The Online Project

The online version of the Louisiana Biography and Obituary Index grew out of The Historic New Orleans Collectionís desire that the rich resources of the card index be made available beyond the walls of New Orleans Public Libraryís Louisiana Division, where it had been housed for more than fifty years. Informal conversations about how to achieve this goal gradually led, in 1999, to a proposal by The Collection to convert the information recorded on the 650,000 index cards into an electronic database. A successful pilot project conducted in the summer of 1999 indicated that their goal was both feasible and desirable. Additional discussions resulted in the final plan, which called for The Collection to create a database of the index that would reside on New Orleans Public Libraryís website and thus be available to anyone with access to the World Wide Web. A formal contract between the two partner institutions was negotiated in April 2000. The project got an additional boost when MINISIS Inc. donated the software to be used in the project and assisted in the design of the web interface.

The project began formally in June 2000, with two part-time employees of The Collection performing data entry. In February 2002, a Collection volunteer came on board to assist the data operators in tracking down questionable entries in the original index. Finally, in June 2004, after much labor, crafting and tweaking, the first portion of the index (surnames beginning with A through E) was mounted on NOPLís website. By August of 2005, names beginning with the letter "K" had been added to the online database and the data entry had progressed even further into the alphabet. Over the next several years, HNOC added additional part-time processors and recruited additional volunteers to assist with the data entry.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina interrupted the progress of the online project (as well as all other aspects of life as New Orleanians knew it "pre-K"). While the Historic New Orleans Collection largely escaped the storm's damage and reopened quickly, NOPL's system was nearly crippled. Eight of NOPL's twelve branches were destroyed and, initially, 90% of its more than 200 staff members were laid off. But the Main Library, the home of the Obituary Index, was miraculously spared major damage, and the system's remaining 19 employees reopened the building to the public for limited services in late October, 2005. Within weeks, THNOC resumed work on the index, in-house at NOPL, and even generously hired some of NOPL's temporarily laid-off employees to staff the project.

As NOPL recovered over the next several years, the project continued to move forward, under the direction of HNOC's Head Librarian Gerald Patout (later succeeded by Daniel Hammer), and staffed by a revolving team of part-time processors. Although various complicating factors prevented additional data from being mounted online, by the Fall of 2008, the data entry was nearly complete. At this time, HNOC and NOPL entered into a new, revised agreement, which called for the database to be transferred from an in-house server at NOPL to a MINISIS Inc. server, where it will be hosted for the next 5 years at least. At the end of March 2009, the last of HNOC's processors completed data entry and in June, the completed and revamped database was launched, bringing this long project to a successful conclusion.

The online version of the Obituary Index not only provides remote access to information about New Orleanians, but it also adds significant value to that information. Researchers are no longer limited to the static alphabetical searching allowed by the fixed order of the physical card file; now they are able to perform dynamic searches that can address all of the numerous fields present in the database. For example, the ability alone to search by the maiden names of married women in essence doubles the usefulness of the index. What began life in the first half of the 20th century as an ambitious effort to make biographical information more readily accessible has now been transformed, through the technology of the 21st century, into a research tool that the indexís originators could not have imagined possible.

Good Luck With Your Research!

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