10 April 2015

Indices: Explore all Options

It's one o'clock in the morning. Do you know who else has indexed your data set?

Record collections are coming online with astonishing frequency. Many times we sigh with resignation as company B follows company A, which published the same collection a year or so previously. Later, company C provides the same  online collection. Aside from competition for customers, what's the point? The point is, researchers can benefit from independently indexed collections.

from Wikimediacommons
There are several reasons for searching the same or similar collections on more than one website. Different companies may have:
  • their own proprietary image enhancement technology that may significantly improve viewing of otherwise identical images (compare, for example, enhanced 1940 U.S. census images on a variety of websites);
  • advanced search options and tools allowing one to focus one's search energies;
  • a variety of methods for moving within datasets to browse for images of interest (for example, I much prefer to browse manifests on sites that allow me to jump around among the images, not force me to advance only one image at a time; I also like to be able to rotate census images so I can read through the street names quickly when I am searching through an enumeration district); 
But none of this is important if you cannot find the image or have no idea where to look within the collection. 

Indexers often get a bad rap. Yes, indexing is a prime area where errors may be introduced. Ancestry has been criticized for using foreign indexers. FamilySearch has been criticized for not allowing input for corrections to their indices. A common complaint from researchers whose ancestors came from Eastern Europe is that Ellis Island manifests have been indexed by researchers who have no familiarity with those surnames and places. Because of that, some of the indexing errors seem bizarre to those of us who have some familiarity.

The truth is, despite these issues, indexing is the heart and soul of genealogy research. Yes the computer has revolutionized research. But, if not for indexing, much of that would not have been possible.

We all have our favorite websites and search tools, but when all else fails in your search, bail and go to another site that has the same collection, indexed via a different set of indexers.[1]

I will admit, that I have been an ardent follower of the freely accessible Italian Genealogy Group and German Genealogy Group indices of New York City vital records. These entities partnered in a volunteer effort to index records available through the New York City Municipal Archives. I would sometimes use the Steve Morse One-Step search forms to access them. But, even after Ancestry put indices of these same records online, I still saw most benefit in staying with the ItalianGen/GermanGen indices.

Unfortunately, one thing we do not see often enough with complex record sets is independently derived indices that include different/additional information. I have lamented previously that I did not see much value added when FamilySearch decided to initiate their own indexing project for New York manifests. I wanted to see additional information indexed, such place of birth, closest relative in the old country and address and/or name of the person the immigrant planned to meet at their destination.

New York City vital records? Enter FamilySearch. 

On 20 March 2015 they added [2]:
As I usually do, I immediately tested the new indices with one of my unusual family surnames: Liebross. I figured after all these years I'd pretty much exhausted the Liebross vital records collections in New York City. But, FamilySearch added an element to their indexing of death records that had not been included by previous indexers: parents' names (parents' names are also included in birth and marriage record searches).

ItalianGen/GermanGen and Ancestry indices have coded first name, age at death, date, certificate number and county. Results in the marriage index also provide easy access to spouse names.

Using the Steve Morse search form one can also get results that include the FHL microfilm number. One would not see parents' names until one had acquired the original record. Where there were several people indexed with the same or similar names, this created a bit of a crap shoot. Many of us have ordered records we thought might be correct only to discover that the parents names were not. 

The new FamilySearch index not only adds a bit more certainty to the process of record acquisition, but also to the hope of finding new records.

Results of my recent Liebross search surprised me. Early in my family history research I'd found that my great aunt Rose who, I thought, had never married, had indeed married (in 1926) and later divorced (in 1931) a dentist named Nathan J. Bernstein. I'd located the marriage certificate indexed on ItalianGen.[3]

In FamilySearch's new NYC Municipal Deaths index database, I waded through the expected indexed records and then, towards the end, noted records where Liebross was the deceased's mother's surname.

Oh, my! Rose Liebross Bernstein had a baby who had died: Ira Howard Bernstein.
He was born and died between census enumerations. It is unlikely I ever would have found him. While I have since found him in the same cemetery (Mt. Lebanon) as the rest of the family, he and his parents were not buried in the same plots.  

[It is interesting to note that when I searched on Liebross in the FamilySearch marriage index I received no hits. Several Liebross family members are identified in the ItalianGen marriage index search results. This is another example of why one should use more than one index in one's searches.]

Of course indexers always make choices. While FamilySearch has included much more information that previous indexers, cause of death is not indexed; nor identification of the informant, the doctor, funeral home, etc. I have no particular criticism of that.  

The results provide more information than may be searched from FamilySearch's search box. It would be nice if the search box allowed for searching on particular dates (or even months) of death and birth. Right now one may only search on a range of years. Why not allow searches on particular addresses (the smallest geographical unit one may now search on is city)?

Regardless, this new index is huge. I have already found my great aunt's previously unknown child. By searching on family surnames, one may be able to find death records for women whose married names were previously unknown. 

If FamilySearch allowed more specific time or area searches, one one might be able to conduct research into community deaths in one small area of the city. Think of the context one might develop for understanding one's family and their lives at particular times and places.

I now await delivery of a copy of the original death record for Ira Howard Bernstein from the New York City Municipal Archives.

Let's hope new indices keep coming from a variety of sources. As researchers we must try new indices to expand our opportunities for success. 

1. It would be nice if companies were up-front about how their collections were indexed? In addition to collection descriptions on websites, they should include how indices were derived. That way one might be able to tell if indices on different websites were independently developed or copied from another (also accessible) source.
2. The data sets do not actually contain death records from 1949 or marriage records from 1938. The records end the year before those designations. It would be good if FamilySearch corrected that so researchers do not think they might find death records from 1949 and marriage certificates from 1938.
3. Queens County, New York, marriage certificate no. 3319 (1926), Nathan Judas Bernstein and Rose Liebross, 14 November 1926; Municipal Archives, New York.


  1. I ran to family search's nyc death index midway through reading this post and re-ran all the people who died in that period who are involved in my penicillin book and some "indexes" were so detailed I see nothing further could come waiting 2 months & $15 for a death certificate.

    For example : two year old "Penicillin Baby" Patricia Malone was for two months in 1943 probably the best known baby in the world . But her death in dec 1943 went unnoticed by the press that had so pumped her miraculous recovery a few months earlier. Family Search's death data is a gold mine as you can see - hard to call that an index - it more a complete transcription !

  2. I agree. They have indexed practically everything. If you were able to locate all the records you have been seeking, then that's fantastic (!). As I noted, however, if I had just relied on this index for much of my Liebross family I would not have found some of their in the FHL indices. I'm glad I used the ItalianGen indices, as well.

  3. This is wonderful! I just re-ran a family name and think I found an elusive birth certificate. Will have to spend more time playing. Excellent point about checking all indices.

    1. Great! Checking alternative indices is something I have to remind myself to do every now and then. It's easy to get stuck on one website.

  4. I, too, found unknown children (with tragically short lives) among two of my characters who died during my wartime penicillin story time period.

    This is because of this new death index's willingness to cross reference every name you enter on the left of the screen , into their search results. So adding spouse's name, if there is one and name is known, is essential.

    Thanks again for bringing this index to researchers' attention...

    1. You're welcome. And continued good luck with your research!


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