Friday, February 1, 2013

Dear Randy: What Record Collection Would You Like To Have Indexed?

I was asked this question recently by a genealogy colleague at the recent SDGS David Rencher seminar:

"What record collection would you really like to have digitized and indexed?"

I didn't have to think a long time about my answer, because I've been saying it for years:

"I think that many difficult "brick wall" research problems will be solved once land records and probate records are digitized from microfilms, and the indexes of their indexes are searchable."

We are maybe 25% there (my estimate) with the digitizing of the pre-1920 (approximately) land and probate records for a number of States (and in some cases counties).  But few, if any, of those record collections are indexed, and my guess is that most of them will not be indexed for a very long time, if ever, because of the sheer volume of names and images.

However, if the INDEXES to the land and probate records were indexed, then researchers could more easily find the actual probate and land record images without fighting through the indexes to these records.  The indexes are very NAME RICH!

Let me show you an example:

This is one page out of 689 pages of one volume of the Erie County Grantee deed indexes, in the New York Deeds, 1630-1975 record collection, for surnames R to Z for the years 1808-1859.  The grantees are not in alphabetical order in this volume - the entries are by surname first letter and then date recorded order, so it is very difficult to find every entry for a person over a period of time.  I had to search all of the Vs to find the entries for my Vaux family in this volume - over about 30 pages - and I am still finding them!  Then I have to search the Grantor Index, and then search in later years also, because not every deed was recorded at the time it was executed.  You can see the magnitude and difficulty of the problem.  It's hard to do for the Vaux surname - it's almost impossible for Brown, Johnson, Smith, etc.

I counted over 200 Deed Index volumes for Erie County alone.  The Deed Index volumes are about 25% of the volumes for the Erie County NY Deeds.  There may be almost 5 million lines in the Deed Indexes for Erie County. There are deed records for 60 New York counties in this particular New York collection, with a total of over 8 million images.  Not all New York counties are covered here, either.

I know that "old-timers," like me, who have had to deal with these records on rented FHL microfilms, or in moldy courthouse basements with dust-choking volumes, are saying:  "These new Internet genealogists are sure spoiled - we had to do this at the FHC or at the courthouse.  These newfangled digitized images are making this task way too easy - they can do it at home for free in their PJs."

Yep - that's what we all want in our wildest dreams - to be able to do a better job in a shorter amount of time before we, or our clients, die or get frustrated by the complexity and slowness of the process.  Gathering the indexed names is the hard part - it's relatively easy to find the actual record once we have a volume and page number for the record.

Without indexes of the Grantee and Grantor indexes for land records, I'm afraid that these records will go relatively unused by almost all genealogy researchers because it is too difficult to find names in the Grantee/Grantor indexes.  The same goes for probate records, which would probably be easier to do since there aren't usually multiple entries for persons in probate records.

FamilySearch did and continues to do yeoman work finding these records, microfilming them and digitizing them, and now what needs to be done is indexing the Indexes so that researchers can more easily find records of their ancestral families.  We are indebted to FamilySearch for this work.

This "Indexing the Indexes" task would be a great volunteer indexing task for local and county genealogical societies to perform, and would provide exposure to, and insight into how to use, these record collections to many more researchers.

I would like to know if we can expect to see Indexes of the Grantor and Grantee Indexes for land records, and of probate packet lists for probate records.  If so, I'll hold off doing this work for my ancestral families ... but if not, we all need to get to work on these digitized records, and teach our genealogy colleagues how to access them and use them.

What Record collection would you like to have Indexed?  What would make your research job much easier?

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Copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver


Chris Staats said...

I have mixed feelings about this, and a much simpler request - that they just digitize and put the deed indexes online. If they do create an "index to the index" - I still want to be able to see images of the compiled index. While a searchable index would obviously be wonderful, I wonder if it doesn't introduce yet another level of potential error in searching for records. "Error" is not really the right word, but I don't know what else to call it. So you create an database, based on a compiled index, which itself was created from individual volume indexes. If the compiled indexes themselves aren't viewable, and the indexes to individual books (where they exist)aren't also digitized , how can a researcher really be sure that a particular record "doesn't exist", or a transaction they are looking for "must not have been recorded"? I like the convenience of records being searchable, but I also think that researchers need to recognize that just because something isn't in the index database doesn't necessarily mean that it deosn't exist.

Debbie Blanton McCoy said...

I would also love to see the deed and probate records online. I don't care if they are indexed or not; however, they are going to have to list them by county and date, or some title that makes sense. Today I tried to browse the Texas County Marriage Records and they are listed by digital file numbers like 004820654. These numbers don't even match the FHL film numbers. There is no way to find a specific county or time period without opening each digital folder to see what is in it and there are approximately 155 folders. In other records, the files were in alpha and/or chronological order, but I could not determine any order to these records.

GeneJ said...

Thank you for posting this article, Randy. I work mostly on historical personalities/families that predate modern census and vital records. It is just not possible for me to approach a "reasonably exhaustive search" working with the low lying fruit (census and vital records) of that era. Access to the probate and real property records from this era are going to change the family historians perspective about genealogical research. For these materials, in particular, the "indexing" work itself would be a lower priority for me. I've been using the FamilySearch historical record collection "browse images" feature for some time. More and more, I actually prefer to work the collections this way.

Melissa Smith said...

I think it would be fabulous if the land and probate records were indexed, and linked to images of the indexes. This would be a huge help in locating these valuable records. Melissa

Jason said...

Thanks for posting this Randy. I wasn't aware they had these records online. Last night I found a land record for a GGG grandfather that led me to the will of his wife's father, breaking a brick wall that I've had for a while.

Also, just learning how to use the indexing systems in these records takes some research as well!

Sven-Ove Westberg said...

Land records are interesting. But an index of the index is overkill. Just add some pointers to where the different parts of the index are and the same for the records.

But you also have the half indexed records on Ellis Island. The only name that is searchable is the immigrant. You also have the retaliative in the homeland and the most important information the name and address of the person that they are going to.

Mariann Regan said...

This is a super idea, indexing the indexes. There were so many volunteers to index the 1940 census, surely some local genealogy societies could step up! I'm getting "sworn into" the DAR this weekend. I'll ask them what they think about this project. If only the deed and probate records could go online, that would help tremendously.