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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

In my experience, . . . even the most basic information about Garden Railroading needs to be updated every 2-3 years if it is to remain useful. Anything that hasn't been updated within 5 years could actually cause problems.

How Much Content is Too Much?

Ever since I started writing about garden railroading, I've tried to pay attention to the questions and concerns of new hobbyists, while I was trying to learn new and better ways of doing the same old things myself. That's why my own railroad, the New Boston and Donnels Creek, is built using several different kinds of construction; I wanted to make certain I knew what I was talking about.

Admittedly, most of my early articles were written to solve pressing problems in the hobby, but once the garden railroading community had stabilized somewhat, we decided to go by the 80/20 rule when planning new articles. That is, we are trying to focus on the 20% of information that 80% of beginning or intermediate garden railroaders need. But even that has been a huge challenge. I STILL don't have some articles written that I outlined several years ago, while several articles published in 2003 need updated, and a few others have been taken off the site because they're no longer useful at all.

When I'm searching for information myself, I have the same problem finding a balance of "tried and true" information and "timely" infomation. Books on Garden Railroading tend to leave out recently developed methods that could greatly help "newbies." Garden Railways magazine publishes important content, but anyone who didn't get that issue is not likely to be exposed to the ideas expoused. (True, Kalmbach now offers downloadable PDF reprints of certain articles at $6 a pop, but unless you know which articles you need, you could spend serious bucks getting stuff that doesn't do you any good anyway.)

Kinds of Content

So it seems that Garden Railroaders and would-be Garden Railroaders require at least three kinds of information:

  • Long-Term: Basic introductory information, about kinds of trains, kinds of construction, tips and tricks, etc. Much of this information is contained in the Garden Railroading books currently on the market. In my experience, though, even the most basic information about Garden Railroading needs to be updated every 2-3 years if it is to remain useful. Anything that hasn't been updated within 5 years could actually cause problems. So some of those dandy old books that are still on my bookshelf (and still listed in Amazon) are more useful as historical information than as practical guides to beginners today.
  • Medium-Term: Specific information about products or new techniques, as well as other topics that are not essential to every Garden Railroader, but which are helpful to many. This kind of information has a practical lifespan of 2-3 years, although it is still of interest to people who need that specific information later. Examples would include a product review of a new locomotive or a description of a newly developed roadbed construction technique. This information is most useful before word of mouth and practical experience starts spreading through the Garden Railroading community; after a certain period of time, it is mostly used as a reference if at all.
  • Short Term: Current announcements and advertisements that are very important this month, but of no great value in a few months, especially after announced events have occurred, or product prices have changed.

Channels for Content

To me, it seems that these different kinds of content require different communication channels to really reach the appropriate audience at the appropriate time. A few popular channels are:
  • Magazines: There is no question that Garden Railways does a good job of covering #2 and #3. But even when GR covers basic, #1 information properly, those articles gradually get buried in a stack of newer magazines. Again, Kalmbach maintains indexes of past GR articles and even provides reprints of some, but this isn't exactly "one-stop" shopping for the basic information you need. (On the other hand, a $29 subscription is a lot cheaper than that $80 car, and will almost certainly do you and your railroad more good in the long run, so don't take this article to mean I'm diminishing GR's value to hobbyists, especially to beginners.)
  • Books: Conversely, books do a good job of covering #1, as long as they're thorough in the first place and updated every so many years. Unfortunately, most Garden Railroading books only describe one or two approaches to building a garden railroad, and few are ever updated significantly. (On the other hand, a $25 book is a lot cheaper than an $80 car, and will probably do you and your railroad more good in the long run.)
  • Web Pages: Right now, it looks like web pages could provide a good mix of features, as long as:

    • The "long-term" stuff is comprehensive, reliable, and updated when it needs to be,
    • The "medium-term" stuff is useful and relatively timely, and
    • The "short-term" stuff doesn't stay posted for months (or years) after it is no longer useful.

Several web sites provide a good mix of features, although (in my opinion), none does all of them well. In our case, Family Garden Trains'? focus on beginners means that we hit the #1 (long term) stuff way better than we hit #2 or #3. Still, I've noticed that in our attempts to give only the most basic subjects their "due," we've created more content than you could fit in most books anyway, and written many articles that would be too long for magazines. (And we don't even have all of our planned "core" articles written yet.)

A bigger problem might be that web sites are hard to read on your patio, much less on an airplane. In other words, the harder we try to meet the most basic needs of garden railroaders, the more we contribute to the "unwieldiness" of an information repository that is somewhat unwieldy already.

What's a Garden Railroading Information Provider to do?

We have looked at other ways of providing content. For example we tried publishing new articles in an e-magazine format for a couple of years, but we couldn't keep up a regular schedule. In 2005, we were also approached by a book publisher, but the right deal hasn't happened yet.

One thing we plan to do - in addition to adding and updating articles this year - we may spend some time revising the way our Primer section is organized, to help folks get to the information they need faster, and to help them to understand better how the various topics interrelate.

We're also still looking at other ways to make our most important content more "portable." We don't have the resources or desire to produce a magazine (certainly not one that could compete with one of the best hobby magazines currently on any market), or to supply the marketplace with one more book that will be outdated by the time we've sold out the first printing. Some folks have suggested making our pages available on CD-ROM, but you still have to have a computer to use those. (And, frankly, we've have had enough problems with folks "repurposing" our content for their own commercial purposes as it is - why make it even easier for them?)

We will try to keep you posted of future developments. If you want to be certain to hear any important announcements, please consider signing up for our mailing list soon.

Also, please contact us with your suggestions, additions, corrections, criticisms, or whatever.

Have a great spring and summer (or fall and winter to Phil and Tony and others down under),


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