November 15, 2001 1:00 PM PST

Web surfers crowd onto Ellis Island site

An Ellis Island site that lets people dig into their ancestry via the Web has taken root, with the site recording 1.5 billion hits in its first six months.

The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation's Web site, EllisIslandRecords.org, provides access to immigration information on the 22 million people who entered the United States through the Port of New York and Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924. People can also sift through the database on computers at the American Family Immigration History Center located on Ellis Island.

The announcement underscores how people are increasingly turning to the Web to trace family pedigrees, abandoning the old-fashioned process of sifting through microfilms or other more tangible research records. Web measurement firm Nielsen/NetRatings said sites that provide ancestry information have increased in traffic over the last year.

Ancestry.com, for example, has seen a nearly 15 percent increase since October 2000, reaching 2.8 million unique visitors this October, according to Nielsen/NetRating. Genealogy.com also gained about 13 percent to 1.5 million, and Rootsweb.com increased nearly 9 percent to 2.3 million in October 2001.

"We see an interest online (in genealogy sites), and part of that is the ease of gathering information online and the ability to do it from your home rather than researching via a library database or at a museum," said Carolyn Clark, an Internet analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings.

As a result, sites such as Ellisislandrecords.org have struggled to support a multitude of visitors. At its debut, the database became inaccessible when an unexpected number of people flocked to the site. Sam Daniel, director of information technology for the nonprofit Ellis Island Foundation, said the site received 27,000 hits per second the day of the site's launch.

Since then, the foundation has alleviated its traffic problems, revamped the site and added new features. It increased its servers from 13 to 37 and changed the look of the site to make it user-friendly, according to Daniel. It also launched an e-commerce section that lets people purchase actual copies of each ship's passenger manifest, which contains immigration data and a picture of the ship that carried their ancestor. The foundation said it has over 3.5 million manifest pages available on the site as well as images of more than 800 passengers.

In addition, the foundation has set up an interactive scrapbook, dubbed the Family History Scrapbook, which lets foundation members store documents, family photos and records. The scrapbook comes in a paper or CD-ROM format.

The site gives people "the opportunity to actually be able to get a piece of their history," Daniel said. "In this day and age, especially after the attacks on Sept. 11 and the scare with anthrax, people are more family-oriented...It also shows that the public is very interested in a site like this, and it shows that it's worthwhile."

Daniel said that the day the World Trade Center attacks occurred, the site received 1.2 million hits; the following week, its traffic increased to 4.2 million hits per day. The foundation said Ellis Island has been closed since the attacks so people can only visit the center there through the Web.

 

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