Thursday, March 4, 2021
At each milestone I've repeated the story about how I started Cyndi's List and first published it on March 4, 1996. At my local society meeting I shared one page full of genealogy bookmarks started the ball rolling. I've told the story time and again when asked, "How did you get started with Cyndi's List?" For that story, see my blog post from the 20 year anniversary here: http://cyndislist.blogspot.com/2015/06/it-all-began-20-years-ago.html
What I don't ever get asked is why I continue to maintain the web site and what it means to me. Now after 25 years I'm getting a little emotional and introspective about it all. I live in Washington state, but my ancestry is all in the Midwest and east of the Mississippi. Prior to the Internet, genealogical research for me was hard to do and it was expensive. I couldn't afford to travel back east to visit cemeteries and courthouses or to meet with long-lost cousins. My research was always done in local libraries and archives and via snail mail requests. Local repositories had piecemeal collections that would have a bit of this and a bit of that for me to use. There were big long gaps of time between tasks as I waited for a packet of records to arrive in the mail. Research was slow and tedious.
I had developed computer skills at my last job and was really excited when I was finally able to get my own computer and start to use it for my genealogical research. Prior to that I would use my Dad's computer for all of my data entry in a DOS version of Family Tree Maker. My new computer came with Windows 3.0, so I went head-long into learning everything I could about how to use this wonderful new tool for my research. I created my own research notes templates and logs. I learned the ins and outs of the databases and I customized fields that didn't come in those early versions of FTM. I became a member of my local genealogical society and at one meeting I approached a local professional genealogist and asked her how I could use my computer skills to work from home or to help others. I vividly remember getting a blank stare and a shrug of her shoulders in reply. I was a bit defeated. Then in the summer of 1995 I got a new computer with a modem and pre-installed AOL software. This online world was brand new to me, but I was ready to explore.
Within the AOL universe there were forums. The Genealogy Forum offered a place to meet fellow genealogists, participate in chats, trade files and tools, and to learn from or help others. And from there I followed links out onto the Internet itself. That's when it started. I fell in love with the Internet. It was made for me and it was made for genealogy. I started keeping track of genealogy web sites in my bookmarks. First, it was just those sites which would be useful to me in my research. Then I started tracking all of them so that I could share what I found with others. I realized this was how I could start to help others with their research. My isolation as a genealogist in Washington state, tucked up in the corner of the contiguous U.S., was no longer a liability. I could be helpful and make a difference.
My list of bookmarks became a one-page document that I shared with TPCGS members at our September 1995 meeting. That became a five-page article in the fall quarterly for TPCGS. And after teaching myself how to write HTML, I published a personal genealogy web site with one web page for that list of bookmarks. 1,025 categorized links on a page called Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet. I wrote a post on the Roots-L mailing list about my personal site and mentioned the list of links. People started emailing me to ask me to include links to their genealogy sites. The momentum on the site started then and hasn't stopped since.
What I learned immediately was that the Internet was growing exponentially and the popularity of its use for genealogy was rapidly overwhelming for everyone. In 1996 and through the next few years there were search engines, but they didn't always help you find what you hoped to find. The need for a categorized list of links for research was very clear based on the response I got to Cyndi's List and on what I found on web sites for repositories online. Early on the good stuff could be found via reciprocal links between libraries and archives, rather than traditional search engines. This is actually still true in many cases today. Within two months the number of links on Cyndi's List had doubled. Within a year it was up to 14,750 links. And I can vividly remember the email I received that first summer from a man who told me the one web page was too long and loaded too slowly (we were all still on dial-up). He suggested I break it up into individual category pages. That was the response that launched the future of the site—it was no longer just a personal list of bookmarks. I was now running it as a tool that others needed to use and wanted to use. My years in customer service prepared me for that because I started looking at it like a service I was providing for others. I recall many email conversations with genealogists who would ask for revisions, additions, and new categories. And as I honed my technical knowledge of computers and the Internet, I also learned more and more about genealogy. For example, I knew nothing about research in the Netherlands, but I learned about it from searching out web sites for me to link to. I was in heaven as I learned and as Cyndi's List grew.
For many years work on the site was like playing whack-a-mole. Here's a new topic, time to create a new category. Ooh, found some broken links, so quickly fix those. Uh-oh, I don't have anything for Swedish libraries? Hurry up and get those on the list. The requests came in faster than I could respond to them. I put up some roadblocks to keep personal emails from coming through once I had hit 500-600 daily messages in my Inbox. I added the form to submit new links and a tool for reporting broken links. That helped a lot. I read magazines and I participated in many online forums and mailing lists for genealogy. All of them helped me keep up with new sites and new ideas for how to categorize links. Along came search engines like Alta Vista, Hotbot, and Google. But none of them made a dent in slowing down the growth of Cyndi's List. I remember a lot about those early months and years as the site was forming and as I realized what a great need there was for it. I remember consciously making decisions about how it would run and how I would maintain it. I decided it would be FREE for everyone to use. I decided it was about research for everyone, not just what I needed to share. I decided that I would provide what a human genealogist could provide and what a software-driven search engine could not. I decided that every suggestion or criticism would be taken seriously and that I would respond as if my users were customers. I created an FAQ, a historical timeline, a mailing list, and got a permanent domain name for the site. By 1998 it was a full time job and even now I still work on it 10-12 hours each day. After that initial thought process of how and what the site would be, I can only see the intervening years as a blur of ongoing link whack-a-mole. The Internet grew, so Cyndi's List grew. The Internet changed, so Cyndi's List changed. By 2011 I had saved enough money to give the site a cosmetic overhaul and a fully functional backend that would make my workload easier.
Today Cyndi's List is 25 years old. It is still doing what I always intended it to do—provide a list of categorized links for genealogical research to help others find what they need. I sometimes hear from people who say "I used it for years, but now I just use Google." At which point my reply is, "If you don't know that something exists in the first place, how do you know to Google for it?" As a genealogist I search out genealogically-specific resources. And when I find the one I'm looking for I always find a dozen more at the same time. Additionally, Google may be the king of all search engines, but it lacks a lot of what we need as genealogists. Google has only indexed about 4% of the content of the Internet. It catches what it on top of the Internet-ocean, but things deep below the surface are not always Googleable. For example: things that are behind a subscription or pay-wall; things behind a members-only wall; things like catalogs and databases that are behind a search form. And other things that are hidden deep within web sites, several layers deep in sites like libraries and archives, often don't make it near the top of the search algorithm results. Cyndi's List is curated specifically for genealogy, so you don't get unrelated links and search hits as you do with Google. The categorized links are all related to one another by topic, so if you fine one of interest you find several together. Something Google cannot do for you. The best use of Cyndi's List is to browse the categories and sub-categories for inspiration and to locate new resources that you may not find in other ways. Google is a software-driven search engine. Cyndi's List is driven by a human being with more than 40 years of genealogical experience.
After all these years people still don't often believe me when I say that I am the only person who works on the site. It's true, it's just me. This is my job, but it's also my life's work and my passion. I still enjoy what I do and still find it rewarding, particularly when I hear of success stories from all of you. I am happy to keep providing Cyndi's List as a genealogical research tool for everyone to use. I gratefully accept new link submissions and reports of broken links. Please let me know about these whenever you can. When you help me, I can keep helping you and everyone else. Thank you for 25 years of support and encouragement. Here is to many more years of successful research!
Donations gratefully accepted: