Category Archives: Uncategorized

Watch out for inaccurate citation numbers!

The back-end enhancements mentioned in my last post now allow us to do some significant data improvements.

Over the next few days, I’m going to be doing some work to improve how we represent links into the impressive Ship Register Database provided by the library at Mystic Seaport. Initially, we described this resource as “Ship Register (1857-1900) Database, by G. W. Blunt White Library”. While that gives appropriate credit to Mystic Seaport’s library for creating this incredible database, it doesn’t describe what’s in the database, which is even more important. So we’re splitting out the database’s contents into three sections, reflecting the three publications that are included in this single database.

Those three publications are:

  • New-York Marine Register:  1858
  • American Lloyds’ Registry of American and Foreign Shipping:  1859, 1861-83
  • Record of American and Foreign Shipping:  1871-3, 1875-9, 1881-1900

I did find some discrepancies between what’s listed as being available, and what’s actually available. New-York Marine Register for 1857, for instance, is available on the site, but not searchable by vessel name. The same goes for the 1874 volume of Record of American and Foreign Shipping.

When we’re done, we’ll more accurately represent the sources for this data. However, until then, you may notice a dramatic, but inaccurate, increase in the number of citations in the ShipIndex database. We don’t want to remove any data for those who might be using it during this switch-over, and I decided that duplicate information, in some cases, was preferable to missing information. After we’ve imported all the data that’s linked to the new resources (that is, “New York Marine Register”, “American Lloyds”, etc.), we’ll delete the data listed under the old resource (“Ship Register Database”).

I don’t think it’ll take more than a day or so to get all the new data loaded, and the old data removed, but I’m not completely certain. I’ll add a note to this blog post when that’s complete.

ShipIndex in London

When I went to the ShipIndex mailroom today (OK, the Trumansburg, NY, post office), I found an envelope from England awaiting me. What was it? It’s ten passes to this year’s “Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE” exposition, in London, at the Olympia Exhibit Hall. I’m excited about going to London to exhibit at this show in a few weeks, and now I can share it with my ten closest friends!

Since I know very few people in London (and the one I know the best is leaving the morning of the conference), I’ve got lots of spare passes. Please let me know if you’d like one — they’re worth about £22 each! (It’s an expensive show.)

I’m getting ready for the show here at ShipIndex world headquarters — I’ve set up my dummy exhibit space to see how it’ll all go together, and my son has been weighing and filling bags of 100 bottle openers apiece. I’m hoping I correctly estimate how many postcards, bottle openers, and brochures to bring, and that I’ll have everything I need, especially since I’ll be in a foreign country with funky electricity and strange customs.

I’ll be at stand 311. If you’ll be in the neighborhood, please do come by and say hello. And if you want a pass, let me know.

ShipIndex as a gift

Looking for a last-minute gift for a maritime historian or a genealogist?

Consider a limited-span subscription to!

You can give a genealogist three months of access to the premium database for just $25. Or give a historian access to the premium database for six months for $45. Or give a maritime history fanatic access for a year, for just $85! This is a one-time payment, via PayPal (and yes, you can use a credit card through the PayPal site).

To make it happen, send a note to We’ll need the following information:

  • The recipient’s email address
  • When you’d like access to begin, and for how long

We’ll create a pdf certificate that you can print out or email to the recipient. It will include a username and a temporary password, plus information on how to access the database.

This can be a great gift, for any occasion — from a holiday or birthday gift to a retirement or ‘Thank You’ recognition.

On the naming of naval vessels

The US Navy has not been very good about how or why it names certain naval vessels. Given today’s political environment, it’s no surprise that even the naming of ships has taken on controversial tones with politicians of all stripes looking for reasons to get up in arms.

A story from San Diego describes Congressional dissent over recent naming decisions. It does seem like the Navy would benefit from a significant review of how names are assigned. The Navy would benefit significantly from some standardization in how names are assigned, such as using a certain type of name for a certain type of vessel. Some additional rules, such as not selecting a person until at least, say, ten years after they’ve passed away, would also be valuable. Each action would take a lot of the politics out of the decision-making, I think. The Navy must name its vessels, and this is an opportunity to recognize its illustrious history, and that of the country itself. If the Navy could do something that would reduce the political backlash it receives for its actions, and improve its own profile in the process, it really ought to consider doing it.

It’s a shame that there’s so little standardization in the naming of US naval vessels, and that politicians use these items to make unnecessary political hay, and that nothing will significantly change, regardless of what happens. But we can always hope.

New and updated content

Lots more new content in the past few weeks. The following resources are new, and include three more Navy Records Society volumes:

In addition, I updated holdings for the following site, which corrected some errors and added lots of new ships:


As always, please let me know if you have ideas for content to add. I have enough to keep me busy for the next few years, but I always welcome more suggestions!

Great new review of ShipIndex from Charleston Advisor

I got back from the Charleston Conference last night. I couldn’t stay for the conference, unfortunately, but I did get to attend, and present at, a pre-conference. I didn’t present on ShipIndex (though I did meander aimlessly about it while we were working through some technical difficulties and they needed me to say something – anything! – into the microphone…), but I did get some great ShipIndex news while I was there.

ShipIndex was just reviewed in The Charleston Advisor, a well-known and well-respected source for “Critical Reviews of Web Products for Information Professionals”. The review appears in the October issue, and a copy was distributed to all attendees at the Charleston Conference. ShipIndex got 4-1/2 stars, out of a possible 5, and a very positive review. The summary of the review includes this bit regarding content: “This unique, comprehensive and authoritative database provides a wealth of information about ships. Links to external content pull all of the information about each vessel together in one place. It is a perfect database for vessel research.” Regarding pricing, the reviewer wrote, “The database is so reasonably priced it is ridiculous. You get a lot of information for very little money.”

The full review is available online, but costs a whopping $38. (Of course, the journal itself costs $295 for libraries; $495 for others…) Just trust me – it’s very positive.

To top it all off, Charleston Advisor editors gave ShipIndex the 2011 award for “Best Content“! The citation reads “Everything you ever wanted to know about ships has been aggregated in this one Web site aimed at both researchers and hobbyists. The system is packed with information, has a strong user interface and a visually appealing look. This unique service was created by Peter McCracken, one of the cofounders of Serials Solutions.”

ShipIndex also received a “Recommended” review from Choice this summer (June 2011), which described the site as “a needed research tool for maritime history, [and] useful for academic and special libraries with interested clientele.”

Good feelings all around.

Why indexing matters

I’m a huge fan of indexes, especially to magazines (aka serials, or journals), and it frustrates me quite a bit when I find useful journals that don’t have indexes to them. Here’s why.

The most important reason, most definitely, is because an index makes old issues of a magazine useful and accessible. Generally, a person receives and (hopefully) reads a particular issue. After that, the issue is stored, and eventually recycled.

(Or, perhaps, left at the local public library, if it’s not too old. I’m writing this in my local public library, and I have several recent issues of magazines to drop off in the ‘magazine exchange’ area. But the library has an understandable rule that no magazine left here be more than six months old. If that rule weren’t in place, the magazine area would be overrun with decade-old copies of magazines that no one wants, and the library would be left with the work of sorting through and recycling them all.)

When a library receives a magazine, it gets stored on shelves for a while. In niche areas like maritime history, it will likely eventually be sent to an off-site storage facility, as well. If there’s no guide to finding what’s in a given issue, then there’s basically no chance of finding anything in any particular issue. Consider a library catalog’s entry for, say, American Heritage magazine. Published for over 60 years, its subject coverage is represented in bibliographic data by basically a dozen words – and a third are in French, and two thirds of the remaining ones are duplicated. The only unique English words are “United States History Civilization Periodicals”. But with hundreds of thousands of pages in those 60 years, there’s an enormous wealth of information. Which is why they publish their own index to their magazine. Now, all those hundreds of thousands of pages are accessible to anyone with access to the index.

Maritime history publications would do well to make note of this, and to consider how their data is accessed when it’s more than a few issues old. Organizations that publish quality indexes to their resources, and then make that information as available as possible, are to be commended. As one specific example, consider the San Diego Maritime Museum’s publication, Mains’l Haul. Not only do they publish a current index to their journal, they make that publication freely available online. This is so vitally important, and should be aggressively emulated by every maritime history organization, regardless of their size.

People will be seeking articles from the entire run of Mains’l Haul for decades to come, because they take the time to make an index available to all. While it may cost money to do this (though some institutions are able to take advantage of volunteer indexers), I think it’s easy to see ways that that money will be returned in spades, and for decades to come, as people discover that past articles mention something of interest to them, and publishers of such works can then offer reprint services for those articles at reasonable fees, essentially indefinitely.

If a researcher doesn’t know that a person or a vessel is mentioned in a past article, they will not put that publication to use, and that’s a loss to the publisher, to the article’s author – whose work would be useful but won’t be found – and to history in general.

I’d like to make two additional comments:

First, don’t rely on a commercial abstract and indexing service to do this for you; while it’s great to get one’s content indexed in large databases, they will provide, at best, only a cursory summary of each article. They will not be sufficient for someone seeking a mention of a person, ship, or location that’s mentioned in, but not central to, a given article.

Second, a listing of the articles in an issue is NOT an index. (I’m looking at you.) It’s a list of article titles, and nothing more. While I suppose it’s better than nothing, it misses infinite opportunities to guide researchers to the incredible wealth of information that’s contained in a quality scholarly publication.

Please, magazine publishers: index, Index, INDEX! And if you’re really forward-thinking, make the index available for free, to anyone. Put it online as a pdf, as a searchable database, and as a text file that anyone can download and use elsewhere. What you lose in the cost of creating and distributing the index, you’ll more than make up in revenue from providing reprints and back issues, and (perhaps more importantly) in promoting and displaying the importance, value, and reputation, of the journal in question.

The death of the semantic web

I came across some interesting notes while going through old emails the other day. A message from NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, reported that the semantic web is dead, citing a post on semantico. The semantic web is a concept of presenting data in a structured format, usually as ‘triples’ (I am, absolutely, not an expert – or even that knowledgeable – on this stuff, so don’t quote me too far), so a computer can better understand what each term means.

For example, when a computer sees the word “Magellan”, it just sees a word. It doesn’t know if the word refers to an explorer, to a spacecraft, to a mutual fund, a “progressive metal/rock” band, or something else. By defining, through triples, what one means, the computer can realize that one page is talking about the explorer while another is talking about a mutual fund company.

Such semantic definitions have been used extensively in some subject areas, but not at all in most. And one of the great challenges with it is/was solving problems among the “upper ontology” – that is, the layer that connects concepts in zoology with concepts in art history with concepts in electrical engineering with concepts in maritime history, etc. One field may work hard to define its ontology, but if that schema doesn’t mesh with other ontologies, then the systems aren’t really connected.

So I was interested to read of the effective death of the semantic web, and its replacement by is a nascent project being put together by representatives from the search teams at Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft’s Bing. It uses microformat HTML tags, added to a page’s markup text, to define what something is. This is done for the benefit of search engines – so a “Magellan” that is marked with the tags

  <div itemscope itemtype="">
    <span itemprop="name">Ferdinand Magellan</span>

is clearly a person, while the Magellan that’s tagged

  <div itemscope itemtype="">
    <span itemprop="name">Fidelity Magellan Fund>/span>

is something you can buy. (Note the differences in the end of each first line; the first is “/Person”, and the second is “/Product”.)

(Also: I defined the Magellan Fund as a ‘product’, because one can buy a share of it, but it might more appropriately be an ‘organization’, since there is a ticker symbol associated with it, and currently has a “tickerSymbol” attribute for Organizations.)

The current structure is quite limited, and focuses primarily on people, organizations (especially local businesses), creative works, events, and locations. But it’s certainly extensible, and – if it’s generally adopted, as triples were not – it will clearly expand to other fields.

I’d love to take on extending it to vessels. It’d be pretty easy for us to modify our HTML to include these microtags, and if that helps people find the information they’re seeking, then all the better for all involved. But I’m not sure what the proper levels should be. One doesn’t want to have too many levels in a structure like this, but I think that going straight from “Thing” to “Vessel” might be a bit of a jump. I imagine an intermediate step of, perhaps, “Vehicle”, would be appropriate. Then those with interest in cars, trains, airplanes, bicycles, scooters and lots more, would build out their schemas, while we could start a layout of sailing vessels.

It seems simple, but immediately becomes fairly complex. You could, for instance, split up “Vessel” entries to “HumanPowered”, “WindPowered”, and “MechanicallyPowered”, perhaps, then divide by vessel type – canoe, kayak, paddleboat; sloop, ketch, yawl, schooner, brig, brigantine, barkentine, ship, bark, hermaphrodite brig; paddlewheel steamer, ferryboat, fishing boat, battleship, oceanliner; etc., etc. Is that too much differentiation? How do you define a vessel that’s been re-rigged, from a ship to a bark, for example? How, even, do you make it clear that when you’re talking about a ‘ship,’ you’re talking about a three-masted vessel with square sails on the furthest-aft mast, rather than something that floats and is bigger than a boat?

Lots of other terms could be added or defined over time. When the computer can understand what the term means, rather than just presenting the term to the world, it will make it much easier for individuals to draw understanding and make connections from within large bodies of marked-up data.

It would appear that this system, because it’s fairly easily applied, has a much better chance of success than did the original ‘triples’ approach. I look forward to watching it with interest.

“Trust” and identifiers: two great concepts that concept great together

My two primary areas of interest – library science and maritime history – bumped into each other this week in an interesting way. On the MARHST-L discussion list, there’s been much talk about various vessel identifiers. They haven’t really been called that; participants have been discussing “Official Numbers,” the Mercantile Navy List, and Lloyd’s Numbers, and it has made me think of IMO numbers, Hull Identification numbers, USCG Documentation numbers, naval identifiers (ie, PT-109, CV-42, etc.), and various other vessel identifiers.

On the library side, the latest issue of NISO’s publication, Information Standards Quarterly, is now available, and the entire issue is about identifiers. There’s an article about ISNI, the International Standard Name Identifier; ORCID, the Open Researcher & Contributor ID; the Names Project; the use of SAN, the Standard Address Number, in supply chains; I² and ISNI, and more. I² is the Institutional Identifier; I was very briefly on this working group before I left my previous job.

In that previous job, I used the ISSN, the International Standard Serial Number, a great deal. But for various reasons, it didn’t fill our bill, and we had to create our own unique identifier. We loved and used the ISSN, but it wasn’t quite the complete thing. The identifier we developed was (and, to my knowledge, still is) only used in-house, though it could have had great application elsewhere.

At, I believe my future includes developing a new vessel identifier.  (Yes, I know.) I’ve presented on this before, at both library conferences (with slides) and at maritime history conferences, but it hasn’t started to be developed yet. As I see it, when that starts to happen, it’ll be through our website, and it’ll be by individuals who want or need an identifier. People who know more about a specific ship than I do will be able to collate various citations that refer to a single ship, even if its name has changed, and improve the quality of the community’s knowledge about those ships. They’ll also be able to do lots, lots, more, but that’s more for another time.

This isn’t a great description of what I have in mind, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get it built, but I have high hopes for what ShipIndex, with the help of its constituents, can create. I aim to do whatever I can to make it happen. Alas, it’ll take a lot of time and money, and those aren’t yet in abundant supply.

In the NISO publication, Geoff Bilder has a great Op-Ed piece about Trust and Identifiers. I once had a beer with him (I honestly can’t remember if it was in Asheville, NC, or Edinburgh, Scotland. If it was in Edinburgh, I trust it was a scotch, not a beer. I feel certain it was at a UKSG conference [which, possibly, could have placed it in Torquay or Coventry; not just Edinburgh], but at the same time I also think there was discussion of skipping out on the NASIG conference [with someone else, not Geoff] to try and catch UNC and ECU play baseball in the NCAA playoffs. But I digress…) and I probably made a fool of myself. He’s clearly an incredibly smart guy, and I know that what he writes is worth reading, and worth reading closely.

I would like to see become the trustworthy source, as described by Geoff, for vessel identifiers. I think it can happen, if only because I’m not sure anyone else is ready to do it. If you’re willing to help, let me know.

New searching just released

We’ve just implemented new, and vastly improved, searching functionality throughout the website. The previous version of searching worked, but not as well as we liked, and we saw some problems that we knew needed attention. Our crack technology team has stayed up late into the night, refining midnight oil to be burned later, and developing special disposable fingertip covers to prevent the actual tips from being worn away due to extra-heavy coding work.

Now, as a result, you can do much better searching than before. You can search for any two terms in a vessel name and find it, even if the terms aren’t next to each other. Punctuation and diacritics no longer cause problems. In addition, we’ve implemented special advanced searching options, which allow you to do far more refined searches than you ever thought possible. Want to search for ships with the name “Mary”, but only see the ones that start with “Mary”, and so skip all the “Queen Mary”s? You can now do that: just put a carat (“^”) before the word, like this: “^mary”.

Even more remarkable is that now you can search the citations – not just the ship names. In the past, searches looked at just the ship names, so a search for “hms buckingham” returned no results. Now, a search for “hms buckingham” will return appropriate citations. (We still recommend that you drop things like “HMS”, “USS”, or “USN” before searching; if a ship doesn’t have those terms in the citation, you won’t locate those citations.) The search doesn’t limit itself to only those citations that have both those terms; it still returns all the citations, which is good: many, many citations for HMS Buckingham don’t include the “HMS”.

This is particularly useful when you want to get as much information as possible on a ship. If you search for “flying cloud”, you’ll be taken to the main entry for the ship name, which we figure is most likely what you want. For more information, though, you can click on the link in the green box at the top, which takes you to “other matches”, where you’ll find entries that don’t include “flying cloud” in the ship name. But follow some of those ship links, such as N. B. Palmer or Andrew Jackson, and you’ll find “Flying Cloud” mentioned in the citation. This is a big, useful, dramatic improvement in helping folks get at as much information as they possibly can.

If you’re not sure of the spelling of a vessel name, you can use the asterisk for wildcard searching. A search for “fant*” will return several results, and help you narrow down your spelling to the exact ship you’re seeking.

Searching for ship names with diacritics is also much improved, as mentioned above. A search for “fantome” will return “Fantôme” and “Fantôme II”.

More specifics on all the ways you can do advanced searches are available here.

Many thanks to the hundreds of developers who worked on this release. It’s a big, big improvement.