Using and Compiling Indexes
© Copyright Judy Webster. Minor update 24 Apr 2012.
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"Judy Webster, a keen family historian, has compiled and published many indexes. She has also been employed by Qld 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.
To that list I would add:
- 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.
- 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 A & H; C & O; D & W; I & J; F & T; N, M & W; R & K; S & L; 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
- 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 of 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; I & J; F & T; N, M & W; R & K; S & L; and lowercase m, n, u & w; o & a; e & i.
- Double-s, 'ss', often looks like 'p' or 'fs' (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 entries for each possible
Indexes: Good and Bad Features
My thanks to those who sent comments (summarised below) on the essential features of a good index, and pet peeves when using indexes. The most common complaint was about indexes that fail to include adequate explanatory notes or full source references. The comments below may or may not coincide with my own views (most do!)
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'.
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.
- A clear and adequate explanation of the index should be at the front, and all abbreviations should be spelt out.
- Rules about sort order of Mac and Mc, etc., should be clearly stated.
- Instructions! 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?
- Full source locations so I can inspect the original.
- 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.
- For placenames the State should be explicit, and the country should be included
unless it is obvious.
- Eliminate mistakes. I've used some indexes with numerous glaring errors.
- Proofreading... at the transcription stage (eg cemetery stone) and again
after the index is typed.
- Listing every name even when the surname or first name is not known.
- List female maiden and married names as separate entries.
- Cross-reference married names to maiden names, and nicknames to real names.
- If the original is difficult to read, use cross-references to include all likely
interpretations of the spelling.
- Where appropriate, the index should be alphabetical by name, and also have a location
listing, and a chronological listing.
- In a family history index, add birth-death dates to help identify each person.
- Put surnames in capital letters and bold type.
- Keep the index simple.
- The title should reflect the contents of the actual set of fiche, not the entire
- No explanation or instruction page (who did it, why it was done, when it was done,
where sourced, how to use it etc.)
- When no information is given about where the source material is, or what the
abbreviations stand for.
- Lack of cross-references.
- Indexing only by the terms used by the company, rather than including a term that a
layman for that subject might guess at.
- Not in strict alphabetical order.
- When the indexer does not quote the spelling exactly as found.
- Indexes that unnecessarily have codes rather than plain or abbreviated text.
- Non-standard abbreviations (use the Chapman County Codes, please!)
- Indexes that only cite page number when item numbers are available.
- Omitting umlauts and other diacritical marks from names.
- Indexes that use a heading like 'Smith Mrs' and put it after 'Smith Mary'.
- Indexes giving surname only, thought first names are in the source.
- Indexes giving only initials or first given name when the full name is available.
- When the name does not appear on the page it is indexed to!
- Indexes that neglect local businesses.
- When the header/banner on the microfiche says one thing and the contents are
different (eg 'Fremantle Shipping Passenger Arrivals Interstate 1885-1908' is
the banner but, in reality, only a few years have been indexed).
- Unnecessary or inappropriate punctuation.
- Indexes that use uppercase for given names as well as surnames.
- White space on paper.
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
- 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.
- It can be useful to have the same index presented/sorted by each subheading, so one
can check by name, or location or time period etc.
- 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.
- We are moving towards a fiche-less society. All new indexes that are issued on
fiche or film should have an 'upward' path so that they can be transferred to a
comprehensive computer based system without much pain.
- For a multi-fiche set, it is useful to have abbreviations listed on second and
- 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
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. Which ones, depends 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 intend to publish your index on microfiche or CD:
- Put a meaningful title on the fiche or CD. It must accurately describes the contents and date range.
- About 120 pages (A4 size) will usually fit onto one microfiche.
- With microfiche, the biggest expense is having a master copy made (so store it in a safe place). Duplicate fiche can be produced very cheaply. Shop around, as prices vary enormously. Although I live in Brisbane, I use a Sydney company, W. and F. Pascoe. Their prices are very competitive and the quality of their product is excellent.
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