• Historical group websites dead and dying

  • General discussion related to all railroad clubs, museums, tourist and scenic lines. Generally this covers museums with static displays, museums that operate excursions, scenic lines that have museums, and so on. Check out the Tourist Railway Association (TRAIN) for more information.
General discussion related to all railroad clubs, museums, tourist and scenic lines. Generally this covers museums with static displays, museums that operate excursions, scenic lines that have museums, and so on. Check out the Tourist Railway Association (TRAIN) for more information.

Moderators: Miketherailfan, rob216

  by mxdata
 
What is happening with railroad historical society websites lately? Have all the webmasters died, or have we reached the end of the internet era? A quick look through a dozen east coast railroad historical groups websites showed less than half of them were now up to date. Several prominent railroad historical societies had event listings that were a year to as much as five years out of date, and one had a banquet announcement featuring a speaker who is deceased. Any insiders care to offer comments on what is going on?

MX
  by n2xjk
 
I'm not a member of any NRHS chapter, but I do maintain a web site for a museum (tmny.org). I have attended seminars relating to the use of the Internet, and certainly the key thing they hammer is whatever your web presence is (be it a web site, Facebook, etc), keep it updated! Make regular updates! Even if the updates are trivial, make it obvious to people who drop in on the web site occasionally that they can see it's updated regularly. Stale information is worse than no information at all.

For the societies you've found with stale web sites, the 'inside' story behind it is probably similar: several years ago a member joined who knew how to set up a web page and said "I'll set up a web site for you" and eagerly updated it for a year or two. Then their interests changed, they moved away, etc., and left the site in limbo because no other society member had the interest or knowledge to make updates.

I'm not familiar with the workings of the NRHS, but maybe the solution is to have the national chapter in some way encourage, support or fund the chapters to keep their web sites updated.
  by mxdata
 
Very good points, having a long out of date website gives the impression that it is abandoned and the group has "folded".

Regarding NRHS, their President, Greg Molloy, gave a talk at a local chapter and at that meeting he was asked a question about having the national organization host a "default" website for chapters if they did not have the talent or resources to set one up independently. It seemed like his reaction was that he did not have any answer for it. He looked surprised and really did not answer the question. But it certainly would be a good idea, at least showing regular meeting location, day of the month, and time, listing the officers, giving the contact information, and providing an address for mail.

MX
  by umtrr-author
 
There was a piece in the NY Times over the summer which I am far too lazy to locate, that discussed the non-trivial percentage of websites that had not been updated for six months or more. I suppose historical group websites wouldn't be immune to this.

As a "content provider" myself, it's a lot of work to maintain a reasonably decent site. It also appears to be a thankless job in many cases; if there is any feedback at all, it's of the "complaint" nature or the "unreasonable request" nature (in my case, "you need to add all Micro-Trains of all types and create a searchable database").

It's also true that "life happens" and those that started up the site don't have the means to continue it. That's perhaps no more true than in volunteer organizations, particularly if "politics" is involved.
  by Otto Vondrak
 
Reasons could be:

1) Webmaster incompetent, lazy, or too busy. Or all three. Hey, he's a volunteer.

2) No one available to provide content to the webmaster. Webmaster is administrator, not author.

3) Organization places no value on web site, therefore it is ignored. This could be that the majority of members are not computer users themselves, and assume no one else cares too.

If you have a web site for your group and you know it wont be updated often, DONT POST NEWS ITEMS. Keep the site as simple as possible, and clearly list your contact info. It's better than nothing. But to have a "news" section with only one post from 2004 is just not the way to go...
  by mxdata
 
Great advice Otto.

I will offer another hint for a really easy way the webmaster can make the site look very active without doing much work at all. Lay out a half dozen different home pages with minimal differences in the text but with all different photos. Save them all, and upload them along with the photos. Then every two months or so just access your site and rename one of the group to the name of the home page, if you started with the same "master" any other links on the page besides the photos should have come along with it and will still function. This gives you a totally different look to the website a half dozen times a year, and by the time you use the last variation of the page most people will have forgotten about the first one and it will look new again.

I changed the home page on a website the other day, while watching the clock, and it took about 45 seconds, and I am not very good at this stuff. Anybody who doesn't have 45 seconds once every two months to put into a website probably should not be a webmaster.

MX
  by Otto Vondrak
 
mxdata wrote:I will offer another hint for a really easy way the webmaster can make the site look very active without doing much work at all. Lay out a half dozen different home pages with minimal differences in the text but with all different photos.
Even that's too much... want a really simple site that makes it easy to update text and add photos? See what I did for the Bartlett Roundhouse Club... it's built around Blogger. When they have something to post, it automatically updates, no "coding" required!

http://bartlettroundhouse.org/
  by GSC
 
All valid points above.

In a perfect world, you'll have a webmaster who can handle the work, and contributors of stuff for him to post, and everyone else will leave him alone and let him do it. But that doesn't happen, we all know.

Case in point: I built and maintained the initial website for a rail museum. A couple years later, someone who was a real computer person offered to take it over, and the site was always up to date and very nice looking. Then politics and egos took over, and this person quit the organization, and someone else had to be found to run the site. A couple people did what they could with it, and finally there is a regular person handling it. For who knows how long.

Like Otto said, it is a volunteer issue, and volunteers tend to move on (especially when all you get for your website work is grief and criticism)
  by mxdata
 
So perhaps the best solution is to cough up the money and pay a professional to maintain the website. In the case of the NRHS that brings us back around to why doesn't the National organization have their contracted office support firm host default websites for the chapters that do not have the talent available to support a website, and use the internet to recruit new members instead of paying for half page color ads in printed magazines. :(

Then of course you have the matter of dealing with the general public when the two most frequent e-mail messages to the webmaster are "how can I get a ride (on this or that)", and "please send me all the information you have on my (pick a relative) who worked for the (pick a railroad)". :( :(

MX
  by Tim Lesniak
 
One thing that you can do to make the webmaster's job easier is take some of the work away from him. Set up the website so that "anyone" can update it (ie make it stupid-proof). Give select people passwords to update certain sections of the website. The people who traditionally take pictures for the museum will have access to update the Latest Pictures section. The office/general manager & president will be able to update the announcements page. The people who write updates as to what is going on will have access to the online updates page...etc.

This is only doable if the website is easy to use and has been set over a system that allows this to happen. It takes a lot of initial set up work, but in the end, the webmaster only maintains the website, and doesn't need to be the one constantly updating.

As for the stupid questions... This won't eliminate those going to the webmaster, however, list two email addresses: [email protected] - Only for web related problems; [email protected] - ALL OTHER INQUIRIES. That should cut down on the amount of stupid questions that go to the webmaster. Make sure, however, that your office manager checks and replies to the emails going to office, otherwise they will be sent again, this time to editor.

Tim Lesniak
Corporate Secretary
CT Trolley Museum
  by Otto Vondrak
 
Tim Lesniak wrote:One thing that you can do to make the webmaster's job easier is take some of the work away from him. Set up the website so that "anyone" can update it (ie make it stupid-proof).
Yes and no... that only works if you have people willing to create a steady stream of content, willing to log in to post it, etc. etc.
  by mxdata
 
I took a look at the latest string of monthly meeting postings by the local groups and was amused. There are several "warnings" that if more programs aren't forthcoming from the membership, they will have to show commercial videos at the next meeting. Digital photography has taken its toll, not many people want to take the time to put together a program any more. But then when you look at their schedule of upcoming events there is either no program description (or the generic "after the business meeting there will be railroad oriented entertainment") or they wait until the day before the meeting to post them. In some cases I know the arrangements for the speaker were completed a long time ago, so it doesn't provide much incentive for anybody to go to a lot of trouble to help them out when they can't be bothered promoting their own events.

Frankly, if a group isn't going to tell anybody what their programs are going to be, what difference does it make what they present, because if nobody can find out about the events in advance, then what is being shown certainly isn't going to have any effect on peoples decision whether to attend!

All this seems like a very reasonable justification to decline requests from groups that want you to drive very long distances to do a talk, if you see that their website is far out of date.

MX
  by Otto Vondrak
 
mxdata wrote:Frankly, if a group isn't going to tell anybody what their programs are going to be, what difference does it make what they present...
Let's not wander away from the original discussion- maintaining web sites.

Web sites do not need to be updated all the time to be effective. Here's the very basic information you should have on your organization's web site:

1) Your Organization's name and affiliation ("The Podunk Northern Chapter of the National Railway Hysterical Society")

2) When and where you meet ("Meets every third Thursday at 7:30pm at the Podunk VFW, 123 Main street")

3) How to Join ("Anyone with an interest in railroads may join. Dues are $10 a year, payable to...")

4) A reliable contact phone number or email address


Those are the basics. Just having that information up and ready and accessible will go a long way to establishing contacts. You only need to check the page once in a while to make sure the contact info, meeting times, and dues information are current. Maybe add a train photo or a photo of your membership just to dress it up. Skip the clip art. Skip the train noises. Skip "I've Been Working on the Railroad."

Now what if you want to go a step further?

1) Describe your activities ("Slide show and swap meet every month." "Annual Banquet." "Volunteer at the Podunk Zoo Railroad." etc)

2) Tell us a little about the group ("Formed in 1958 when the Podunk Northern Railroad pulled up rails and left town for good. Our group preserved the last PNRR caboose in 1960, now on display in the town park...")

3) Invite and explain to people why they would want to join: ("We invite you to join our group. Help us preserve the region's railroad history...")

4) Add a few photos of your group's activities.

5) Add a line that says "Contact us for more information about our monthly activities..."

Even these additional steps do not require you to update the web site on a regular basis. You give the visitor a lot of information about who you are and what you do. You've given them some enticements to contact you. You could walk away from the web site at this point and only modify it if you need to update contact info or dues information.

In my next post, I'll discuss how to create a web site that allows for regular updates.

-otto-
  by RedLantern
 
If you're setting up a website on a hosting provider with an up to date server running PHP and MySQL, setting up a Content Management System (CMS) will make your life as a webmaster a lot easier. Various open source (absolutely free) CMSs exist that would let you set up a full website fairly easily (by following the instructions provided with the CMS). With one of these running on the server, creating a new page and adding the HTML is now a thing of the past. Members of your group who are allowed to post to the site will no longer have to go through the webmaster, they just simply log on to the site from anywhere in the world using their authorized login and password, and they post to a simple web form. Just as easily as submitting a post to this forum, someone with no web coding experience just posted content to the site instantly. This will let members of the group update the site and keep it updated whether the webmaster even looks at it or not. Drupal is one good example of a free CMS but there are others.

There's all kinds of free PHP and Perl based programs that can be used on a site to add functionality to it. Do you like this forum and think your railroad historical society could use one like this of it's own, guess what, the forum software that runs this site is absolutely free under the GNU open source license. As long as you have hosting space that allows you to install scripts (most paid providers will, some smaller hosts which donate space to groups might not allow this) a fairly experienced webmaster could set up a forum identical to this one in minutes by following the directions that come with it. Having a forum like this one for your group will make it a lot easier for members to stay in touch and discuss things and will keep your website active.

(NOTE: When I say you can have a forum like this one, I mean the forum part itself, not the rest of railroad.net which appears custom built. Everything you see after you click the Forums link at the top of the page is part of the free phpBB package available for download at http://www.phpbb.com).
  by Mr. Ed
 
In my opinion any website should be updated to the point that after a posted event occurs, remove it form the site. Many sites out there are still showing events from 2008! How long does it take to remove a posting?

Later!
Mr. Ed