08 April 2012

Why an Index is Only A Starting Point

Indexes to available local records are becoming more and more common across the internet, and these resources can be incredibly helpful. It is important to remember though that these lists are a starting point for your research, not the end result.

Let's compare to make our point.

There are a few wonderful state or county sponsored sites that I have come across in researching my family. One of which is the Washington State Digital Archives and the other is the Madison County, Alabama Records Center.  Both have excellent resources for genealogists, and both are very supportive in the efforts of the research community. I have interacted with both organizations on the phone as well as via email, and have found them to be incredibly friendly and welcoming of questions and inquiries.

The most significant difference between the two is this: Washington State has started to digitize their records and make some of the images available on line, via the site. So when you conduct a search, you get not only the index of the record source, but you can download or purchase a copy of the actual record. That's about as good as its going to get.

The Records Center for Madison County has the advantage of offering indexes on a variety of record sources; some of which are rather unique to that area. Although they do not offer online images, their copying costs are extremely minimal, which is nice to see these days.

Many indexes provide as much information as the actual document, so what is the difference?  Can't I just take the info from the index and not bother to request (and commonly pay for) the actual record?

Well, yes, you can. But as an intentional researcher, by which I mean a person who is truly trying to compile and quality and well thought out family history, you have to ask yourself some questions when using an index as a "source."

  1. How do you know the transcriber read all of the information correctly? 
  2. How do you know there isn't more to learn by gaining access to the actual record? 
  3. Can you be 100% positive that this is the correct individual? What if the records were transcribed over a period of time, and the person creating the index got them out of order? 
  4. What if the original is damaged, and the transcriber made a "best guess"? 
  5. Is the name of the person you are looking for a common one? How can you be sure that the index you have found belongs to your Chris Thompson, and not his cousin, Chris Thompson, who lives three doors down? 
Numerous what if's exist in this situation, too many to list here. 

All the talk recently has been centered around the 1940 Census, and the push to get it indexed. If you have volunteered in this effort, you know exactly what I'm referring to. Handwriting, abbreviations, wrinkles in the page, crossed out lines, small print... all of these things and more can get in the way of an accurate index. 

Take the time, put in the extra effort, even the cash if necessary, to get a copy of the record before you make any conclusions. I promise you, its worth it.