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From the Green Valley News, Friday June 9 2006, page B9

Genealogy Today, by Betty Malesky

Using Indexes Effectively

If genealogists are guilty of only one sin, it must be improper use of indexes. We’re all guilty. We go to a library, grab a book from the shelf, and open straight to the index. We quickly scan the entries looking for our ancestral names. If no entry is found, the book goes back on the shelf.

Authors use various methods of indexing for various reasons. Without knowing their intent, we can’t rely on the index. Some indexes include every name, while others include only prominent persons or names mentioned frequently in the text. Others exclude names on lists of taxpayers, military rosters, registers, etc., that are reprinted in the book. Some books have more than one index and the additional ones are easily ignored in a quick search.

By looking only at the index, valuable background information about the family and area where they lived is easily overlooked. The" mug" books, those 19th century town and county histories that featured prominent and/or paying citizens of the region, provide useful material about conditions where ancestors lived even if their names are not found in the book.

Indexes make using land, probate, census, and vital records much easier, but remember the index is not the record. The actual records may contain entries missed entirely by the indexer. If we’re sure the person we seek was in a given place and should have left a record, time spent searching the actual records may produce an entry not in the index.

Despite their inadequacies, indexes are useful tools and save research time. Some tips to keep in mind to use indexes effectively are:

If a name sounds the same, it probably is the same. Names were spelled as the writer heard them. My maiden name Gant, a simple four letter word, is found as Gantt, Gaunt, Gauntt, Gauntte, Guant, Gent, Geant, Ghent, Ghant, Grant, Gandt, Gaint, Ganet, Ganth, Gnat, and Gont. The more complicated or unusual a name, the more irregular spellings you’re apt to find.

Old handwriting is subject to interpretation. Writing styles change, and today’s indexer may not recognize the idiosyncrasies of yesterday’s writer. He may see a word one way while I see it another, and we both may be wrong. Soundex indexes are ineffective if the indexer misread the first letter of the surname. Notice that handwritten indexes often carried entries for frequently used letters to the end of the index if the page used first filled up.

Computerized indexes introduce another opportunity for error, human or mechanical. OCR scanning often misreads letters or letter combinations and substitutes a word entirely different from the original. indexed its censuses out of the country leading to some curious variations in names and locations due to the indexers’ unfamiliarity with our language. Think creatively. If the index allows, search by a subject’s first name only. The surname can usually be recognized even if misspelled. If the head of family can’t be found, try other family members’ names. With census records, try looking for neighbors named in a previous census.

When you do find the index entry you need, don’t stop at the index. Be sure to follow its trail to the original record. The index seldom contains all of the information in the actual record. When we don’t follow through, we can stifle research just as effectively as that unknown indexer.

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