Saturday, February 4, 2017

Now Indexing:
Something Sure to be a Safe Choice

In the genealogy world's time-honored tradition of giving back, I try to regularly spend some time contributing to efforts to make more records available for online researchers. Thus, my routine posts on what I'm indexing at Because this is not an entirely altruistic endeavor, I try to find a project to help which also shares one of my research focuses. Anything from New York or Chicago, for instance, fills the bill.

For today's project, unfortunately, I couldn't find anything to augment those goals. My default option, then, had to be something which could be done without undue angst over handwriting, blurry source documents or other transcribers' woes. I opted for the collection labeled "California Birth Records 1824-1974," a set of records from my home state. What could possibly go wrong?

For one fleeting moment after clicking on my choice, the date 1824 flashed, once again, before my eyes. I panicked, entertaining images of old priests in musty offices of remote missions and the obsolete hand they might have used nearly two hundred years ago. Not to worry, though, for all the documents served up to me in this session involved births in the city of Los Angeles for the year 1900.

What I didn't count on, though, was the fact that Los Angeles, in addition to being home to many immigrants from south of the border, also played host to multitudes from China. Knowing what little facts as I know about Chinese culture, I spent the next few minutes agonizing over whether I should fill in the first name—as in, the first name written on the form—as the individual's given name or surname. After all, don't the Chinese offer this information in the opposite format from western cultures?

So...would the entry listed as Fong Lee really be the entry for the child of proud father, Mr. Lee? Or Mr. Fong?

I think things out too much. In the end, I decided to index the forms just as they were given to me. Hopefully, the bureaucrats in 1900s Los Angeles were sensitized to those cultural differences and provided the information, just as it needed to be.

Or not.

While I tell myself I am indexing because I'm grateful for all those many people who, when I was a beginner, were so generous with their help, I find that indexing has become an eye-opening exercise. It helps me gain empathy for those who struggled to make those impossibly scrawly hand-entered documents accessible through the streamlined processes of computer-assisted search programs. It helps me recall the gratitude I felt, the first time I didn't have to spend nauseating hours poring over microfilmed records. And it certainly provides a boost to all of our research efforts, speeding up the process and guiding us to facts which would have been near-impossible to find, otherwise—like those wandering ancestors who seemed to turn up in a different state, each time the tally came up for the U.S. Census.

In the end, no matter how frustrated I feel while I'm in the process of doing some volunteer indexing, after my brief stint is completed, I remind myself that it is all of us, doing our small part on a regular basis, which will chip away at the mountains of documentation that hold the family secrets we are striving to uncover. In the end, the effort is worth it. And really, with such a small contribution—but multiplied on the part of all of us—we can achieve so much in the end.

Above: Portrait of manuscript illuminator and scribe Jean MiƩlot, in the service of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, attributed to Jean Le Tavernier circa 1456; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Oh I don't envy you the Chinese names. If everyone would do a small part it would make a big difference. Thanks for the push I have not been there for a couple of weeks :)

    1. Wintertime is the best target time for indoor stuff like indexing, so hope you get a chance to squeeze it in your schedule. You already get so much done, it's amazing!

  2. Somehow I REALLY doubt the bureaucrats in LA were sensitive to Chinese culture in 1930... and later the Japanese during WWII with the internment camps.


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