Old Ship Picture Galleries temporarily down – what should ShipIndex do?

I discovered this afternoon that Old Ship Picture Galleries was recently taken down.

A site on the home page says “If you want this site back, e mail darrenmbrown@optusnet.com.au  and ask him to stop bombarding with e mails. He seems to take exception to me posting some copyright expired pictures that he has paid someone for. I do this as a hobby for the enjoyment of others and just don’t want to know all this animosity – life’s far too short for that! for god’s sake it’s only a picture of an old ship!”

This site had a ton of great images of old ships, and it’s a shame that the author feels bullied into taking it down, but I do not fault him for doing so.

I don’t know when it will be back; I guess I may take the links out of the ShipIndex.org database, at least for the time being, though I hesitate to do that. I’m trying to decide what to do right now. What are your thoughts?

ShipIndex content in library discovery layers

One of the biggest changes in academic libraries over the past few years has been the development of “discovery layers”: collections of paid, unique data that are pre-indexed and then easily searched by specialized search engines.

For those readers not in the library industry, keep in mind that Google, Bing, Yahoo!, and other search engines cannot crawl through data that is in siloed, subscription database collections. That data is limited only to people and institutions that have paid for access to it. So, a big benefit that libraries have held over Google is offering the content inside these databases. Such databases range from big vendors who gather together (or “aggregate”) content from many different sources – examples include ProQuest, Gale, EBSCO, Project MUSE, and a variety of others – to smaller publishers or content providers who generate unique content that they believe they can offer for sale to individuals or institutions. The drawback, however, has been that it wasn’t easy to find all that data – you had to go to each different silo and search that database to see if there was anything of interest there. And of course, first you had to know that each database (or silo) existed.

For a while librarians used “federated searching”, but it wasn’t a great solution. With a federated search tool (and they are still certainly in use in many libraries), the computer takes your search terms and goes out to search each of the many different databases that you’ve selected, waits for all the search results to come back, and then compiles the results together. In most cases, it’s not a very elegant solution, and it’s easy to see why the speed and simplicity of a Google search became so popular – even when the content wasn’t as good.

Google, of course, doesn’t go out and do a search the moment you type words into its search box; it has already reviewed and ‘indexed’ all of that content, and whatever it has indexed is what will be in the search results it provides to you.

So, library database vendors tried to create solutions that allow libraries to compete with Google in this area. Their strong differentiator is that the data they’re indexing is the subscription-based content, rather than data on the free web, which Google indexes. Examples of these are “EBSCO Discovery Service” from EBSCO, “Primo Central” from Ex Libris, “Summon” from Serials Solutions, a division of ProQuest, “Encore” from Innovative Interfaces, and a few others. (As an aside, I was a co-founder of Serials Solutions; I was involved in the sale of Serials Solutions to ProQuest, and remained with the company for a while after the sale; and was slightly involved with the development of Summon. While I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Summon – to the extent one can have a soft spot for a discovery layer, I suppose – I am today very interested in making sure that ALL institution patrons have access to the ShipIndex.org data, through ALL discovery layers.)

Content from ShipIndex.org is now indexed in Summon and EDS, and I’m looking to get it into other discovery layers, as well. Here’s an example of what search results look like at a library that subscribes to both ShipIndex.org and Summon, from Serials Solutions:

When a student does a search for a ship — in this case the Elizabeth Davidson — they find a citation for that vessel in ShipIndex.org, and a link to take them directly to the page for that ship. They didn’t even need to know that ShipIndex.org exists. They search in Summon (or EDS, Primo Central, or another discovery layer) and they find content that they wouldn’t have otherwise found.

To be clear, a library must subscribe to both a discovery layer and the underlying databases, for the databases’ contents to appear in the discovery layer. Discovery layers are definitely not cheap, but they do make a huge difference in improving how library patrons discover the resources that the library already subscribes to.

I’m pleased that ShipIndex.org’s data is in Summon and EDS, and I look forward to doing whatever I can to make it available to users of other discovery layers, as well.

Deleting data – sometimes it must be done

I had to delete content from the database this morning. I’ve delayed doing it for a long time, but it had to be done. The “Property Management & Archive Record System” database, created by the US Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, was actually a very useful database, but was removed temporarily – and then permanently – so I really had no choice but to remove its contents from the ShipIndex.org database.

I had written the following description of the database:

This resource, called “PMARS”, is the official repository of records about vessels that are or were parts of US Maritime Administration’s Naval Defense Reserve Force. As a result, it focuses on ships from World War II to the present. Only a few hundred vessels are still in NDRF, but PMARS contains information about nearly all ships (over 7000) that were included in NDRF at some point.

While the database contains “basic ship data” about each vessel, the “Custody Cards” and “Disposal Cards” are of particular interest. These are images of the printed, typed, or handwritten notes regarding disposition of each vessel.

I had a great experience at a library conference once, using the PMARS database. A special collections librarian from Occidental College, in California, wanted to learn more about a Victory ship called “Occidental Victory”, named after her institution. (Victory ships were slightly larger and more powerful than Liberty ships; both were quickly-built cargo ships used extensively during World War II, and critical to Allied success in the war.) We looked up “Occidental Victory” in the ShipIndex.org database, and found a record from PMARS. It included digitized images of the ship’s Disposal Card, which showed the history of the ship and its final outcome.

The database also showed that the Maritime Administration still owned the binnacle for the ship, and was willing to loan it to museums and libraries for exhibits! She was thrilled to discover this, and said she wanted to create an exhibit about the ship, and of course borrow the binnacle for the exhibit. I don’t know that this ever happened, but to discover the binnacle was available was, I thought, really neat.

The digitized Disposal Cards and Custody Cards were great items, too, and it’s such a shame that these things are no longer available online. One might think that in our digital environment, such items wouldn’t be lost or taken off-line. But when it happens (and it happens more often than one might think), the data is lost for good, because it wasn’t backed up elsewhere, such as in the form of multiple physical copies in many different libraries.

For a while, the PMARS links redirected you to a page that said something to the effect of, “for more information, contact ____.” So I did. A little over a year ago I contacted people at the US Maritime Administration to ask what had happened to PMARS, and if it was coming back. I got a nice, quick response, and was told that PMARS had been taken off-line “due to security concerns”, that great bugaboo of meaninglessness. It was expected to return in mid-2012, in the form of two different databases, but that didn’t happen.

Now, the links are simply dead, and take you nowhere. If PMARS does come back, in whatever form, I’ll quickly return it to the ShipIndex.org database. Until then, I feel the proper thing to do is to remove the content from the database.

But I do anticipate adding a lot of new content in the very near future; I have a project going on that should, if all goes well, add lots of great new content in the next ten days. It won’t replace the content lost from the loss of the PMARS database, but perhaps that will, in fact, come back some day.

“The Genealogy Event” in NYC, and Glazier ‘Immigrants to America’ series

I went to a great genealogy conference in New York City a few weeks ago. It was just before Hurricane Sandy came through; we knew the storm was coming, but we didn’t know how bad it was going to be.

The conference itself, though, was great. Called simply “The Genealogy Event”, it took place at The Metropolitan Pavilion, which was a beautiful space. I particularly liked the wood floor, rather than the standard poured concrete. A range of exhibitors attended, and it was fun for me to see folks I’d met at previous conferences, as well as meet some new ones. It was great to see a genealogy conference in a super-major city. NGS and FGS conferences are almost always in smaller cities, so putting this unaffiliated, independent event in a big city was a great move.

Interactions with attendees were also great; one highlight definitely was seeing a friend from library school who I hadn’t seen in maybe 10 years. I guess I knew he was in Manhattan, but it is a big place – it’s not likely that you’ll run into someone you know there, to say nothing of inside the conference hall!

I had two separate versions of another very interesting interaction. A woman came to me with a copy of her ancestor’s naturalization papers. On it, her ancestor had recorded his arrival at Ellis Island on board the ship Le Havre in about 1906, if I remember correctly. She told me that the folks at Ellis Island had said no ship existed with that name, and she wanted to see if I could help. I quickly looked up “le havre” in the database, and did expect to find a lot of ships with that name. However, in fact, there were just a handful of entries, and their timing didn’t match with passenger vessels of that era at all.

Now, granted, there are many, many ships that are not (yet) included in the ShipIndex.org database. But for immigration ships, I’d say it’s pretty comprehensive. Records for that time period are quite complete, and lots of databases and books cover the period (to say nothing of entries in, say, the magazine Steamboat Bill / PowerShips). Given the total lack of entries for that period, I felt that the folks at Ellis Island were correct. I pointed out that the date on the naturalization papers was 20-some years after the ancestor said he’d arrived, so it’s reasonable to assume that he just remembered incorrectly. Or, perhaps, his English was still not very good when he completed the form, and when an officer asked him what ship he arrived on, he instead answered with where he sailed from.

The solution to tracking this down, I think, is to look at the appropriate volumes edited by Ira Glazier & others, such as Italians to America, Germans to America, etc. These books, which transcribe thousands of passenger lists from the National Archives, are organized by date, then by vessel name. So if the ancestor’s date of arrival was correct (certainly not a given, since the ship name was wrong), then the researcher could locate the appropriate volume – first by nationality (for the proper series), then by date (for the proper volume), then by day, and then look at vessel entries.

One huge disappointment about these volumes (for me) is that they have no vessel index to them. Since they were clearly machine-processed, it would seem a vessel index would have been easy to generate, but as far as I can tell, it wasn’t done. A year or so ago I had a bee in my bonnet about creating such an index, but I tried one path to doing it and found it to not work. After these interactions in NYC, I went back to trying it. My results were actually better than I’d expected, but I am still afraid it will take far too long to do this work. I’ll keep thinking about it, though. I would love to make it work; I think a vessel index to those volumes would be incredibly valuable.

In any case, and even without the important vessel index, these Glazier volumes are a valuable tool. While I’m not certain of it, I believe that these volumes are not included in Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, FindMyPast.com, or any other genealogy aggregated databases. There are so many resources that are not in these mega-databases; they’re fantastic places to start, but it’s important to not stop there!

In the spirit of encouraging further research in this area, here is a list of all the Glazier “Immigrants to America” volumes of which I am aware. Two series, Italians to America and Emigration from the United Kingdom to America, are still being published.

  • Germans to America: Lists of Passengers Arriving at US Ports.
    • 67 volumes, covering January 1850 to June 1897.
  • Germans to America, Series II: Lists of Passengers Arriving at US Ports in the 1840s.
    • Seven volumes, covering January 1840 to December 1849.
  • Italians to America: Lists of Passengers Arriving at US Ports.
    • 28 volumes so far, covering January 1880 to April 1905.
      (Vols. 27 & 28 were published in June 2012, by Scarecrow Press.)
  • Emigration from the United Kingdom to America: Lists of Passengers Arriving at US Ports.
    • 18 volumes so far, currently covering January 1870 to December 1881.
      (Vols. 17 & 18 were published two weeks ago [Nov 2012], by Scarecrow Press.)
  • Migration from the Russian Empire: List of Passengers Arriving at the Port of New York.
    • Six volumes, covering January 1875 to June 1891.
  • The Famine Immigrants: Lists of Irish Immigrants Arriving at the Port of New York, 1846-1851.
    • Seven volumes, covering January 1846 to December 1851.

(Thanks to Jared Hughes at Rowman & Littlefield for helping me confirm the publishing information above.)

 

The Genealogy Event was a great event. I hope it’ll become an annual event; I plan to attend as often as I can.

“Connecting Seas” 2013-14 Academic Year at Getty Research Institute

The Getty Research Institute’s 2013-14 academic year will be devoted to exploring the art historical impact of maritime traffic and trade.

From an announcement on the H-Net network:

The Getty Research Institute and the Getty Villa invite proposals for the 2013–2014 academic year, “Connecting Seas: Cultural and Artistic Exchange,” residential grants and fellowships. The theme aims to explore the art-historical impact of maritime transport: how bodies of water have served, and continue to facilitate, a rich and complex interchange in the visual arts from ancient times to the present day. Scholars actively engaged in studying the role of artists, patrons, priests, merchants, and explorers in oceanic exchange are encouraged to apply, and projects focusing on the Pacific are particularly welcome.

See the more complete description at the Getty site. Application deadline is 1 November 2012.

More on US Navy ship naming

A member of the MARHST-L discussion list pointed out a fairly recent Congressional Research Service document about the naming of US Naval vessels, titled “Navy Ship Names: Background for Congress“. It’s an interesting read. As a CRS document, it just provides background, and doesn’t discuss whether previous actions are right or wrong, but it sure does highlight how mixed-up the US Navy’s current approach to ship naming is.

I assume (but don’t know for sure) that this report is part of the response to a Senate Amendment to the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act, adopted November 30, 2011, which called on the Secretary of Defense to submit a report to Congress within 180 days that contained an overview of the past naming of navaly ships, and recommendations for the future. This document is dated January 6, 2012, so I imagine it makes up the first part of the report to Congress. I would be interested to see how long it takes the Navy to develop the ‘policies’ part of the response.

I certainly hope the Navy, and its Naval History and Heritage Command, comes up with some much more specific policies on how ships should be named, and then sticks to them. It makes sense that aircraft carriers should be named after presidents (but should they only be named after good presidents?), and that, say, attack submarines should be named after states, and destroyers named after naval leaders and heroes. And so on, and so on. What seems most important to me is that they develop a sensible policy, and stick to it. It would be nice to be able to identify the type of vessel based on its type of name. (I realize that wouldn’t always be the case, but it’d be nice if it were nearly always the case.)

There should also be an inviolate policy that no individual be considered to have a ship named after them until 12 months have passed since their death.

But we’ll have to wait and see. If you hear of the release of the final document before I do, please let me know here.

Holding on to the stuff that works

I’ve been dealing with a lot of challenges lately – mostly technology-related (which, alas, is certainly the most important aspect of the business), but also sales, marketing, desktop support (that is, my desktop), time management, QuickBooks, kid’s health, and more – but I was reminded yesterday about one thing that does work. I sometimes feel like I need to grab on to those things that work and pay attention to them, except that the fact that I don’t need to pay attention to them is what makes them so great, and makes them work.

Our graphic designer, Luara Moore, is a godsend. Seriously. I’m gonna put some ads in some maritime history magazines, and she created these ads so quickly that I really don’t know what to do. They’re not due for weeks, but I’ll be able to submit them today. Then, when I came up with a very last-minute (ie, yesterday) idea for a banner to create for the Public Library Association conference – which opens next Wednesday – she had a first draft for me in just a few hours. She took my thoughts on what it should look like, incorporated most and improved others, and had a result back to me right away. I replied last night, I’ll get a final result back today, I’ll put the order in today, and I’ll get the result by Tuesday. (In theory. But the printer I usually use, PSPrint, is really great, too, so I trust they’ll get it done and shipped on time.)

Lue created our original logo back in 2009, and I don’t ever want it to change. I love the theme and the structure she’s put into all of our collateral, from brochures to postcards to web design to banners and signage to bottle openers. If it’s graphic and ShipIndex, Lue did it.

So, while I work on trying to put my technology world back together, and then try to reclaim all the time that could have been spent on sales and marketing, I will cling to the logo and collateral I love, and thank Lue for creating at least one part of this business that works like a proper, effective, and efficient machine.

Report from Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE

A week ago, I traveled to London to attend the Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE genealogy event, at Olympia National Hall, in London. It was a great event, and I hope to return in the future.

I have managed exhibiting at conferences for a long time, both for ShipIndex.org and for my previous company. And I have attended conferences at Olympia before, for the previous company – but I’d never managed putting on an exhibit overseas. There were a lot of challenges, from trying to find out how to get the appropriate unnecessary insurance before attending, to restructuring the website so people could pay in foreign currencies. I had to figure out a way to get internet access, when paying about £300 is absolutely out of the question. I had to figure out how many handouts to take with me, and ensure I kept them under the airline’s weight limit. (The limit is 50 lbs; my bag weighed in at 50.5. The overweight fee is $200! They let my bag through, though I was ready to take out a batch of postcards, if needed.) There are always a million little issues to deal with when preparing for a conference, and adding international travel to it certainly seems to double the number.

I left the US on Wednesday evening, via Newark. I arrived early Thursday morning, spent nearly an hour and a half waiting to go through UK Immigration (this was pretty appalling – at one point, when there were NO UK or EU citizens waiting to go through, five different booths were open, with UK Border Agency staff sitting there doing nothing, and they didn’t invite any of the non-EU or UK citizens who’d been in line for an hour to go through), and eventually got to the place where I was staying, in central London. I spent Thursday walking around London, past Buckingham Palace, through Trafalgar Square, around Covent Garden, and lots more, getting gifts for family and the cell-network dongle I was to use for internet access.

On Friday, I was ready to head to the show early – long before its opening at 1pm. I had an 11:30am appointment with a colleague, and figured all was set. When I did show up, with my very heavy suitcase, at about quarter to 10am, I started to get worried: the signs said the show opened at 10am, and when I got in, I discovered that it did, in fact, open at 10! I have no idea how I made the mistake, but I did. Anyway, it doesn’t take me too long to get set up, and I was up and operating by 10:15 at the latest.

Then, it was hard work, all day long. I talked with folks constantly, from 10:15 to about 5pm. Exhibits closed at 6:30 on Friday (which seemed to fit fairly well with a 1pm opening, on a Friday, I thought), and I was busy talking with folks all day long. I had grabbed a sandwich at Pret a Manger on my way in, and I took bites, when time allowed. Saturday and Sunday were similar: the show was just incredibly busy, and basically constant, until an hour or 90 minutes before it closed for the day. There was no lack of people in those last 60 to 90 minutes; it just wasn’t absolutely constant talking. My voice was pretty much gone at the end of Friday and Saturday, but had recovered on Saturday morning. Sunday morning, when it hadn’t recovered, I was worried what the day would be like, since I just didn’t know how long it would last!

One highlight of the show was how many people told me that my product was “brilliant”. My comments were “brilliant”. My assistance was “brilliant”. The cost of the database was “brilliant”. The fact that it existed was “brilliant”. The database in action was “brilliant”. My coming from America was “brilliant”. They even said “brilliant” as they left! I quickly realized that the exchange rate from British English to American English for “brilliant” is about 20:1, or maybe even more. But it was fun to hear so many people tell me ShipIndex.org is “brilliant!”, even if the word means different things to each of us.

 

One thing that often drives me crazy is when exhibitors start packing up early. There may be situations when that’s necessary – to catch a train or a plane, for instance – but most of the time, they’re just tired and want to get out of there. I think packing up early is almost rude, especially when it impacts other exhibitors.

It’s also kind of dumb. At a previous company, we quickly learned that the folks who show up in the last few minutes are the ones who are making a definite point of getting to your booth, and they care a lot about what you’re doing. There’s a very high likelihood that the folks who come up in the last few minutes really want to buy your product. So I always stick it out. This show, actually, wasn’t as bad as the library conferences I’ve attended, and I heard much less of the loud “brrr-aaapppp” of strapping tape being applied well before the show closes.

About ten or fifteen minutes before the show shut down at 5pm, a woman came up to the booth, said “Oh, I’m so glad you’re still here!” and gave me the best experience of the show.

She explained that her father had been in the Royal Navy, and her mother had been a WAVES officer in the US Navy. She had a number of images of ships that she wanted to learn more about, and told me about another image, which unfortunately she didn’t have with her. One image was of a minesweeper with the hull number “J463” on its side, but no vessel name visible. I knew that a number of entries in the ShipIndex.org database have hull numbers in it, so a quick search of “J463” returned HMS Ossory. She was quite impressed at my finding this so quickly, as was another woman who was watching nearby – I think the other woman almost thought it was a setup! This was almost certainly one of the ships her father had served on.

The photos she hadn’t brought were of her mother launching a ship in Mobile, Alabama, late in World War II. (Her parents had met in Mobile when her father had been sent there to oversee construction of several ships destined for the Royal Navy, via the Lend-Lease Program, she explained.) We talked a bit about them and I said I’d try to help her learn more about the ship in question after she sends me a copy of the image. I do hope she’ll do that; I know it will be a while before she does, but I hope I’m able to help her discover more about her family, and particularly something about this remarkable event, of her mother being sponsor of a warship!

We talked for quite a while, and I didn’t start breaking down my stuff until about 5:15, at which point of course many people were well on their way to being done, but it was very much worth the long conversation with her.

I had many other similar interactions. One time, a person explained she was looking for a ship called “Maid of Sussex”. We didn’t find any ship with that name in the database, so I did a search just for “Sussex”, and found a ship named Sussex Maid. We figured that was probably the ship, and then the website took us to this incredible image of the ship.

 

Another man had heard family stories about an ancestor who had been aboard a ship called “Madge Doubtfire”. Again, we didn’t find any ships by that name, but when I did a search just for “Madge”, we found Madge Wildfire, which was pretty clearly the actual ship he’d been looking for. Making connections like that for folks was truly fantastic for me.

While I was at the show I learned about another genealogy conference in Dublin, and I may consider going to that show. These shows are expensive, especially when one is coming from the US, but it was a great experience. I’d like to see if I can attend WDYTYA?Live in the future; sometimes just the experiences like those above make the travel worth the costs and challenges.

Some more challenging website problems

I discovered yesterday that some people are having problems creating accounts and then subscribing to the database. This appears to be a result of a restructuring of our backend, which was incredibly valuable, but had some unintended badness. Testing before release didn’t uncover these problems, and in fact they continue to be difficult to nail down – though there is no question at all that they are happening.

The technical team is working on it and I hope we’ll have a solution live as quickly as possible. If you have information to share about what didn’t work for you, that could help us troubleshoot the problem, and I’ll also be sure to let you know when everything is working again.

Having these problems right after returning from the genealogy show at Olympia, in London, is incredibly frustrating, but I suppose there’s never a good time for these problems to crop up. We’ll get them straightened out as soon as we can.

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.