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Fingered by the Index

By Daniel Hubbard | August 4, 2013

I don’t remember when I first read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Whenever it was, I have read it many times since. I won’t go into much of it here, it would be well off topic. Suffice it to say that it deals with a vast sweep of the future and the decline of a great galaxy-wide civilization and its reinvigoration from a point at its fringe.

One of the ways Asimov chose to illustrate the decline was though a debate on human origins. Humans had spread so far and had been scattered for so long that it was no longer known from where they originated. As any genealogist ought to understand, origins are interesting. So in the distant future there were people who sought to locate the hypothetical planet of origin. How did they attempt to find it? They read earlier thinkers on the subject and wrote commentaries. They debated threads of possibilities mentioned by authors that had been dead for hundreds or thousands of years. The thought of sifting through whatever ancient records might exist or of performing an archeological excavation on one of the possible planets never occurred to anyone. That is simply not what one did. One read what had been done earlier and decided.

Hopefully, to any modern person, especially to any modern researcher, that seems absurd. It is fine to take guidance from giants as we stand on their proverbial shoulders but to leave it at that, not check or test is not the way the modern world works. In genealogy we always want to take as many sources as possible into account and it is the ones that were created as close as possible to the event of interest that usually take precedence. We want to get back in time to the event itself. Getting back to someone who once had something to say about events that were in their own distant past can provide clues or act as a signpost to guide us on the path, but if we can at all help it, we don’t rely solely on material created long after the fact.


Your index finger is literally the finger with which you indicate things. From that we get “to finger” meaning to be indicated as a wrongdoer. You don’t want to be fingered by an index.

One of the common statements made about conducting genealogical research, easily fits into the form of a commandment—”thou shalt not rely on the index.” Indices are supposed to guide us to records, not replace them (unless of course the index is all that survives). I can think of two reasons for that commandment and I ran into both of them in the last few days.

The first reason not to rely on the index is that it almost certainly doesn’t contain all the information found in the original record. A marriage index told me the name of the bride, the name of the groom and the date and place of the marriage. All good information, if correct, but hardly everything that the record contained. I ordered  the microfilm but before it arrived, I traced the groom back to Sweden and found the name of the place where he was born down to the actual house. Imagine scrolling through the nearly randomly ordered New York City marriage records on a roll of microfilm and discovering that the groom’s place of birth was not just recorded as “Sweden,” as I’d expect, but also with the name of the house. There was no village or parish or even county named, just the name of the house followed by “Sweden.” The clerk who wrote it down certainly didn’t understand what he was writing but I did. In a genealogical sense, I can only say that it was beautiful. You don’t get that kind of confirmation from an index.

The other reason not to rely on the index is that it was probably created long after the event and will contain mistakes. Even the best indexers will make errors. Usually the indexer won’t have the in-depth knowledge that someone researching a family will have. The indexer might not even have good knowledge of the time or place that produced the records that they are indexing. Ideally, they will but you can’t base your research on it. I ran into this while researching a family in mid 17th century Massachusetts. The index told me of the death of  “Ann.” Looking at the original record should something a bit different. The first problem is that after the name appeared a quite distinct pair of words, “son of.” The name didn’t even look much like “Ann.” It looked like “John.” The other problem was that Ann/John had a sister, whose death was recorded immediately below. That death was attributed to “Riley.” Now, Riley may be a fine name but in Puritan New England, it is probably only marginally more likely that Vladimir, and that is partially because we are talking about a girl. Admittedly, it was hard to read the name but it would take a lot to convince me of a little Puritan girl named Riley. The descender of the supposed “y” actually belonged to a letter in the line below and the girl’s name was Ruth, not Riley.

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Topics: Etymology, Records, Research Mindset | No Comments »

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