09 December 2013

We are what we index

I'm amazed. Why decide to do another index of a database and provide the same information that everyone else provides? I know I'm late to the show - particularly since FamilySearch has been indexing passenger manifests for quite a while now - but why didn't FamilySearch have their volunteer indexers include some of the most valuable pieces of information on the manifest? Specifically, the names and addresses of those left behind, those to whom the immigrant is going, and place of birth. I think they've missed the mark. [1]

Don't get me wrong: I am pleased that FamilySearch chose to work on a new index for manifests. Dueling indices from several online genealogy record providers are becoming the norm and I welcome them. I have found it useful in my research to occasionally jump from one index provider to another. Different indexers may record variations on the hand-written names; some search engines provide more robust searching options; search engines may offer or use differing sources or parameters of soundex (American, Daitch-Mokotoff, Beider-Morse); some databases are easier to navigate than others; and companies vary in how well they enhance their online images (even if the originals are from the same source). In fact, when teaching beginning genealogy classes, I encourage budding researchers to go beyond one favorite genealogy site to look at the same record sets on another - especially if having trouble finding a record in one website's index.

Short of OCR or recent promises of computerized reading of handwritten records, search engines are limited by the underlying indexes. [2] With existing manifest database indices, finding information on relatives in the new country and the old is dependent upon finding records via passenger search. One may search via name or place of origin (residence) for a particular individual. Where residence may be different than birth place or location of relatives/friends in the old country, you can't get there from here (!). One must ford through individual records to find the differences.

210 Grand Street - now a Chinese restaurant
Research would be greatly eased with  additional searchable information. For example, I am interested in community emigration. I would love to find out how many people (and who) from the shtetl of Labun wound up in the early twentieth century at 210 Grand Street, Manhattan. I have several relatives who did. I have also found a few other, perhaps unrelated, landsman who did, as well. Many seem to have become glaziers in New York City. Were my Malzmann family members the center of this gang of glaziers? Or, was this more a town-based enterprise? I can now search on the town of residence and see from the manifests where people are heading. But were there people heading to that address who were not from that town? Right now, no way to check.

If I could search by address in the USA, knowing the addresses of relatives who'd already made the journey, I might be able to find some relatives for whom I have not been able to locate manifests. I might be able to locate hitherto unknown relatives. I might also be able to find more relations if I could search on those addresses in the old country. [3] This kind of information is critical for working with and via the FAN (Friends, Associates and Neighbors) principle in our genealogical research - particularly in large cities where relatives may or may not wind up living near each other.

Recognizing the utility of this additional information, the Ukraine Special Interest Group (SIG) of JewishGen started to remedy this situation by indexing records on a town-by-town basis. [4] An indexer must first search the Ellis Island database (and others) for people who resided before emigration in the indexer's community of interest. Then they must sort through to make sure they indeed have the correct town; identify the Jewish people; and index the records including family's/friend's and addresses on both sides of the ocean.

There are some advantages to doing indexing in this manner. Those indexing the records have some familiarity with overseas town names and immigrant names. So, there should be fewer transcription mistakes. But, it's slow going.

The communities affiliated with individual passengers in this new Ukraine SIG indexing project are usually locations of last residence rather than birth. This is due to the fact that the underlying existing index on the Ellis Island website does not usually include town of birth. So we are likely missing a set of people. We won't be able to capture those who were born in our village of interest, but most recently resided elsewhere.

Another problem I see with the Ukraine SIG project is that if one wanted to later build on this database, filling in with records not previously indexed so that others besides town-oriented Jewish genealogists would benefit, it would be time-consuming to locate and index the previously non-indexed records. In fact, it probably would not be worth the effort to account for those records that had been picked through and indexed. Just start over. But, for right now, considering my research interests, it's the best indexing project going.

So, here's my thought: when planning a new index, find out what's really useful and go for it. Adding to the available indexed information may be the most powerful argument for participating in an otherwise parallel indexing project. I wish FamilySearch had done that.

1. I am not indexing for FamilySearch right now. I was an enthusiastic (and productive) indexer for FamilySearch during the 1940 Census indexing juggernaut. I enjoyed the experience. They have an awesome interface and I'd do it again. I am on hiatus from indexing - working on other projects. I suppose I could be wrong, but I didn't see any evidence that FamilyFamilySearch is indexing additional information.
2. Optical Character Recognition - computerized finding aid for mining words in typed or typeset documents. Mocavo has recently announced they are getting ever closer to developing a computer program to decipher hand-written records.
3. As an example, see my series (still a work in progress) on Fannie Greenfield. My first post in that series is here.
4. I actually started doing this on my own several years ago for my Yurovshchina/Labun community website (http://www.kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/yurovshchina/index.html). However, I would be remiss to not mention that I am currently on the board of the Ukraine SIG.

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