2012: A New Year for ShipIndex

2012 will be a new and different year for ShipIndex.org, on many levels. We (I; more on that in a bit) are/am changing the direction in a bunch of different ways. I intend to spend a number of blog posts spelling out what those changes look like, and how they’ll impact the site on its own.

As some background, the original ShipIndex.org started back in 1999, while I (Peter) worked as a reference librarian at the University of Washington. It was strictly a side project and wasn’t even at its own domain for quite a while. Eventually, I moved it to ShipIndex.org, and didn’t bother (alas) to purchase ShipIndex.com while I was at it. I scanned and OCR’d the indexes to several dozen important books in maritime history, and put them on the web. I kept working at it until I had about 100,000 citations online, which I thought was a pretty cool number of citations.

The site wasn’t used much, though I didn’t have a good way of tracking that, such as it was. It wasn’t very Google friendly, so it was hard for anyone to find. Then, more importantly, I started another company with my brothers and a high school friend. As that company took off, I had less and less time to devote to ShipIndex. Some time in 2008 or 2009, after lots of corporate and family changes, I decided I wanted to get back to ShipIndex. After all, the truth is (but don’t tell anyone) I care much more about maritime history than I do about e-journal management. Like I said, don’t tell anyone.


In 2009, when I left the other company, I wanted to make ShipIndex much bigger (in terms of its database, really) and turn it into a real company. So I got one brother to help me in creating a much more effective and Google-friendly database with a freemium model that (as of the end of 2011) has nearly 2.3 million citations in the complete database.

Frankly, I’m of two minds about the site right now: I am excited about being able to make maritime history easier to access online. I don’t have any problem charging for access to the premium database, as I believe that, for those who are seeking such information, the work I’ve done in creating this database is incredibly valuable: it saves enormous amounts of time when looking for information on specific ships, and also uncovers paths to previously unknown sources of information. I firmly believe that the small cost for the site uncovers incredible new sources of research, and is well worth it.

On the other hand, growth is slower than I’d like, and uptake among institutions, especially, has been disappointing. I’ve exhibited at many library conferences – an industry I know pretty well – and even at institutions that have maritime programs, and where they say they want to at least trial the product, once we all get home and I contact them, they’re no longer interested.


As I said, 2012 will be a new year in many ways. One way will be that I intend to share more information than I have in the past about how I’m trying to grow and improve the company, and the challenges I find I’m facing. This could be a mistake: perhaps some will feel that they don’t want to risk purchasing from a company when they discover that, at this point, there’s really only one person hiding behind the curtain. But perhaps more will recognize what I feel I’m trying to do here, in creating a company that provides a true value to genealogists and historians who want to fill the gaps in their research regarding specific ships.

I guess these entries, like many other things I’ve done so far with ShipIndex, will be an experiment. One great thing about ShipIndex.org so far is that it’s been quite an effective space for trying experiments – I can’t tell you how many different things I’ve tried so far. Some have worked; many others haven’t. I’m doing my best to keep trying different things, tossing out those that don’t work, and keeping (and expanding on) those that do.

I’ll keep you posted, and if you have thoughts or opinions on what’s working and what isn’t, I’d love to hear them, either in the comments below, or in an email to peter(at)shipindex(dot)org.

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