Earlier this year, a family historian named Carol was trying to piece together the Ohio branches of her family tree. “They were shattered by death, marriage, remarriage, name changes, and lack of records,” she said. “Using the records indexed through FamilySearch [an organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], I was able to…solve an important mystery. It was such a satisfying moment.”
Today that satisfaction is experienced over and over by millions of people who are able to connect with their ancestors thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers known as FamilySearch indexers.
A Yearning to Know
Roots author Alex Haley once said: “In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage- to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning…emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.”
FamilySearch indexers fill this yearning by collectively enabling others to pinpoint their ancestors from among billions of online records.
“Because of indexing, more people are discovering their ancestors more quickly than at any time in history,” said Mike Judson, who manages the indexing volunteer efforts for FamilySearch “This ease of discovery is helping thousands of people every day to better understand who they are and where they came from. This sounds trite, but for the person making the discovery the result can be intensely personal and emotional.”
Linda, a family researcher writes: “Please give a giant hug and kiss to the person who did the work on Mexico Distrito Federal, Catholic Church Records, 1886-1993...without [this indexer] I would be working for weeks to find this elusive relative...I'm so grateful.”
Barbara Haines is one of more than 350,000 indexers who have helped the non-profit FamilySearch organization provide free access to billions of genealogy records from around the world since 2006. Every day this quiet army of givers, working mostly from home, index (transcribe) about a half million names, adding at least 150 million freely searchable records to FamilySearch.org each year. It’s the largest known volunteer effort of its kind in the world and growing.
Barbara used to play solitaire to escape from the rigors of a computer project she is working on. Now she uses her computer, and her time, to give service.
“Now, rather than idle away my time with a game, I instead use it to index a batch or two of records. It gives me the needed opportunity to refocus my mind and accomplishes something worthwhile at the same time,” she said. “Being an indexer has also given me a new appreciation for how much work goes into the records that I'm able to find at FamilySearch.”
Using free FamilySearch indexing software to view images of old records, indexers simply type the information they see into a prepared computer form. They can choose from a variety of records, including birth, marriage, and death records, censuses, draft cards and more. Once the pertinent names, dates and places are typed into the system, the data is compiled by FamilySearch into a searchable index. The index is then matched with the corresponding images and published on www.familysearch.org.
As soon as a name is published it becomes searchable to anyone looking for that ancestor.
Indexer Belva said, “I have used the [FamilySearch records] to research for 20 years and now is the time to give back by indexing.”
That desire to give back is a common feeling among FamilySearch volunteers, said Judson.
“Indexing is an easy way to help other people find their ancestors,” he said. “Anyone who has done family history research knows it can be a challenge and they develop a natural empathy for others who are trying to do the same thing. Indexing is a great way to express that desire to help others connect with their roots.”
Many indexers share a fervent desire to engage in a meaningful activity. As one volunteer explained, “I suffer from severe depression. It has really changed my life. Being able to do something that helps others and that I love to do...words fail me. I feel like I have a purpose now...”
Where Do All Those Records Come From?
Sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the FamilySearch organization has been helping people discover their family roots since 1894. FamilySearch works with governments, churches, archives and libraries around the world to preserve records of genealogical importance. FamilySearch began microfilming records in 1938 and began capturing images digitally in 2000. Today, there are 200 camera teams at any given time working in 45 countries to capture digital images of these records.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints securely stores that information. To date there are 18 petabytes of microfilm and digital images–roughly equivalent to 17 times the amount of information housed in the US Library of Congress.
As records are indexed, they are made available to the public free of charge through the FamilySearch.org website, the renowned Family History Library in Salt Lake Cityand a network of more than 4,600 family history centers throughout the world. Some records are also published as browse able (but non-searchable) images. This year, FamilySearch will publish 380 million new digital images of genealogical importance on its website. These images are not truly useful to people, though, until they can be easily searched, and why the FamilySearch indexing program is so important.
Creating Searchable Records
With FamilySearch indexing, every record is transcribed by two different indexers to ensure quality. If the two indexes disagree with each other, an experienced indexer known as an arbitrator reviews the work and decides which, if either is correct. This system helps calm the fears of new volunteers, according to indexer Byron Bailey of Farmington Hills, Michigan.
“A lot of people are afraid to index because they might make mistakes, but there is a series of checks and balances. That’s why you key each image twice. If someone does make a mistake, it will get caught,” Bailey said.
Judson said indexing is something that can be done by anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Volunteers come from all walks of life; the only requirements are a computer with Internet access (though indexing can be done while disconnected as well) and the ability to read cursive handwriting and type what they see. This low barrier to entry accounts for why indexing is popular with home-bound seniors, tech-savvy teenagers and everyone in between.
One young woman in Guatemala summed it up very simply: “I know it is something good and that I am helping other people.”
Giving Back through Indexing
Even as a busy father of young children, Todd Bushman of Meridian, Idaho, finds time to index on a regular basis.
“I index because it is very enjoyable. It has basically become my main hobby,” he said. “Many people like to golf, camp, fish, or make things. I don’t have any of those talents, especially making or fixing things, but I do have a passion for indexing and love the concept of making these records available for others to use.”
Bushman said he finds a lot of meaning and fulfillment in indexing.
“I love thinking about both the people themselves whose names I am helping become available for others to research and thinking about those who will use the digitized records to finally find individuals and families that have eluded them for years,” he said. “When you really start thinking of the records as actual people, it excites you to know you are doing something simple yet extremely beneficial to others.”
Currently, indexing volunteers come from 130 different countries, but more are needed, especially for non-English languages. For more information on how to get started with indexing, visit http://indexing.familysearch.org.