NYG&B Labs: Creating an interactive search tool for family historians


The following article was written to share my experience as an NYG&B Labs intern as well as the project on which I worked: Mapping The Record

The first two paragraphs introduce why and how I found this opportunity. Paragraphs three through five describe the project’s purpose and similar efforts that were successfully completed before it. And the sixth through eighth paragraphs summarize the tasks I performed, the issues that presented themselves, and my overall impression of the project to which I was selected to contribute.


How I discovered NYG&B Labs

I first learned of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYG&B) and their internship program after a simple internet search for careers in genealogy that required a background in library and information science (LIS).

Although the graduate school - from which I recently earned a master’s degree in the field - offered a course on genealogy, its learning objectives were for future reference librarians helping family historians research, identify, and access the most useful information for their needs. As someone who had focused their studies on information organization/description/analysis/retrieval and web programming, I was looking for an internship in these areas of specialization.

When I reviewed the NYG&B Labs web pages, I was excited to see the training opportunities that were interdisciplinary in nature, several of which combined what I studied in library school.

While considering which project might be the best fit for me, I was struck by how much the field of genealogy has evolved over the past few decades. Through my visits to mainstream websites about genealogy, I was already familiar with how certain technologies were being utilized, namely genealogy software, social networking sites, digitization, and DNA testing.

One recent web-based tool, mapping, has been gaining momentum in the genealogy community, and was one of the projects with which NYG&B allowed interns to assist. Luckily, my decision to apply for an NYG&B Labs opportunity led to an invitation to contribute to the organization’s mapping project. 


About the project

NYG&B’s mapping project, currently in its beta phase, is two-fold: to visually display geographical locations on an internet web map; and to list the titles of articles, published in The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, that include relevant information about the location being shown on the web map.

Although this objective is simple, its purpose is far-reaching. For the contributors to The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, or The Record, their work can be searched and displayed through the important lense of location - a true milestone for one of our country’s oldest genealogical journals.

Furthermore, on the user’s side, genealogists – regardless of their level of training – can quickly locate material for their aims from NYG&B’s resources, and do so in a more interactive way. Lastly, for information and metadata specialists, like myself, the mapping project is one demonstration of how information can be organized and stored for retrieval.

At present, there are already several indexes for The Record that have been digitized and made available online for public use:

  • Worden’s Name Index
  • An author index
  • A title index;
  • A two-part subject index

The first subject index covers the publication from 1870 to 1982 and was created by Jean Worden. The second was created by Harry Macy, Jr. and covers the publication from 1983 to the present.

The every-name index is searchable online with fields in which users enter keywords or click on a letter of an alphabet to retrieve a list of family names beginning with a certain letter; while the other three indexes are downloadable pdf files that are best made use of with the search bar that appears when a computer keyboard’s CTRL and F keys are pressed at the same time.

Similar to Worden’s Name index, the index being created for NYG&B Lab’s mapping project employs a web page with search fields. The search queries a database of Record articles with the following fields: 

  • Article title
  • Article author
  • Location
  • Volume

Users can search all of these fields at once, or each one individually. There is also a dropdown menu containing every location that is related to a Record article, and the user can select each location from a drop-down menu to see all articles related to that location. 

When articles from The Record are retrieved from the database after a user enters their keyword(s), at least one pin will appear on the page’s map designating the geographical location(s) indexed from the article, and at least one journal article listing will display below the map.

Each journal article listed provides its title and author, the location indexed, the article’s volume and issue number, as well as the page number found in each journal issue’s table of contents.


Indexing The Record by location

My contribution to the mapping project was to store information in an spreadsheet about each journal article’s bibliographic information and select geographical locations from each article using established criteria by NYG&B’s Digital Services Manager, Fred Wertz.

For each article I reviewed in The Record for the mapping project, I extracted the following geographical information:

  • The New York State city/town name and county name
  • The county name only (if no city name could be confirmed)
  • The New York City county name followed by “New York City” (if the location was in New York City) 
  • A colonial name (if applicable)
  • An “out of state” designation for any place outside of New York.

Place names were chosen if they were included in an article’s title or if the author tied the location to a birth, marriage, or death of the primary person listed in a compiled genealogy. If a location could not be identified with these criteria, then the scope was broadened to include a place name of, for example, a burial location, a city or county that could be deduced as where spent their life up to or until they died, or where a person was said to be “of”; and the latter of which what was used in the case of names in articles on slave manumissions of African Americans.


Challenges of location-based indexing

Although the indexing criteria that guided my work for the mapping project were easy to understand, I did face some challenges which raised questions such as: How should lesser-known locations, including colonial locations, be verified?

What should the maximum number of locations be in an article with place names of equal importance (e.g., all births/marriages/deaths, all cities/counties based on doctor’s visits, etc.)?

If a location falls outside of the criteria, should it be entered into the spreadsheet with an internal note, if it is even entered at all?

If an article in The Record is a transcription from a bible, which location information should be included if it does not fit any of the established criteria?

Considering these and other questions that came up was beneficial in a couple of ways. First, it helped me better interpret the criteria I used while indexing articles from The Record. But more importantly, the responses given and decisions made helped my internship supervisor revise the indexing guidelines so that future contributors who might grapple with the same issues can understand how they were handled during the beta phase of this project.


What I learned

My work on NYG&B Lab’s web mapping project is, fortunately, not yet over. Aside from sharpening my skills within this type of indexing, I am reminded of the bigger picture with each issue that I index: the necessity of family historians, the importance of genealogical societies and the publications they create that give a voice to the past, and the pioneering efforts made by genealogists and other professionals that can not only contribute to twenty-first-century genealogy but give it the dynamism of our digital age.

I hope the mapping project continues after I have done my part, and may it serve as an inspiration for like-minded organizations to brainstorm similar ways to breathe life into the contributions their family historians have offered to humanity.