a useful place for people to find information!” It had not even occurred to her that she could check the website for announcements like that. With the revamping of NewEnglandAncestors.org in 2008, there was a page for Programs & Events. It offered a new online seminar series of twelve seminars.

When AmericanAncestors.org launched in 2010, the website featured a Learning Center, but only increased the online seminars to fifteen (requiring a Macromedia Flash Player download to view).

With the promotion of Ginevra Morse to the roles of Online Education Coordinator and then Director of Education and Online Programs, the online offerings have jumped to fifty archived webinars and six how-to videos. That does not even include the popular online courses that each include three or five classes. NEHGS offers about twelve webinars and six online courses each year. New topics are being offered all the time and do not require additional downloads. See https://www.americanancestors.org/education/online-classes.

Viewership of these educational offerings has skyrocketed. Back in 2014, there were more than 17,000 views, but last year, those views had topped 72,500. In fact, in the last six months, the online programs have had more registrants than the entirety of last year. Website advances have allowed for easier access, and increased technological capabilities allow the NEHGS staff to share a greater variety of knowledge.

For myself, I have learned so much over my ten years as an employee at NEHGS. I have benefited from each of these refinements, and my personal growth has mirrored the society’s progress. My colleagues and I have built the foundations that carry NEHGS into the future. As a member of the Publications team, I am able to contribute new scholarship and help my colleagues continue the strong tradition of adding content. Nearly daily, I take advantage of the evolving technology that increases our access to that content. I have no doubt that when I look back ten years from now, once again, I will be amazed at a decade of progress at NEHGS.

Notes

[1] D. Brenton Simons, “Greetings from NEHGS,” New England Ancestors 9: 3 [2008]: 5.

[2] For more about the launch, see Claire Vail, Sam Sturgis, and Christopher Carter, “Finding Your Roots @ AmericanAncestors.org,” American Ancestors 16: 1 [2015]: 25–27.

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About Kyle Hurst

Kyle, Genealogist of the Newbury Street Press, holds a B.A. in both history and anthropology from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and has a master’s certificate in Museum Studies from Tufts University. With experience at the National Archives and Record Administration in Waltham, Kyle has worked on a wide variety of research projects as part of the Research Services team at NEHGS and, with Newbury Street Press, has contributed to a number of family histories. She has been credited for her contributions to The Root, TheRoot.com, and she has also written for American Ancestors magazine.

3 thoughts on “A decade of growth: technology

  1. As staggering as all the numbers of digital files that have been added during this period are the number of IT staff NEHGS has hired to keep up with it all! Bravo!

  2. The changes are marvelous and amazing, as is Vita Brevis. One loss: the mail-order library books. Thirty years ago, almost, when just beginning my research, it was wonderful to be able to thumb through them. Now, yes, I can do a data search and see a page or reference, but golly, I learned a lot by being able to read much more at my leisure,

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