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Using and Compiling Indexes

"Judy Webster, a keen family historian, has compiled and published many indexes. She was also employed by Queensland State Archives to help with guidelines and data entry/checking for their indexing projects. On this page she shares practical tips based on her own experience."

Traps involved in using indexes

These rules for using indexes have been selected from a list reported to be from the 'Genealogy Week' section of Antique Week and attributed to James L. Hansen of the State Hist. Soc. of WI, USA.

  • An index is only an index. It is not a substitute for the record being indexed.
  • It doesn't matter how you spell the name, it only matters how the indexer spelled it.
  • In a given record, any vowel may at any point be substituted for any other vowel or consonant.
  • If you haven't found it in the index, you can only conclude that you haven't found it in the index. You cannot conclude that it's not in the record.
  • Sometimes it is best to ignore the index altogether.
To that list I would add:
  • Before you use an index, read the Introduction and explanatory notes.
  • Consider indexing errors due to handwriting. Look-alikes include 'Fl' & H (Flannery/Hannery);  uppercase S & L;  A & H;  C & O;  C & G;  D & W;  I & J;  F & T;  N, M & W;  R & K;  Q & Z;  and lowercase m, n, u & w;  o & a;  e & i;  'ss', 'fs' & p.
  • An entry may be indexed under a middle name instead of the surname.
  • Regional accents change how a name sounds and thus may alter how it was recorded.
  • Note this advice from Planning Research: Short Cuts in Family History by Michael Gandy (FFHS, Birmingham, 1993), pp.43-44:  'Don't insist on certain spelling forms.  Say the name out loud in the accent of the area, then pretend you're an old gaffer with no teeth. Now be a deaf, indifferent clerk who doesn't come from the area and thinks he hasn't got time to waste on yokels. His pen scratches and blots and he's got the beginnings of arthritis or palsy. Then let the ink fade for 200 years and get the register transcribed by a beginner, typed up by someone who was watching the television, and spot-checked by someone who thought it was probably all right so why bother.'  [So expect the unexpected when it comes to the spelling of names!]
  • Consider the patronymic naming system used by those of Scandinavian and Welsh origin. Are you looking for the wrong surname?
  • Consider incorrect / inconsistent placement of entries with no given name (Mrs. Smith, baby Jones), compound or hyphenated surnames, names with prefixes, and foreign names.
  • Cards may be filed in the wrong place.  Search backwards, forwards and under spelling variants.
  • Check how entries are arranged (strictly alphabetical or by first letter only).
  • Check whether names beginning with O' and Mc/Mac variants are filed separately, interfiled, or some of each (or was the name written without the prefix?)  Mc/Mac variants include M-apostrophes, McSpaces, McUnderscores, and McDots, as in M'CANN, Mc FADDEN (space between C and F), Mc_FADDEN [McUnderscore], and Mc.FADDEN [McDot].'  [Some of these were mentioned in RootsWeb Review Vol.6, No.44, 29 Oct 2003.]
  • Are names like ST. LEON listed under Saint or St?
  • Note which sections / time periods you searched. In some indexes it is easy to miss a section.
  • Record the index version and date you used it. Later versions may have more names or corrections.
  • All indexes contain errors. ALWAYS inspect the original source, even if the index claims to include all details.

Here are just a few of the many indexing errors I have seen:

  • AVERY  incorrectly indexed as  HOEY
  • INMAN  incorrectly indexed as  JUMAN
  • VEIVERS  incorrectly indexed as  VEWER
  • Ivy  incorrectly indexed as  Joy
  • 'Edmund Carver BRYANT'  incorrectly indexed as  'CARVER Edmund'
  • 'Michael KELLY (Junior)'  incorrectly indexed as  'JUNIOR Michael Kelly'
  • 'John SMITH, late of Brisbane'  incorrectly indexed as  'LATE John Smith'
  • 'Henry BROWN of Helen Street'  incorrectly indexed as  'STREET Helen'.

Recommended reading:  Freeman, Harry. 'How to Use an Index', in Descent vol.20 no.4, Dec 1990, pp.160-164 (Society of Australian Genealogists).

Some basic rules of indexing

  • Put titles in brackets after the name - for example:
    • BROWN John (Rev)  ... not  BROWN Rev John
    • SMITH - (Mrs)  ... not  SMITH Mrs
  • Names that do not include a given name or initial must be placed before those that do - for example:
    • SMITH - (Mrs)   comes before
    • SMITH Ann

Indexing Tips  

  • Some things will cause your data to sort incorrectly.  Unless you remove these faults, entries will appear in the wrong place in an alphabetical list.  Run 'find' or 'find-and-replace' searches, and do a test sort and a visual check. Be sure to remove:
    • leading spaces at the beginning of a field
    • trailing spaces at the end of a field (they make 'SMITH  Ann' come after 'SMITH Zachariah')
    • double-spaces between words
    • missing spaces between words (eg  SMITH JohnJames)
    • extraneous and inconsistent punctuation (see note below)
  • Inconsistent punctuation can cause your list to sort incorrectly. I know of an index where the first three entries for surnames beginning with O are O' KANE (with a space after the apostrophe), O"BRIEN (with double quotes), and OSULLIVAN with a curly apostrophe or smart-quote instead of a straight one (the other O'SULLIVAN entries are much further down the list).
  • When searching indexes on computer, the search function may not find names containing curly apostrophes like the OSULLIVAN referred to above. An index is a finding aid - it should not prevent users from finding a name!  You may decide to remove apostrophes altogether. If you include them, use only one form (preferably a single straight quote). If you want your index to show punctuation exactly as in the original, make cross-references from the form for which most people would search. Decide what policy to adopt, apply it consistently, double-check for consistency before publishing, and include an explanatory note in the introduction.
  • Plan your project carefully before you start, as some computer programmes do not allow you to change the format and specifications of your database once you have started work. Have a test run before you start indexing in earnest.
  • Enter surnames in capital letters. It may be best to use separate database fields for surname and given name.
  • Use three-letter abbreviations for months.  Some people interpret '9-11-2001' as '9 Nov 2001', and others as '11 Sep 2001'.
  • As you work, make a list of abbreviations, your indexing policy decisions, and general comments about the source.
  • If you are not sure of a name (eg because of poor handwriting), make an entry for each possible interpretation, put a question mark after the name to indicate that doubt exists.
  • Be sure that you understand the rules of alphabetical arrangement.  It is not as straightforward as you may think, so see the 'Recommended reading' list below.
  • Indexing software:  I use File Express, but it may not be available now. I cannot personally recommend any other indexing programmes, but I can offer some words of warning:  (1) Do not use Microsoft Word for indexing, because it does not sort large files correctly. (2) If you use Microsoft Access or Excel, turn off the 'auto-complete' feature (it often introduces errors during data entry); and there is a limit to file size for correct sorting / printing.
  • For indexing names in your family tree, use a programme such as Legacy Family Tree or The Master Genealogist.

Recommended reading - a preliminary list

I frequently receive requests for advice on indexing methodology. The following publications are recommended, and are available in many major libraries (especially University or State Libraries), or via interlibrary loan.

  • Anderson, M.D. Book Indexing. Cambridge University Press, 1971.
  • Flint, J. & Berry, A. Local Studies Collections:  Guidelines and Subject Headings for Organizing and Indexing Resources. Occasional Paper No.9, Library Association of Australia, NSW Branch, Sydney, 1985.
  • Knight, G.N. Indexing, the art of:  a guide to the indexing of books and periodicals. Allen & Unwin, London, 1979. [Highly recommended, whatever the source being indexed. I consider Knight's book to be essential reading for any genealogist or local historian who is planning to compile an index to any type of source. It was the set text for the unit on indexing in the University of New England's Local & Applied History course. It gives detailed rules & examples regarding proper names, pseudonyms, compound surnames, surnames with prefixes, foreign names, names of married women, geographical names, subject headings, inverted headings, references & cross-references, subheadings, alphabetical arrangement, acronyms, punctuation, symbols & numerals, indexing of newspapers & periodicals, cumulative indexing, editing, proof-reading. and so on.]
  • Wyatt, Michael. Indexing your family history for publication, in A Selection of Papers:  First International Congress on Family History, Sydney, Oct 1988. Australasian Federation of Family History Organisations and Society of Australian Genealogists, 1988.
  • There are some interesting articles on indexing in the AFFHO Newsletter, Vol. 2 Issue 3 (Aug 1998).

Interpreting handwritten sources

If you are indexing handwritten sources, take extra care. Even those who have had years of experience should not be complacent. It helps if you aware of a few potential traps:

  • Certain letters are indistinguishable in some handwriting. Look-alikes include 'Fl' & H (Flannery/Hannery);  uppercase A & H;  C & O;  D & W;  G & C;  I & J;  F & T;  N, M & W;  R & K;  S & L;  Q & Z;  and lowercase m, n, u & w;  o & a;  e & i;   y & z.
  • Double-s, 'ss', often looks like 'p' or 'fs' when a 'long s' is used (eg 'Miss' looks like 'Mifs').

If the interpretation that you decide upon is not a name you've heard before, check a capital city telephone directory to see whether there are any entries for that spelling. This is certainly not infallible, but it sometimes helps.

The golden rule is 'If in doubt, make index entries for each possible interpretation'.

Recommended reading:

Indexes:  Good and Bad Features

My thanks to those who sent comments (summarised below) on the essential features of a good index. Almost everyone complained about indexes that fail to include adequate explanatory notes or source references.

Essential features of a good index

  • A good explanation in the preliminary notes. I need to know what I won't find, as well as what I will, and what abbreviations are used. Is it in strict alphabetical order, or only by first letter of surname? What date range has been covered, and were there gaps in the original source?
  • An explanation of what to do next (where is the original source?)
  • Dates should be rendered in the 'dd mmm yyyy' format - that is, a three-letter month, not all figures, and the year should be four figures.
  • Use uppercase for surnames (and only surnames).
  • For placenames the State should be explicit, and the country should be included unless it is obvious.
  • List every name even when the surname or first name is not known.
  • If the original is difficult to read, use cross-references to include all likely interpretations of the spelling.
  • In a family history index, add birth-death dates to help identify each person, and include a location index with standard abbreviations (Chapman County Codes).
  • Include umlauts and other diacritical marks. (Unfortunately some indexing software strips these out.)

Other comments from various people:

  • I recently set up our small branch library's catalogue system with over 505 microfiche titles. I was astounded at the volume of material not adequately explained.
  • Card indexes in archives offices and libraries should have a card at the front explaining what the source is, and the date range covered.
  • The problem is that the indexers tend to use broad headings (obituaries, weddings, births, anniversaries, graduation lists, tax return lists) leaving the beleaguered researcher to figure out what headings he should try.
  • If there are a lot of entries for one name, or if there is no given name, include some reliable piece of information (eg spouse's name) in brackets to help identify which is which. Avoid using 'age' as this is very unreliable and may cause people to overlook an entry that is in fact relevant.
  • Re-entering indexes is a lot of work, so it is vital to work out the details of an index before starting.
  • Indexes that really annoy me are those where no information is given re where the source material is, or what the abbreviations stand for. When I find someone on it, I have no idea where the information came from. It has really put us off buying more indexes by the same compiler in case they are the same.
  • Patricia Law Hatcher and John V. Wylie have written an article in the National (USA) Genealogical Society Quarterly, June 1993, which is also a NGS special publication no.73:  'Indexing Family Histories'. Ms Hatcher also gives a good discussion of indexing in her book Producing a Quality Family History, ISBN 0-916489-64-7.

Problems encountered while indexing:

  • How to handle foreign and compound names like de la X, van der Y, Tindale-Smith etc. [The book Indexing, the art of deals with this problem.]
  • What is the correct position in an index for entries without given names?  [Answer:  they precede those for that surname which do have initials or given names. 'SMITH -' comes before 'SMITH A.'  It may be helpful to add identifying remarks in parentheses, eg 'SMITH - (baby)',  'SMITH - (died 1890)',  'SMITH - (wife of John)'.]
  • It is sometimes difficult to know what to put in an index without breaking copyright laws, and without giving too much information (after all, we want people to go and look at the original source!)
  • Distinguishing titles from first names, eg Major John Jones, Sister Ellen Doe, Doc Adams (all real examples where these are first names and not titles). I never include the titles in an index except when the woman is listed as Mrs John DOE, when I enter it as 'DOE John (Mrs)'. If I don't know husband's name, I enter it as 'DOE - Mrs'.

Before you publish, find out about copyright laws.

An ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is obtained by applying to the ISBN Agency, Thorpe Bibliographic Services. Thorpe also compiles Australian Books in Print (and when you have an entry there, you usually receive orders from library suppliers). Legal Deposit laws state that you are legally obliged to deposit a copy of your publication with certain libraries (based on where the item is published). Usually it is the National Library of Australia, plus the State Library (and maybe others) in your State.

If you publish your index on CD:

  • Use a meaningful title that accurately describes the contents and date range.
  • Specify the format of the data. If it can only be viewed with a particular version of Acrobat Reader, Microsoft Word, Excel etc, purchasers need to know that.
  • Use a 'write speed' that allows the CD to be read on computers less powerful than the one that created it.
Other Suggestions

My other genealogy sites have additional advice and names.

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