OXSIL – The first 25 years

OXSIL, the Oxfordshire Surname Interest List at www.oxsil.org.uk, has recently celebrated 25 years since its foundation in 1997, when social media was still very young.  Genealogists were beginning to create and find online groups and mailing lists.

Leah Savage, from Conway, Missouri, had the idea of a website to match people with similar genealogical research interests. She has said for this article:

My husband’s 2nd great-grandparents, Robert and Mary Ann (Sharp) Savage immigrated to Nebraska, USA, from Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, in 1888. That is the reason OXSIL was created.  In the 1990s, it was not easy to do international research from my small rural town of Conway, Missouri. The internet was starting to change all that. So, one day in 1997, I innocently asked in an online group if there was a surname interest list for Oxfordshire. The next thing I knew, Wendy Archer had answered me and said that there wasn’t one, but why don’t I start one! I thought about it for a while and said I would give it a try.

The database grew fast, fitting well with the Oxfordshire genealogy mailing list at RootsWeb formed by Wendy Archer just a few months later, in November 1997.

On 22 March 1998 Leah posted on the mailing list:

I uploaded an update to OXSIL on Friday night. Thanks to Wendy, the Oxfordshire Surname Interest List has a new nickname – OXSIL. We both decided that this might help some of the confusion between this mailing list and the OXSIL web site.

By October 1998, OXSIL had 2,010 postings. Indeed, after several years, OXSIL became so large and cumbersome that it was difficult to use and maintain. Leah felt it needed to be turned into a database that could be more easily updated and searched. She said:

I had two small boys and just didn’t have the time or skills to make the changes. So, I asked Wendy if she had any ideas, and, of course, she did.

The idea Wendy had had was that Paul Brazell – who was living in Berlin, Germany, at the time – would be the person to take Leah’s work forward.

Paul has written:

It must have been sometime in early 2008 that Wendy asked me whether I would be interested in taking over the maintenance of OXSIL. I can’t remember why she thought I would be interested and capable of running anything online, but she was her usual persistent self and eventually I agreed to see what I could do. I had done most of my Oxfordshire family history on the RootsWeb mailing list Wendy ran before quickly moving on to Bucks, where my Brazells originally came from, but my father was born in Chinnor and I had enough Oxfordshire surnames in my recent tree to feel I owed the county something.

Although we quickly moved the website from RootsWeb to its own domain, it took me two years – and an awful lot of technical help from our excellent Internet service providers Mythic Beasts – to migrate the data to the modern online database we have today and develop the scripts that make the search boxes work.

 Since then, in 2013 we added – and more recently refined – a facility for noting relevant DNA tests. In 2017 we added another flag to show when the user had a One Name Study.

By 2016, Paul was finding it increasingly difficult to manage the routine work of OXSIL in addition to the care and maintenance of its database. In addition, he was in full time work. Wendy came up with another idea, in the form of Bill Seary.

Bill has written:

In 2016, Wendy approached me to see if I would be willing to help with OXSIL. I was already a user of OXSIL and well aware of its value and had little trouble agreeing to join the team. Changes since 2016 have not been major ones, but they have spread knowledge of OXSIL and made its operation smoother. They include: –

  • For many years we have produced a monthly list of new surname interests.  In 2017, with the introduction of a Monthly Mailing, we started to send this list to OXSIL users. This has been shared with members of the Oxfordshire Family History Society (OFHS) through a variety of methods over the years: currently a link to the list appears in the Society’s monthly ‘Roundup of events and news’. We also supply the list of new interests to the Oxfordshire-England-genealogy list – https://groups.io/g/Oxfordshire-England-genealogy/ – and the OFHS Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/oxfordshirefhs.
  • We regularly attend the Oxfordshire Family History Society Fair and for several years took a stand there.
  • We codified our privacy policy in reaction to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
  • Paul has given our website a new look and improved the way it works behind the scenes.
  • Since the end of 2019, I have been working through our database to locate as many as possible of the emails that no longer work. This project has almost reached its conclusion and the database is a good deal smaller but much more likely to deliver a result for people making enquiries.

Today OXSIL is still run by the team of three. Wendy constantly looks for ways whereby OXSIL can be more effective and better known. She deals with any questions about Oxfordshire family history that arise and acts as our institutional memory. Paul handles the more technical stuff – maintaining the website and database and developing the incorporation of information about DNA tests and One-Name studies of OXSIL users. Bill deals with the routine traffic through the web site – forwarding emails to OXSIL users, adding new surname interests and producing regular reports on the changes to the OXSIL database.

OXSIL currently (early 2023) has 2,113 users, who’ve registered 6,864 surname interests. Via OXSIL, enquirers have contacted others registered on OXSIL almost every day to exchange information and pictures about their mutual ancestors.

Leah has given us some thoughts on OXSIL on its 25th anniversary and for the future:

Before there were so many documents and information online, being able to connect with someone researching your family, especially if they still lived in the area, was one of the best ways to further your research. I think that making connections with people is still an important part of genealogy. I hope OXSIL continues to provide those connections.