Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Joys of Indexing

FamilySearch Indexing's homepage
(click to enlarge)

It's been more than a year since I first wrote about FamilySearch Indexing. That's the volunteer project that's' indexing millions of new records that will be offered free on the new FamilySearch. Some of those records you can access now at FamilySearch Labs' Record Search (which to my mind is almost the greatest thing since genealogically sliced bread! More about that later).

Anybody can volunteer for FamilySearch Indexing. All you need is a computer and a bit of free time. Once you sign up (free), you go through a very helpful tutorial on the Internet which takes about 30 minutes to an hour. It has useful practical exercises for transcribing records. After you successfully pass the tutorial, you're ready to start indexing!

FamilySearch will download an application that allows you to see and transcribe the records. You can then download batches of records to work on. Depending on the record, a batch usually is about 20 records. You can download up to five batches at a time. FamilySearch asks that you take no more than seven days for your downloaded batches. If you've bitten off more than you can chew, you can easily return the unfinished batches. However, you should never download more than you can reasonably do in seven days.

The "My Work Page." I've downloaded four batches of Louisiana Death Records. Notice the Due Date. You can also see the goals I set for myself. In context, this is not an overly ambitious goal. (click to enlarge image)

You can download batches according to a priority set by FamilySearch or you can look and find a set that interests you for some particular reason. Depending on the condition of the records, a batch may take 30-45 minutes to complete. Once done, you run FamilySearch Indexing's quality control agent to pick up any errors you think you may have made, then send the batch back to Salt Lake City.

Another person will have, or eventually will, transcribe the same records that you've worked on. The two sets of work are compared and an arbitrator will resolve any differences. You won't get involved in this as an indexer usually, although I've heard that indexers sometimes are called to explain their thinking on a particular record.

This is what the records workspace looks like. Note the "Field Help" box on the right. This gives instructions about how to transcribe each field of a record. And it is very helpful, indeed! It moves from field to field as the transcriber does. That's also where the Quality Checker appears when the indexer is done. (click to enlarge image)

Last year, I spent a number of hours transcribing census records. It was extremely educational for me. I came to understand some of the difficulties faced by transcribers of ancient handwritten records. I also strove to do my best, because I know that feeling when one comes across a poorly transcribed record of one's family, or worse, can't find a record that was mis-indexed because of a transcription error.

I didn't go back to FamilySearch Indexing for a long while after my first experience, mainly because my time was being sucked up elsewhere. I did, however, check out the databases on Record Search and was thrilled with what I found. I spent a lot of time with the unindexed records of the Catholic Diocese of Belleville, Illinois. I eventually transcribed and translated for my own use some of the records of St Joseph's Church in Prairie du Rocher, Illinois, and some of the records of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Sparta, Illinois. I put to use my experience with FamilySearch Indexing.

Recently, as school drew to a close for the summer, I went back to FamilySearch Indexing. I took the tutorial, which seems improved to me. The application interface also seems different and better.

My first venture was transcribing part of the 1870 census of Massachusetts. The portion of the records that I had enumerated sailors of various nationalities. This was quite interesting and led to a couple of insights about transcribing that I'll mention in just a bit.

I had been assigned the 1870 Massachusetts census off the priority list by clicking on the "Download" button on the "My Work" page. However, if you click on the button that says "Download From," you can browse a set of records and choose one of your liking. See the second image above. So when I finished the 1870 batch, I downloaded a batch of Louisiana death records since Louisiana is one of the states in which I research. This, too, was quite interesting and I found myself doing many other batches out of this set.

I found an infinite feedback loop. The experience I had gained in my first indexing venture last year had informed my solo work on the Catholic records which now helped me on the Louisiana records and each batch taught me something about transcription and indexing.

One thing I learned is that there is a bit of "informed intuition" that necessarily goes into transcribing. The better your information, then the better you can intuit, and the better you can transcribe. For example, you come across a surname that appears to be BRSSD, as best you can make out from the handwriting. Now if you're familiar with French-derived surnames, you can intuit that's probably BROUSSARD or BRAUSSARD. Good so far, but which is it? Well, if you also know that there's a village nearby called Broussardville, you probably have the answer.

How would you improve your informed intuition? Well, I found it useful have open another browser tab which displayed the Wikipedia article for the Louisiana parish I was transcribing. This helped not only with intuition, but with things I simply did not know, such as the proper spelling of towns like "Tangipahoa" and "Ponchatoula" which were often misspelled by the informants on the death records.

Transcribing for FamilySearch is rewarding because it's educational and vital to everyone's research efforts. It's a great way to invest in the future of on-line genealogical research.

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