FamilySearch has been immensely successful in assembling a large, volunteer workforce of indexers. Yet digitizing microfilm images still outpaces indexing by many orders of magnitude. Many, many more indexers are needed. How long FamilySearch can continue to grow its indexing workforce is unknown.
I think there is a better way to harness the capabilities of the genealogical community. I call it laissez faire indexing. It uses what I call the Amazon model.
The Amazon Model
The Amazon model is to leverage normal user actions to gain information that can be given back, enhancing the user experience. From almost their first day Amazon.com did business, they added value for customers with a feature that told you “People who bought this book also bought…”
Ancestry.com is successfully utilizing the Amazon method to give users additional value by gleaning information from users attaching records into their trees. If some other user attaches a record to a person in a tree, then you get notified that there is a record available for that same person in your tree. Similarly, if you view a record, you are alerted to other records that are associated with that record because both are attached to the same person in someone’s tree.
Think about microfilm. What do you do normally? You crank through the film, figuring out the lay of the land. You look for indexes. You figure out how the records are arranged. You find indexes (or lack thereof). You find page numbers, or ranges of pages for dates or letters of the alphabet or record types. You locate pages of interest. You finagle meaning out of bad handwriting, mold, mildew, book worms, blurs, and ink spots.
Altruism aside, if you could leave yourself some breadcrumbs, wouldn’t you? How cool would it be if you could bookmark the start of a volume, the start of the index, the start of the index for the letter “N” (you’re researching the N’Siders, of course), and each page where that surname appears? If some page numbers were illegible, but you figured them out by going back and forth through nearby pages, wouldn’t you want to save yourself—and other researches (we don’t have to be totally non-altruistic)—some trouble in the future? If you figured out some names that were tough to read, wouldn’t it be handy to tag the name to remind yourself what you figured out? Wouldn’t you bookmark pages with names you wanted to revisit later?
Sure you would! I know I would. (I’m OCD, so I might get sucked into bookmarking and tagging the five pages intermixed with the 20 pages of interest to me. Forget helping others; it would drive me crazy if I didn’t. But I digress…)
Laissez Faire Indexing
While bookmarking pages and tagging information isn’t possible on microfilm, it is possible with online digital images. As the name suggests, Laissez faire indexing lets indexers choose when and what they index without the control of or dependence on a central authority. Indexers choose which collections, which records from the collection, and which fields from the record to index.
I include bookmarking in the concept of laissez faire indexing. Bookmarking is the establishment of a browse structure into a collection.
Build laissez faire indexing around the Amazon model and I think you have advantages over the current practice of bulk indexing.
- It captures the normal work of researchers that otherwise goes to waste. Judging from the scratches I find on microfilm at the Family History Library, at lot of people have already used the films I use. Each subsequent user redoes some of the work done by previous users, finding beginnings of volumes, locations of indexes, and deciphering information.
- That last point is worth expounding. Normal collection users don’t have to “index.” They continue doing what they do now with the added convenience of going to the Internet instead of going to Salt Lake or Germany. And with the added convenience of bookmarking and tagging, indexing just happens.
- I dismissed altruism earlier, but the truth is that the genealogical community is rife with it. The community constantly and consistently “pays it forward.” Laissez faire indexing lowers barriers, catalyzing indexing throughout the community, if only a little bit, as researchers go about their research.
- Just as a free market economy self optimizes better than central planning, laissez faire indexing prioritizes work better than a central authority. Indexing occurs in the collections, records, and fields that are used the most. This returns the greatest value to the genealogical community.
- Dedicated indexers choose the collections that interest them the most. High interest motivates indexers to work more, and to work more productively.
- Societies and historical organizations can self-organize indexing projects. Indeed, ad hoc groups can self-organize around indexing projects, forming new societies and strengthening existing ones.
- The same infrastructure needed for laissez faire could be used for user corrections and entry of alternate opinions, name variations, and maiden names.
Laissez faire indexing would have disadvantages too, of course.
- Collections, names, and fields that are seldom or never used might never get indexed. Tools would need to be developed to allow dedicated indexers to identify and fill gaps.
- Creating a search experience that effectively integrated indexed results with non-indexed possibilities would be challenging.
- Novices, in particular, might be demotivated by search failure and the need to dig into and understand records. Effective training would need to be woven into the user experience. (On the other hand, records needed by the most novices would get indexed sooner, providing a better first experience than currently provided.)
- Relinquishing control is difficult for an organization and introduces considerable risks: Implementing laissez faire is expensive. The benefits are unproven. The results are non-deterministic.
- History has shown that successful online communities depend on small, subtle factors and features. Building a successful community requires agility, flexibility, and plenty of trial and error. I wonder if we are up to the challenge. FamilySearch is not known (yet) for its agility. And while genealogists are flexible, some of us are adverse to trial and error when it comes to website changes.
- Creating indexing templates would be inconsistent and building consensus among users could be divisive. Building tools to solve this problem would be expensive.
What do you think? Continue indexing as present? Make the leap of faith into laissez faire indexing? Fine tune what we have? Or do something entirely different?
Next week I’ll give you my recommendation.