Note from Robert Ragan: This is a "classic" interview that I did with Cyndi Howells way back in February 1997. The original article was titled: "Behind the Scenes with 'Categorizing Queen' Cyndi Howells, Creator of the Web's Best Genealogy Directory."

I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at genealogy in the "pioneer days" of the Web. Cyndi started her amazing genealogy directory in 1996, so this interview was soon after she started.

Now Cyndi's List is a resource that is part of the backbone of on-line genealogy world. Enjoy the interview:

This month the spotlight shines on the sleepy town of Puyallup, Washington, USA, where you will find one of today's most dedicated on-line genealogy pioneers hard at work. Cyndi Howells spends 8 to 12 hour each day keeping one of the Internet's greatest genealogical treasures current and accurate.

See: Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet

This site has won many awards and has been featured in several newspapers and genealogy columns. If you have not been here yet - prepare to be impressed.

Cyndi told me that she once read that "the Internet is like a huge library with all it's book strewn on the floor." With the help and encouragement from her husband Mark, she started to organize the genealogy section of this library in a helpful and unique manner.

What makes this directory so different is the WAY that it is cataloged. Cyndi will dig deep into a single genealogy site and break it down into small, appropriately categorized links. Here is how it began:

Cyndi said: "We bought a new computer in June of 1995 and it had a modem and several software programs for online access. Mark had just started online at work and kept bugging me to give it a try. He had NO idea what he was setting himself up for!

I am eternally organized and have to have boxes, baskets, folders, etc. to put everything into. So I started bookmarking every genealogy site that I found and put them in nice neat little bookmark folders with category headings. The first meeting of the Tacoma-Pierce County Genealogical Society in September is always show and tell. I hadn't gotten up in front of the group before, but I thought I should tell everyone how I had gotten online and found all these great genealogy sites.

I took 10 copies of a two page printout of my bookmarks and very nervously told everyone that I'd be happy to share. They jumped on me like a pack of ravenous wolves! And then they wanted more!! You know how we genealogists can be! Nancy Peterson, editor of 'The Researcher,' innocently asked me if I could put together a longer list – oh 5 or 6 pages. 'Sure thing! Would you like them in a broader range of categories, Nancy?' To that date I had been collecting only those that interested me. So I was heading down the path that I'm on now.

The next thing my husband bugged me about was putting up our own Web page. In February I started visiting HTML tutorials online and began monkeying around with bits of code. On March 4, 1996 I put our main page online.

It had copies of articles we had written for the South Hill FHC, articles we had written for ourselves and links to a few other resources that we thought were important. I thought that I might as well put up my list of bookmarks too! I had 1,025 bookmarks, all on one page in a dozen or more categories. I kept updating it and people started to notice it and sent me more URLs. When the page got too big and slow to load, I moved sections off onto their own pages one by one. I began spending about an hour or two online everyday. I am now online all day long and sometimes into the night. I have to be just to keep up with the email alone! In just a little over 10 months the list has grown to over 13,800 links in over 60 categories (more than 1,000 a month).

UPDATE: Today, in January 2008, Cyndi's List
has over 254,750 links in 180+ categories!

The main reason I work on this list and actively participate in the Society is that I believe genealogy should be a sharing and cooperative hobby. If we all work together voluntarily we can make the Internet a very easy community to exchange our personal research information in. There should be a feeling of "giving back to the community" in what we do. I don't have any of my own personal research in this area (and don't really know diddly about research in Washington), so I've tried to participate in the society and the Internet community by offering something that I'm good at – slogging through the Internet digging up valuable resources for people to use and then making it easy for people to find those resources via my list.

My philosophy on the Internet: It's not THE answer to everything because you won't be able to just plug in a name and get your entire pedigree to pop up in front of you (some people actually believe you can do that). However I think it’s the MOST powerful tool in our collective genealogy toolbox (FHCs, libraries, societies, etc.) It gives us the power to communicate all over the world in a matter of minutes, so that we have answers to questions in a fraction of the time we would have via snail mail. It saves us time & money normally spent on postage, return postage, packages, paper, etc. It gives us the opportunity to sit in the comfort of our own homes (in our jammies & sweats!), at our convenience and sift through a stranger's GEDCOM file or a library card catalog clear across the country. No worries about time zone differences. It makes the advertising of information, questions, queries, genealogy products, etc. a very easy thing to do.

Learning about specialized areas of research may have been impossible in the past (or at least very hard to find out about), but now we have sites to access about Wendish, Mennonites, Quakers, Jewish genealogy, Germans from Russia, and many more. People in remote areas or people who are housebound can now participate with the group of worldwide genealogists as if there were never any sort of barriers to hinder them. Someone that will NEVER be able to travel to Europe to work on their ancestry can access resources, see pictures, maps, etc. of the countries they are interested in."

Note: I asked Cyndi how long she planned to keep this project going. She said, "Until every genealogy Web site on the planet is categorized!"

Well done Cyndi. Thank you for all your hard work all of these years.