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Blessed are the Indexers

By Daniel Hubbard | February 16, 2014

Everyone loves a good index. Occasionally, we love to hate them but still have to confess that they are vital.

These days when we think about an index, we usually think of a searchable database. When they are accurate they are wonderful because they allow us to find information based on a few things that we have discovered. There are other types of indexes; older types of indexes. That usually makes one think of the index in the back of a book. Not as powerful as a digital index but if you have every tried to use an unindexed book, you know just how important it is to have something.


There are many types of indices that people have used through the years to try to make it easier to find information. We’re most familiar with strictly alphabetical indices. If a book is indexed, that is how it will be indexed. Alphabetical indices sound simple but they aren’t always. One complication can be the language in which the index made. Any English speaker who watched the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics would have noticed that the alphabetized teams did not march in the order that an English speaker would expect. That’s what happens when something is alphabetized according to Russian spelling and Cyrillic alphabetical order. Even when the Latin alphabet that we are familiar with is the one that is used there can be complications. How are German names containing umlauts alphabetized? Where do Scandinavians put their extra vowels?

What is the index is only partially alphabetical? Then you need to take the time to understand how it works. In the nineteenth century there were schemes to make the indexer’s life easier when indexing things like land records. People whose surnames began with the same letters might be grouped together and then their given names written into different columns based on the alphabet. One column might be used for anyone whose name began with “A,” “B,” or “C” the next column for “D,” “E,” or “F” and so on. I recently used an Austrian index that grouped surnames by the first letter and the next vowel. For example, names starting with “Feld” and names starting with “Fred” would be together.

Other groupings can be used too. One of my recent favorites was a birth index that lumped together everybody of the same surname in alphabetical order by surname but then subdivided them in blocks by family. The order of the families was random but once you found the right child, all the siblings were right there with them.


Especially when spelling is a bit iffy, a phonetic index could be a wise choice. Soundex is probably the most familiar to genealogists. Letters are converted to a numeric code and all letters that have a similar sound convert to the same digit. (If you live in Illinois, the start of your driver’s license number is just the Soundex code for your surname.) It is no accident that as the U.S. population became large enough that some sort of index was needed in order for it to be useful, Soundex was the chosen method to go back and index census records. When Anglophone enumerators tried to spell immigrant’s names, it did not always go so very well. A phonetic method was what was needed. On the other hand, if one enumerator spelled a foreign name correctly and that name did not follow English phonetics, then the Soundex code won’t necessarily put the name into the same phonetic group as when the same family was enumerated by someone who spelled the name incorrectly and according to English phonetics.

Different languages will naturally have different ways to put names into phonetic order. The German phonetic order that I used the other day was similar to but not the same as what might have been done if the records had been in English.

Other than Names

Older indices and ordered lists may not be based on names. City directories were sometimes based on occupation. That kind of directory was not meant to find a person with a specific name but rather to find a lawyer or a plumber. In other cases, records might be cross-referenced in interesting ways. They aren’t technically indices but they do allow you to find where a person lived if you know the date that they moved, for example.

Using an Index

Indexes are, in a word, great. Every time we find an index to a set of records, we should be thankful that someone made that index. It might have been made for genealogical reasons but often the reason was that clerks needed to be able to find things in the records that they themselves had created. A record set in which nothing can be found is not just useless to genealogists but to everyone else as well.

So, just because there is no modern, computer-searchable index doesn’t mean there is no index. Just because an index seems odd, doesn’t mean that it is not possible to learn how it works.

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