- The physical condition of the original record
- The accuracy of the original record
- The ability of the indexer to decipher the original record
- The ability of the indexer to transcribe the information in the record
- The scope of the index
- The ability of the researcher to use the index
The main challenge of indexed records is analyzing and identifying the the terms to include in the indexed listing. The move from paper-based indexing systems, such as the word index in the back of a book, to the computer based systems has not significantly changed the process. Genealogical indexes focus primarily on names, dates and places. The major flaw in any such system revolves around the fact that all three major search categories can and do change from document to document and still refer to the same historical individual. Computer based search engines have evolved in two separate directions; those search engines that do string searches, i.e. compare sequences of characters and those that locate documents etc. by looking at selected terms.
For example, if I wanted to find an ancestor whose name was Elizabeth Brown, I might find the following variations in the name "Elizabeth" quoted from the Behind the Name website:
VARIANTS: Elisabeth, Elsabeth, Elyzabeth (English), Elisabeth (Biblical)Which of these will be found by either a computer string search or a selective indexing program? It is not unusual, in documents dating from before 1850, to have the same person's name spelled different ways in the same document. Depending on the particular online program involved, the search engine may or may not be sophisticated to realize that all of these types of variations are included in the category of "Elizabeth" names? Likewise, the genealogical researcher may not be sophisticated or even aware of the variety of names that can be included within one common designation. This is particularly true as pointed out by the example above, when you cross linguistic lines.
DIMINUTIVES: Bess, Bessie, Beth, Betsy, Bette, Bettie, Betty, Buffy, Elisa, Eliza, Ella, Ellie, Elly, Elsa, Elsie, Elyse, Libbie, Libby, Liddy, Lilian, Lilibet,Lilibeth, Lillia, Lillian, Lisa, Lise, Liz, Liza, Lizbeth, Lizette, Lizzie, Lizzy, Tetty, Bettye, Elle, Leanna, Leesa, Liana, Liliana, Lilliana (English)
OTHER LANGUAGES: Zabel (Armenian), Elixabete (Basque), Elisabet (Biblical Greek), Elisheba (Biblical Hebrew), Elisabeth (Biblical Latin), Elisaveta (Bulgarian),Elizabeta (Croatian), Alžběta, Eliška (Czech), Elisabet, Elisabeth, Isabella, Eli, Elise, Ella, Else, Lilly, Lis, Lisa, Lisbet, Lise, Lissi (Danish), Elisabeth, Isabella, Isabelle, Betje,Elise, Elly, Els, Else, Elsje, Ilse, Isa, Lies, Liesbeth, Liese, Liesje, Lijsbeth, Lisa (Dutch), Eliisabet, Liis, Liisa, Liisi, Liisu (Estonian), Elisabet, Eliisa, Elisa, Ella, Elsa, Liisa,Liisi (Finnish), Élisabeth, Isabel, Isabelle, Babette, Élise, Lili, Lilian, Liliane, Lilianne, Lise, Lisette (French), Bet, Lys (Frisian), Sabela (Galician), Elisabed, Eliso (Georgian),Elisabeth, Isabel, Isabelle, Bettina, Elisa, Elise, Elli, Elsa, Else, Ilsa, Ilse, Isa, Isabell, Isabella, Lies, Liesa, Liese, Liesel, Liesl, Lili, Lilli, Lisa, Lisbeth (German),Elisavet (Greek), Elikapeka (Hawaiian), Elisheva (Hebrew), Erzsébet, Izabella, Bözsi, Erzsi, Lili, Liliána, Liza, Zsóka (Hungarian), Elísabet (Icelandic), Eilís, Eilish, Isibéal,Sibéal (Irish), Elisabetta, Isabella, Elisa, Elsa, Isa, Liana, Liliana, Lisa (Italian), Bet, Betje (Limburgish), Elžbieta, Elzė (Lithuanian), Elisaveta, Beti, Veta (Macedonian),Ealisaid (Manx), Ibb (Medieval English), Isabel (Medieval Occitan), Elisabet, Elisabeth, Isabella, Eli, Elise, Ella, Else, Lilly, Lis, Lisa, Lisbet, Lise, Liss (Norwegian),Isabèl (Occitan), Elżbieta, Izabela, Izabella, Ela, Eliza, Liliana (Polish), Isabel, Belinha, Elisa, Elisabete, Isabela, Liana, Liliana (Portuguese), Lílian (Portuguese (Brazilian)),Elisabeta, Isabela, Isabella, Liana, Liliana (Romanian), Elizaveta, Yelizaveta, Liza, Lizaveta (Russian), Ealasaid, Elspet, Elspeth, Iseabail, Ishbel, Isobel, Beileag, Lileas,Lilias, Lillias (Scottish), Jelisaveta, Jela, Jelica (Serbian), Alžbeta, Eliška (Slovak), Elizabeta, Špela (Slovene), Isabel, Ysabel, Eli, Elisa, Elisabet, Isa, Isabela,Liliana (Spanish), Elisabet, Elisabeth, Isabella, Elise, Ella, Elsa, Lilly, Lis, Lisa, Lisbet, Lise (Swedish), Yelyzaveta (Ukrainian), Bethan (Welsh)
This issue is further complicated by the fact that the person's name could have actually been a derivative of Elizabeth, but she was never named Elizabeth. The child could have been named "Betty" for example at birth.
When you add dates and names to the mix, the complexity of indexing becomes apparent.
So how does anyone find anything? As I have noted before, searching is an involved and complex skill. It is acquired by practicing through trial and error. But there are several rules that help to expedite the process. Here are some of my own rules for searching.
- Never rely solely on an index for information about an ancestor
- Always try to view the original record found through an index
- If there is a basis for assuming that an ancestor should have appeared in a record; search the record page-by-page and entry-by-entry
- Disregard "traditional" spelling assumptions
- Start from what you know for certain and don't make any assumptions about the data
- Look for and accept name variations
- The original name was spelled differently than you expected it to be, i.e. you are searching for the wrong name
- The indexer misread the name
- The indexer omitted the name altogether
- You are searching in the wrong place or the name of the place has changed
Why won't this work all the time? There is always the chance that the information you are searching for is not in the particular record you have selected. My experience is that most commonly, you have been searching in the wrong place. Unfortunately, I cannot give you the experience you need to become a better searcher. Skill in searching only comes from doing searches over and over again.