Last week I talked about Elizabeth Shown Mills's lecture on boxes we trap ourselves in. And I asked that everyone come prepared today to work more boxes.
Did everyone remember to bring your #2 pencil? Good; I’m glad you remembered…
…that you didn’t need to bring one. (Marking a computer screen with a pencil… Well, that’s just silly.)
Remember that Elizabeth Shown Mills illustrated a point in her class with two individuals with the same name, living in the same place, at the same time. When she mentioned that the two were both listed in the census, I opened up Ancestry.com to see for myself. It was a little difficult to find them because…
BOTH WERE MISINEXED!
Sorry; I didn’t mean to shout. But it just seems like every time I search I find indexing errors.
Then it occurred to me that this would make a good test case. Are the Ancestry.com indexes inferior because they were done by non-English speakers? Will the FamilySearch volunteer indexers do a better job?
The problem may not be non-English indexers. Another possibility to consider is that reading a record cold is not nearly as easy as targeted searching. Contrast the indexer who comes at a record cold with the searcher who examines the record armed with information about the target individual and family members. The targeted searcher has the liberty to ask, "with so many other legible bits of information matching my guy, is the shape of that miserable ink blot—masquerading as handwriting—consistent with the name I am looking for?"
Consider the following illustration. Try to cold-index the following eight names, written by an enumerator who has the worst handwriting in the entire world. I’ll publish the answers tomorrow.
Now try targeted searching. Here’s the context:
A long-lived census employee has enumerated the White House for over 200 years, enumerating presidents from George Washington to Barak Obama. This sample shows eight of the better known presidents.
After writing each character, he drew a box around it and colored it in—perhaps a misguided attempt at security. As you check the boxes, notice some letters descend below the base line (like g, j, p, …), and some ascend higher than others (b, d, f, …). It is really easy to pick out dotted letters (i and j).
Check the boxes again and see how many you can read—despite the atrocious handwriting.
This illustration (hopefully) shows why cold indexers can not match your ability to read the names of your ancestors.
Can FamilySearch indexers do a better job than Ancestry.com indexers? Is the cold indexing handicap sufficient to account for the problems in Ancestry.com’s indexes? Or does the language of the indexer also affect the quality?
What if a native English speaker in Uganda that had never learned anything about U.S. presidents tried the illustration? Perhaps the problem with offshore indexing is not one of language but of historical and cultural knowledge.
Back to My Test Case
That brings us back to my little test case. I didn’t tell you the misindexed name from Elizabeth Shown Mills lecture because I don’t want anyone entering the correction because I think FamilySearch is incorporating corrections on Ancestry.com into their indexes. After FamilySearch publishes the relevant index, I’ll check and see if they did any better.