Thursday, October 26, 2006

"Graying of the membership" – Attracting younger railfans

[Comments regarding a Railroad and Locomotive Historical Society discussion.]

The American Photographic History Society, as an example, never understood or fully transitioned to the internet, and so it was sad, but not at all unexpected that one day they just disappeared.

But for the R&LHS, pessimistic comments lamenting "graying of the membership" and to "despair the fate of railfanning" represents an unfortunate misdiagnosis.

Try typing RAILROAD HISTORY into Google – our CPRR.org website is on the first page – but good luck trying to find the R&LHS website in the search results.

Our family's CPRR.org website – a celebration of railroad ancestor, CPRR First Assistant Chief Engineer, Lewis Metzler Clement, illustrated by period photographs – was anticipated to be an extremely obscure narrow topic, but instead has attracted 1.5 million visitors. No young railfans? – You've got to be kidding! Probably a thousand students visit our website a day.

But how many visitors has RLHS.org attracted? Is there enough there to attract members and younger potential members to visit and to keep coming back? (This is not intended to be critical of the hard work of the people who have created the RLHS.org website, which is excellent for what it is, but instead to point out what it instead needs to become to be able to attract new members.)

How about this alternate hypothesis?: The Society's membership is graying because RLHS.org doesn't meet the needs of the non-member "16 to 50" demographic. Younger people use the internet, not the library, to find information, and the R&LHS's valuable content is mostly offline or restricted, invisible to them. Fortunately this is easy to fix, but only if a new way of thinking and some simple changes are embraced.

What is needed to revive RLHS.org to draw in younger members is massive amounts of world class, compelling, authoritative, and freely available content that will attract links from other websites (which is how Google ranks are determined), and as a result, lots of visitors – just what has been produced by the Society and is sitting in bound volumes on library shelves. At present, not only is this actual full content mostly offline, but even the RLHS.org link to the Railroad History index from the Railroad History page which hints at what incredible riches are presently inaccessible now gives a file not found error. That's too bad since there is no doubt but that what the Society has chosen not to put online is likely far superior to most existing online resources. Not just the public is affected – we've never been able to read any of the Railroad History articles about transcontinental railroad history that have long been noted at the end of our want list, as all those musty past Railroad History volumes are completely inaccessible to us as well.

To be attractive to younger potential future members, the RLHS website, and especially the home page, needs to consist of railroad history information accessible right there, not primarily about railroad history information available offline or elsewhere, and not primarily information about the Society. The very limited and restricted content "members only" opposite approach to railroad history content ensures obscurity. Instead, how about, for example, hosting the RLHS discussion group on the RLHS.org website, and also including online every page of all 85 yearly volumes of Railroad History at RLHS.org in an easily accessible format that facilitates linking to the articles, scanned at 600dpi to preserve photographic quality, with OCR (text behind page images) to make every word of it indexed by Google, drawing people to the Society and its website? Here is one of many examples of a page linking to such a searchable scanned journal article.

If Google can put 11,000,000 books online, RLHS ought to be able to manage to put just 85 volumes of Railroad History onto the Society's website. With "do it yourself" volunteer labor, the cost should be negligible: Scan; OCR; Web.

Looking to the future, any Society that wants to prosper, grow, and attract younger members needs to "get" the internet and transition to producing its newsletters and journals, etc. in electronic form that can be searched, delivered, and made available online without the need for conversion and at close to zero reproduction and delivery cost. Online writings, of course, can continue to be offered at a higher cost, as needed on paper via high quality print on demand technology.