The Joy of Indexing

What has been described by one member of my ward at church as “the most rewarding church service” he’s ever given–including his mission–and has miraculously given another friend at church a discovery about her own family history?  The LDS Church has had its indexing web site up for a while now, but I didn’t try it until last week, after my bishop challenged ward members to get involved.  It’s amazing and I encourage everybody to try it and help.  You don’t even have to be Mormon–anybody can do this, and it really is fun!

Go to and click on “volunteer” on the right side.  You’ll get some easy directions and then you start “indexing,” which means that you’re part of a worldwide effort to digitize old census, marriage, and other vital records so they’ll be preserved forever and be available for anyone to access instantly online.  When you sign up, a scanned copy of one such record will appear on your screen, and your job is simply to read the old record and type the information into the fields provided on the screen. 

I’ve found my history-loving and puzzle-solving interests piqued by this great opportunity.  (And, yes, someone in my ward did get sent–despite the physical odds being millions to one against it–a page with one of her own ancestors on it.)  As I read these pages, I find myself not only trying to decode some pretty bad handwriting and wrapping my head around some odd names, but also trying to figure out some life stories.  Sometimes I’m just impressed by what these records teach us about life a hundred years ago. 

Here’s a more detailed introduction from an Ensign article a couple of years ago.  And here’s a fun little article about it from this month’s New Era magazine. 

Here’s a screen shot of a page I was working on this afternoon, from the 1920 census in the county of Spartanburg, South Carolina:



You can see the fields on the bottom third of the screen where you enter the information from the picture of the record in the top two thirds.  Here’s the biggest thing I noticed as I did this page:

  • Margaret Emory was living with two daughters and a granddaughter.  Margaret was a widow, as was her 31-year-old daughter Betty–presumably little Dora’s mother.  What was life like for these four women, living together, two of whom had lost husbands? 
  • The Emory family reminds me of a batch I did last Sunday, where three siblings in their 20’s lived together–two sisters and a brother, the oldest sister being listed as head of household.  Why were none of them married?  Where were their parents?  Why would they still be together?  My theory is that they were orphans who had grown so close as they struggled to raise themselves that they continued to cling together as adults. 
  • On that same page last week, I remember seeing a few women whose job was listed on the right side as “school teacher.”  (Sadly, they were all single.  School marms, apparently.)  Several children on the same page were listed as “in school.”  Were the women on their block their teachers?  What was that like?  The one time I had a kid in summer school say that he’d seen me playing outside my house with my kids, I was terrified of what he might do if he got angry.  I presume the world was different back then.

Here’s a shot of the same page, further down:


Some thoughts here:

  • 21-year-old Charlie Mathis is married to sixteen-year-old Pearl.  Not only that, but they already have a baby.  At least they appear to be making it on their own.  How did Pearl’s dad feel about all this? 
  • The Prices have a son named “Spurgon.”  Part of the fun of this project has been actually seeing people named Edith, Agnes, and Derwood.  Invariably, when I see those names, they’re children.  Spurgon’s a new one, though.
  • The only black family in the neighborhood is the Conners, a 23- and 24-year-old who already have a 10-year-old son.  Like most of the families around there, his career is listed as farmer.  I hope they did alright in life, and I hope people treated them well. 
  • Sometime between having Nora and having Hubert, the Hudgins family moved from North Carolina to South Carolina.  Were they moving to be closer to wife Lilly’s family?  Her birthplace is listed as South Carolina, as opposed to husband Jerome’s birthplace in North Carolina.  How did Jerome feel about that move?

3 comments on “The Joy of Indexing

  1. Is there a system of double checking? Any system of volunteering with untrained and unsupervised volunteers is going to be rife with errors, especially where people have to interpret cursive handwriting styles.

    As a former programmer, I know it’s possible to write the software so it issue a batch of work to two or more people, check for uniformity between the results, and then flag the differences, and re-issue flagged line-items (or the entire batch) for resolution among a larger group of volunteers, or to one or more individuals who form a group of “trusted parties.”

    The LDS genealogical databases have had a long reputation for being rife with errors due to the amateur volunteer status of most of the contributors.

    Without a double- and triple-checking mechanism I don’t see how the volunteers on this project, especially those who are working on batches that are specific to their own genealogy, are going to be any better at deciphering old cursive penmanship. It’s difficult enough for dedicated and conscientious people to decipher, and this project is open to anyone willing to do a slap-dash effort.

  2. Bookslinger, yes, everything gets reviewed by another party before being formally enetered into databases. Those “checkers” aren’t just random Internet volunteers, but more formal, experienced folks. In fact, one of the enthusiasts in my ward has made it to that level, and loves doing it.

    You’re right, though–I should have explained that our permanent, eternal records do not depend solely on any shmoe guessing if that’s supposed to be an O, a Q, or maybe even a K. :)

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