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Family Tree Friday: Issues with Indexing

by on January 8, 2010


With records available in so many different formats these days, researchers are often faced with a choice – which indexes to use, the original microfilm and printed indexes or the newer online indexes?

Both types have drawbacks.  The microfilm and printed versions often have misspelled names.  Also, they sometimes skip people entirely.  My great grandfather’s name is spelled differently in three census indexes from the early 20th century, but when I looked at the records themselves, the name is spelled correctly in each year.  In another census year, the family is missing entirely from the index.  I found them where I expected them to be by looking at the entire county in the census. 

Online indexes can also have misspellings.  One of our favorites is from the 1910 census, where there is an entry for “watchnatenedget”  When you look at the census, this turns out to be an infant who was “not christened yet” – a very creative misspelling!  A major benefit to online indexes is that most genealogy subscription websites allow you to make annotations when you find something like this, something that is impossible with the original microfilm and printed indexes. 

So which indexes should a researcher use?  It depends on the individual researcher and their topic of research, as well as where they are located, but we usually recommend an approach that combines all the different types of indexes.  In general, you should start with the easiest accessible index, usually an online version.  If you are unsuccessful, you can then go to the microfilm and printed indexes.  If all else fails, you can always go to the original records (either online or on microfilm) and just look for your ancestors line by line.

Remember, no index in the world is perfect.  Just because you don’t find someone listed doesn’t mean they aren’t in the records.  Keep this in mind the next time you are unable to locate someone in an index.


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