Genealogy Hacked: Who’s Who in TN Project

Who's Who in TN

[Editor’s Note: Have you ever stumbled upon a genealogy resource and were not just amazed, but you also wanted to share it with the world? That is how we at Hack Genealogy felt when we heard about the Who’s Who in TN project over at the TNGenWeb Project. Right away, we knew we wanted more than just a cursory review of this new resource . . . we also wanted to interview Taneya Koonce, the brains behind this beauty of a website.]

If you had to give an elevator speech about the Who’s Who in TN project, what would it be?

The Who’s Who in TN project is designed to make often-overlooked biographical information easier to find, search, and share. Since we’ve started, the book text itself has been scanned and made available online as a PDF by FamilySearch, but by leveraging the categorization and social features of a content management system, the goal for this project was to make that information more accessible for our county researchers. The emphasis was to organize profiles by county.

How did the idea of creating the Who’s Who in TN website get started?

I came across the biographies in the Who’s Who in Tennessee: A Biographical Reference Book of Notable Tennesseans of Today (1911) book approximately two years ago and I knew right away it would be a great resource to have online. At that time, it was not yet online with FamilySearch. I could have chosen to do as they did, just digitize it and post it, but I wanted to make the relationship between individual and county much more explicit. I am an information professional in my day job, and indexing is a love of mine . . . so I decided, why not create a database to more fully index the entries? I had gotten my first real experience with crowd-sourced indexing from the 1940 Census where I coordinated about 50 people who were indexing on behalf of TNGenWeb. We did an awesome job with that effort -placing in the top 10 for the large society groups on the 1940 Census Indexing Leadership Board. Once the indexing was over, I moved on to a new endeavor and the Who’s Who project was born.

Let’s talk logistics and the project itself. Can you give us a brief timeline as to the process involved?

I knew that this project would require help from volunteers, so I initially started exploring different ways to do that. Not finding any off-the-shelf options that I felt would work for our needs, I decided to go old-school just send PDF files of the pages to volunteers. Then, in turn, they would post those entries to the WordPress site. The volunteer transcriptions started just about one year ago. I wanted to have a sizable amount of bios online before publicly announcing the database, thus, we have just begun to share it publicly as we now have more than 1,500 bios posted. Overall, it’s been about one year of work. Keep in mind this is balanced by our non-genealogy lives too! I work full-time and have a family of 7 so we all have to go offline every now and then.

What about scanning the book, transcribing text, and getting the contents up on the TNGenWeb Project site? What was involved?

The book copy I have is quite fragile and would not have stood up to a scanner and I don’t have access to a book scanner. Taking pictures with my phone served as my scanner. I tried the CamScanner app for a while, but found it faster to edit pictures in Picasa, and then save the images as PDF for distribution to volunteers. I would typically send about 10 pages at a time to each volunteer, using a Google Docs spreadsheet to track completion rates. Volunteers could either return the transcriptions to me in a Word document, or learn how to post the bios directly to the WordPress website. After each bio was posted, I would review them, tag them with appropriate categories and tags if the volunteer had not already done so, and then publish them.

This project had to take a lot of volunteers and volunteer hours. Did the volunteers come on board with set skills or was this an opportunity for them to learn new skills?

Over the course of the year we’ve had about 10 volunteers contribute their time. None of them had ever used WordPress before, so that was a learning opportunity for them all! One or two have stuck with using just Word to share the bios with me, but all the others posted directly to the site, even applying categories and tags as per the instructions. WordPress makes it easy to have site contributors, so you’ll notice on the Who’s Who site that each post has the name of the person who did the transcription.

The technology: what platform did you choose for Who’s Who in TN? What others did you look at, but didn’t choose? Did you need to upgrade any of the TNGenWeb Project infrastructure in terms of memory, disk space, new servers?

I ultimately decided to use WordPress, though I did heavily consider a standard php/MySQL database. In the end, while a php/MySQL database would have offered advantages in terms of granularity of the indexing, I chose WordPress because of its ease of use for contributors, for making site updates truly explicit with the built-in RSS feeds, and for the many design options available with themes. While I can cobble together a php/mysql site, a WP one would look much more professional given my limited technical skill set! In terms of infrastructure, the TNGenWeb site is on a shared hosting platform and we’ve run WordPress installations for two years with success. As this new site has been used more, we have noticed slightly slower loading times, so I’m currently investigating using cache plugins to improve loading times for our visitors. Another benefit is the search engine optimization currently built into WordPress. Our entries show up in Google very quickly and until this weekend most of our traffic had been through Google searches.

It looks like you’ve incorporated the latest social media hooks into the project like an RSS feed. Why is this important?

This is important because as much as possible, I believe in pushing information out to researchers. It wastes their time to assume they need to come to you and see what is new when there are mainstream options, such as RSS feeds, for pushing data to users. The USGenWeb is a data-driven project and our goal is to get data into the hands of the researchers that want it. What better way than RSS or email subscription options! For some of my individual county sites I have close to 100 people signed up to get updates by email. That means, each and every time we add new information, they are getting it directly. I think this is great for increasing the relevance and visibility of the USGenWeb.

What is your role with TNGenWeb and what other projects have you worked on?

I am currently the State Coordinator, a role I’ve had for the past two years. I also maintain a few of the county sites in the state. For the TNGenWeb, I am also in the process of organizing projects for yearbook indexing and newspaper indexing. For the NCGenWeb I’ve also done similar projects such as constructing a newspaper indexing project (NC People in the Papers and a yearbook indexing project (NC Yearbook Index I am also constructing a WordPress-based site for indexing items from Florida newspapers for the FLGenWeb. I also help coordinators in these states use WordPress for their own sites if interested and am happy that we have about 30-40% of our coordinators in both states using WordPress (or other content management systems (CMS)). It is great to see that kind of uptake as I believe they truly see the value in what CMS platforms can offer.

In closing, if another genealogy or historical society – or even an individual – wanted to take on a similar project, do you have any advice?

I think this is a great model for the various ways we can all bring more information online. Especially when it comes to older material that is already publicly available but not organized in a way that is most efficient for genealogists and family historians. My advice would be to consider what your goals are, plan accordingly and just get started! WordPress may or may not be the right option for you, but it is an easy entry-point into crowd-sourcing projects in a way that doesn’t intimidate volunteers.

Taneya Koonce is a genealogy blogger with a passion for contributing to the USGenWeb Project. She is currently State Coordinator for TNGenWeb Project, webmaster and an Assistant State Coordinator for the NCGenWeb and an ASC for FLGenWeb. In her work with the USGenWeb she actively promotes the use of technology. Visit her blog, My Genealogy Blog, at

©2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee

About the Author

Thomas MacEntee
Genealogy educator and author Thomas MacEntee has been researching his family history for more than 40 years and is the creator of Abundant Genealogy, Genealogy Bargains, DNA Bargains, The Genealogy Do-Over and numerous other web-based genealogy and family history properties.

Comments are closed.