Tag Archives: giving back

Jewish Genealogy Basics: Ancestral Town (Shtetl) Information

One of the first steps to doing genealogy research is to find the town that each person in your tree was born. For most Jewish researchers, this means tracking back to towns that may no longer exist or have not had any Jewish population for generations. Certainly the Holocaust was the cause of many of these disruptions.

A Jewish ancestral town is sometimes generically referred to as a shtetl, which in Yiddish simply means town. Shtetl is sometimes used more specifically to mean small towns in Europe with large Jewish populations. Finding your ancestral town is a different topic (or rather there are many topics related to finding one’s ancestral town), and an important one, but for the purposes of this article I will assume you already know the name of the town from which your family originated.

So you’ve found the name of the town, now what? I think the first step in doing research on the town your family came from is to find out where the town is, and what it is/was near. This might seem simple, but many of the towns Jews lived in in the past had the borders switch around them amid the wars and dealings of the empires (Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Prussian/German) that ruled them.

There are several resources that can help you find out more about your town. Two important databases on JewishGen are the Communities Database and ShtetlSeeker. These two databases are not the same, and I’ll explain the differences.

JewishGen Communities Database

The Communities Database contains information on known Jewish communities across the globe. If your town is in the database, there is a page that contains a lot of basic information on the town, as well as links to other data on the town. The resultant page is largely generated automatically. It will show you which country and region the town existed in during different time periods, as well as which towns are nearby. Knowing which towns were nearby is very important, because while you might only search your town, your relatives might have moved to the town nearby and there might be records in that town for your family that you could miss. It’s always worth looking into the nearby towns, searching the JGFF and searching for records in the nearby towns, as you are likely to find you family didn’t all live in one town.

The Communities Database does not let you search using an exact match, so it will show you results on all similarly sounding towns. If you’re searching for the first time and you don’t actually know the modern spelling of the town’s name, this can be very useful. If you know the exact current spelling of the name, then you’ll just need to scroll through the results until you find the correct name.

For example, if you were to search for ‘Kanczuga’ you would get results like the following:

JewishGen Communities Database Search Results

There are six results, from several countries. If I had specified Poland as the current country then there would only have been two results. Of course, you may not know which country the town is in currently, so if you are not sure then do a broader search to see all the possibilities. Only one result has the exactly spelling I searched for, which if you know the spelling means it’s easy to figure out which one is correct. Also note the other information shown in the results. It gives you the district the town was in during different periods and the number of listings in the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF) database.

If you move your mouse over each town name, you’ll see a pop-up box giving you basic information on the town:

Mouse-over pop-up details

This can be useful if you’re not sure which town is the correct one. When you click on a town name, it will take you to a page summarizing information on that town:

JewishGen Community page for Kanczuga

If you click on the image above it will load it full size and you can see my annotations showing what to look for on the page. The key things you should notice are the alternate names for the town (useful when searching for records in databases that don’t know alternate names – like on Ancestry.com), the country the town was in during different periods (so that while you know the town is now in Poland, you now know for example to look for ‘Austria’ as a country in records because it was in the Austrian Empire), a direct link to the JGFF search, a list of nearby towns ordered by distance, and a list of other resources. Some of these pages will also link to the town’s ShtetLink page if one exists, although for some reason this Community page does not. ShtetlLinks is discussed below.

JewishGen ShtetlSeeker (Update: as of Aug 2011 this is the JewishGen Gazetteer)

The ShtetlSeeker is a bigger database that contains information on towns everywhere, even if there is no known Jewish community that existed there. It also contains geographical names, such as the names of mountains and streams. Whereas an open search above for ‘Kanczuga’ returned 6 results, an open search on ShtetlSeeker returns 303 results including Kamchikha, a section of a town, Konchuga, a town, and Kunzhuga, a stream. If the place in the list is also in the Communities Database, it will have a small flower icon next to the name of the place, and you can preview the town info with a mouse-over and click on it for more information like in the Communities Database search itself. In this case only four results have the icon next to them. Why aren’t there the same six results from the Community Database before? I have no idea.

The information in the search results is also a bit different in ShtetlSeeker. For example, this is a portion of the Kanczuga results:

Part of ShtetlSeeker search results for Kanczuga

If you take a look (you can click on the image to enlarge it) you can see the flower icon next to Kanczuga, indicating that it is in the Communities Database.

After the name is a column defining the name as a ‘populated place’, or as a stream, mountain, etc.

Next is a column showing the map coordinates for the location. This is actually a link that will take you to a Resource Map for that location. The Resource Map is a very useful map that shows you what resources (such as records in JRI-Poland, names in JGFF,  etc.) exist on the JewishGen site for everyone in the immediate area. This is very useful, even more so if your town is not in the Communities Database, as you will be able to see what towns with known Jewish communities existed nearby, and you can then see what resources exist for those communities.

Kanczuga-area Resource Map

In the map above, I’ve selected Kanczuga and it has popped up a bubble showing what resources exist for Kanczuga. If I had selected any of the other little tree icons around the map, it would show me similar information for those. If you look along the top of the image, you can see that you can select what type of resources you want to see on the map, although the default is to show everything.

Going back to the search results page, the next column has links to various mapping web sites, showing you the location on each site. The mapping sites include Expedia, Mapquest, Microsoft Bing Maps and Google Maps.

Next the search results who you the current country the town is in, it’s distance from a reference point (usually a large nearby city) and a bullseye button that will take you to a new set of search results that show all towns within a 10 mile radius of the town on whose line you press the button. 

JewishGen ShtetLinks (Update: As of Aug 2011 this is now KehilaLinks)

ShtetLinks is a large collections of town-specific web pages developed by real researchers who know about the town. You can think of them as the hand-made version of the Communities Database. Depending on who worked on the ShtetLink page for your town, it might be a simple one-page site with a few links, or it could be a full-blown web site with multiple sections, photo albums, historical documents, etc. It all depends on how much time and effort were put into the site by the volunteers who put together the pages. Sometimes a page was developed by someone who is no longer involved, and it hasn’t been updated in years. In these cases sometimes the administrator of ShtetLinks will post that pages need new administrators to the JewishGen e-mail list.

If you town does not have a site as part of ShtetLinks, you can of course volunteer to create one yourself. This is a great way to give back to the genealogy community.

Virtual Shtetl

JewishGen is not the only organized source for information on Jewish communities. Another site is the Virtual Shtetl, a project of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is currently under construction and planning to open in 2012 in Warsaw. The site contains basic information on over 900 towns, but is meant to be a collaborative effort to collect information on the towns. Users can upload documents on the towns to share with others, and they can ‘like’ a town, similar to how someone ‘likes’ a page on Facebook. Users with interest in the same town can communicate anonymously through the site.

As the site is intended to be used both by Polish people, as well as their descendants, it is available in several languages. Some content is not yet translated into all languages, so you might find a town’s information only in Polish. Information on towns can include history, synagogue info, cemetery data, places where people were killed in the Holocaust, legends, stories, memories of the town, as well as contemporary information such as transportation, hotels and restaurants.

The Virtual Shtetl is a work in progress, and most of the resources are not yet in English, but by the very nature of its location in Poland and the attempt of the hosting museum to attract many local Poles to the site, it has a lot of potential to be a unique resource on towns in Poland.

Other Sites

There are many many other sites online with information on specific towns, regions and countries. Many people have created their own web sites with information on their ancestral town, or started a Yahoo Group or Rootsweb mailing list for their town. Try searching for your town name and seeing what you find. Use the alternate names from the Community Database in your searches as well, as you never know which version of the name a person used online. Keep in mind that some of these groups and mailing lists may not have a lot of people, or a lots of message traffic in them. That could be good or bad depending on your perspective. As long as there are knowledgeable people on the lists, it doesn’t really matter how often people post to it, as long as there is someone who knows how to answer questions posed on the list.

Figure out which region your town was in, as there may be regional sites as well. Kanczuga, the town I used as an example above was in the Galicia region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before WWI. That means the Gesher Galicia organization is a great place to look for information. Gesher Galicia even has a sub-group for the specific region of Galicia Kanczuga was in, the Kolbuszowa Region, which has its own web site. On Rootsweb there is an Austro-Hungarian-Jewish list, and on JewishGen there is a Gesher Galicia mailing list.

Google, beyond the straight web site search which you should do has two other sites that you can use to research your town. Google Books contains the scanned contents of millions of books from all over the world, and will show you which books mention your town. If the book is out of copyright, you may even be able to download the whole book. If it’s still in copyright, you still might be able to search inside the book and find out information, depending on what the publisher allowed Google to do. Google News Archive is a site for searching news sites including some that you will need to pay for if you want to read the whole articles. Again, this is useful just for seeing where your town may have been mentioned.

There are also some web sites with lists of location-specific Jewish genealogy links. Some of those sites include Cyndi’s List, Jewish Genealogy Links, and Genealogylinks.net (for some reason the Europe link isn’t working right now but here are links for Poland, Belarus and Hungary).

Helping Out

Once you find which sites contain information on your town, see if there’s a way that you can help. Do you have photos or documents from that town that your can contribute? Are you a web designer that can improve the look and function of one of the sites?

If there is no site for your town, consider starting one. Starting a group on Yahoo is a good way to organize researchers from the same town, and allows you to share photos, documents, links and other information is a neat organized way (and doesn’t require any web design skills).

Using FindAGrave.com to…

…find a grave. Well yes, you can carry out FindAGrave.com‘s namesake function and find graves online, but there is a lot more to the site as well. During the fifteen years or so that I’ve done genealogy I’ve come across the site many times, but I have to admit I never really gave it a close look until recently. Once I had taken a look, I was surprised that many people I know who are involved in genealogy had also never really taken a close look at the site.

That’s not to say the site is not popular. In fact, according to compete.com, a web analytics company, FindAGrave.com has had more unique users in the past year than FamilySearch – over one million unique users in fact. Of course, neither site is close to Ancestry.com’s traffic, but that’s not really a fair comparison.

Unique visitors over past 13 months to Ancestry, FindAGrave and FamilySearch

There are other explanations than FindAGrave’s usefulness for genealogy that explain its popularity. In fact, it was founded for a somewhat different purpose – to help people find the graves of famous people. I suppose the same group of people that always read the obituary section of the newspaper first might also find this kind of site interesting. That said, however, it is immensely useful for genealogists and I’m going to explain a bit about how it works and how it can work for you.

Finding Graves

FindAGrave has information on over 57 million graves in over 300,000 cemeteries in over 170 countries. You start by just going to their search page and trying to search for a specific person, or just by surname, etc. Keep in mind that in most cases, the graves that are added to the database are added manually by real people. That means if no one added the person you’re looking for, then they won’t be there. There are exceptions to this, as some databases of graves have been added, in particular lists of military graves. If you don’t know which cemetery your relative is buried in, and are using FindAGrave to help you locate the grave, try to add as much information as you can to the search – for example, if you know that your relative died in a specific state in the US, then add the Country (US) and State to the search, to make the search more focused.

Adding Graves

What if you search for the grave of a particular relative and you don’t find him or her? You can add them. To add a grave, you need to join the site (this is free), add biographical information on the person, and then add them to a cemetery. If (and this is rare) the cemetery is not on FindAGrave, then of course you can also add the cemetery first. The site actually has a few options for adding graves, including using an Excel spreadsheet to upload large numbers of graves in one cemetery at once.

Why, you might be asking, should you add graves to FindAGrave?

Well, first there is obvious purpose for many of creating a permanent memorial online for the person. Once you add a grave to the site, people can add content to the grave’s web page, like leaving virtual flowers and leaving notes in memory of the person.

If you know the location of the grave, and other relatives do not, then you are also helping your relatives to locate the grave. When a distant relative searches the next time on the site, they will now find the grave of the person you added.

It might seem odd, but these graves can also bring distant living family members together. If you list the grave of your great-grandparents, there may be many many cousins who also descend from the same people, and will find the memorial you placed online. This offers a way to connect with such cousins.

So let’s say you know which cemetery your relative is buried in, but not the specific location within that cemetery? You’ll want as specific a location for the grave when adding it to the site, meaning you should try to find out the specific section name/number, row number, plot number, etc. for each grave you add to the site. The quickest way to find out such information may be to simply call up the cemetery and ask. Most currently used cemeteries will have an office and will have the ability to look up the locations of graves. You should have as much information about each person you want to have looked up as possible – including names of spouses, maiden names, date of birth, date of death/burial, etc. as you never know how the grave information is indexed in the office. Also, if the name you are looking up is fairly common, or similar to other names, you will need the additional information to help the office worker to differentiate between different records.

Lessons Learned

When I heard about the recent toppling of graves by New York City sanitation workers when they were cleaning up the first big snowstorm last month I noticed that the cemetery sounded familiar. I checked my records and indeed my great-great-grandparents were buried in that cemetery. A further search on the cemetery showed that even worse, in the month prior over 200 graves had been vandalized in the same cemetery. I immediately called the cemetery, to find out the status of the graves. I didn’t know the specific location of the graves, but the person who answered the phone was able to locate them fairly quickly. It turned out, thankfully, that they were buried in a section of the cemetery that was unaffected by either the sanitation workers or the vandalism the prior month. This incident illustrated a few important points to me. First, that even though I have a record in my family tree file where some of my relatives are buried, I don’t actually have the exact plot location for most of them. Second, that cemeteries do not stay static, and unfortunately vandalism and other negative actions do occur in them that can mean the damaging or even complete destruction of one’s ancestor’s gravestone. Lastly, that although I do know the locations of some graves, I don’t know what is written on many of them.

I’ve mentioned in the past that information is only as good as the source, and that while information on a grave is probably accurate in terms of the death date, everything else would probably need to be confirmed elsewhere. Besides the dates of birth and death which are common on most graves, one piece of information that is common on Jewish graves is the name of the father of the deceased. Sometimes this is only written in Hebrew, while the English inscription if it exists only lists the name and dates. Sometimes a Jewish grave, especially of a person that was born in a foreign country, will list the town where the person came from as well. From a genealogists point-of-view, all of this information is very important (although it must also be confirmed with other sources).

Interestingly enough my great-great-grandfather’s grave in the Netherlands lists him as being ‘from Reisha’ which is not exactly true. Reisha (which is the Yiddish name of the town) is the current Polish town of Rzeszow. It was a major Jewish center for the region of Galicia in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. My great-great-grandfather did indeed live in Rzeszow and had a couple of kids there (on either side of the rest of his children which were born in NYC). If you would thus assume that being ‘from’ Rzeszow meant he was born there, you would be wrong. He was born in the nearby town of Kanczuga and only moved to Rzeszow later. Why was he listed as being from Reisha on his gravestone? Perhaps there was more respect for those from Reisha? Maybe his children and grandchildren who buried him didn’t know which town he was from originally? I don’t know the answer to that, but in any event if you were to find the grave and assume the town listed was his birth town, you would be mistaken.

Finding Grave Information Online

Sometimes the best way to find information on graves is to look online. Some cemeteries or towns that administer cemeteries have posted information from their records online. Each cemetery obviously has different policies. Some cemeteries, especially famous ones, have had their graves indexed by volunteers and put online without coordination with the cemetery itself (in some cases the cemeteries no longer have active management). Even before calling a cemetery office, I would try to see if the cemetery or the cemetery owner (which could be a town or a religious organization, for example) has a website and if they provide information on the graves in their cemetery online.

As an example, I have relatives buried in Augusta, GA. A search for ‘augusta georgia cemetery’ on Google shows me a list of cemeteries in Augusta (generated by Google Maps) and then the web site search results which include a Rootsweb site and then the second result which is ‘Augusta, GA – Official Website – Cemeteries‘. That sounds promising. Clicking on that link brings me to a web site managed by the city of Augusta, and includes a list of the cemeteries in Augusta as well as a link to their ‘Graveside Database‘. It turns out that Augusta has put information on every grave in their cemeteries online in a database. Now, obviously, you will not always be so lucky as to find such as resource, but my point here is that you might find something similar and it’s definitely a great resource to have, especially since you can’t expect an office worker on a phone to answer unlimited questions about graves in their cemetery, but you can do as many searches on a web site as you want.

Let’s continue with the example. If I search for the name ‘Silver‘ in the database I get a list of 28 graves, all of which are in the Magnolia Cemetery. Looking at the list of graves indeed there are many of my relatives listed. An excerpt is below:

Excerpt of search results from the Augusta, GA cemetery database

So first of all, I now know which cemetery my relatives are buried in. I could have also found this information from other relatives, but now I don’t need to ask. Clicking on an individual grave gives me information on the grave. In some cases it is very basic, just what is on the grave itself. It usually lists the name of the funeral home, which if I didn’t know much about the person might be an additional avenue to pursue. The detailed page also lists the location of the grave, but in this case the locations are relative, not specific – i.e. ‘Buried in the new Jewish section at 15th St.’. That could be a problem if the cemetery is very large.

Some of the listings even show which company the person worked for, list family information (including married names of children and where they lived), as well as other biographical information. Now you might be asking yourself if you find such as site, why bother to add the graves to FindAGrave? First, not everyone looking for these grave many come across this web site. It’s possible the information on the web site will be removed at some point, etc. Those are all good reasons to add the information you’ve found on the web site to FindAGrave, but indeed there are two features of FindAGrave that give even better reasons – photo requests and virtual cemeteries. 

Request a Photo

Once you find a grave on FindAGrave, or add it yourself, there is an amazing feature of the site called Request a Photo. Basically, for any grave that is in the system, you can request that a volunteer go and photograph the grave for you. When you register on the site, you have the option of adding your zip code and volunteering to take pictures of graves for other people. When someone wants a photo, the system e-mails all the people who live within a certain distance from the cemetery, and volunteers can accept the request and then they go to the cemetery, take pictures, then upload the pictures to the memorial page for the grave you selected. If you have relatives that are buried far from you, this is an great feature. Of course, there are many factors that will determine whether or not the graves will be photographed – how many volunteers are available, how busy those volunteers are at the moment, what the weather is like outside when you send the request, etc. but in many cases you will find photos uploaded within days of your request.

Virtual Cemeteries

As you research your family, you will frequently run into cousins that are researching the same line as you. You might share common great-great-grandparents, for example, and are both trying to research back further. You may also want to fill in their section of the tree, if for example, each of you are descendant from a different child of the same great-great-grandparents, they can provide information on their branch, and you can provide information on your branch. One way to connect with these other branches is to set up what FindAGrave calls ‘Virtual Cemeteries’. Basically, you can great a cemetery that is based on whatever criteria you decide. This could be ‘Descendants of Joe and Jenny Smith’ for example, and then you could add all the graves of the descendants that you find on the site, no matter where in the world they are located. If you know of others you can add them to the site first, then add them to this virtual cemetery. You can then share this virtual cemetery, which is really just a list of graves that you determine,  with other relatives that are researching the same family. They can then fill in other graves of people they know about.

To continue my example from above where I searched for and found relatives with the surname Silver in the Magnolia Cemetery in Augusta, I added those graves to a virtual cemetery called ‘Pinchas and Breindel (Tanenbaum) Silver and descendants‘. This contains seven graves and looks like:

A Virtual Cemetery on FindAGrave.com

If you look closely, you’ll notice that everyone in this ‘virtual’ cemetery are actually in the Magnolia cemetery. That’s okay, it’s just the beginning. The goal from this point on would be to continue adding other descendants to the virtual cemetery as I find or add them. Other relatives can also help to add to this cemetery.

If you look closely you’ll also notice that six out of the seven listings have a list grave icon next o the name. That indicates that the grave has a photo associated with it. In fact, I requested photos of all seven, but one of the graves is not yet engraved because the person passed away too recently. The volunteer looked for the grave, then realized that it has no inscription yet, and instead of uploading a picture was able to indicate that it was impossible to take the picture right now.

Memorials

Just to give you an idea of what a memorial on the site looks like, here is one of the graves listed in the virtual cemetery:

A memorial page on FindAGrave.com

Looking at the page, you can see birth and death information. You can see other close relatives that are also on FindAGrave.com (his parents and his spouse). The same family information and grave location data from the Augusta site is listed, and there are three photos shown.

Note that the bottom photo is just of the entrance to the cemetery. If there is a photo of the cemetery, FindAGrave will show the photo of the cemetery. This is true even if there are no photos of the grave itself, so at least the cemetery photo will be shown.

The top two photos are photos that were uploaded by a volunteer who answer the Request for Photo. you can see the name of the volunteer who uploaded the photos as well.

So go check out FindAGrave.com,  search for graves of your family, add those which you know about but are not on the site, and if you have the time volunteer to photograph graves as well. Adding grave to the database and photographing graves for others are both great ways to give back to the genealogy community at large.

Giving Back Through Indexing

If you’ve done any genealogical research in past dozen years you’re probably amazed at how much information is available online. The Internet has certainly changed how genealogy is done, even if the number of records online is still a tiny percentage of what records are actually out there in the real world. Yet, have you ever wondered how all this information made its way online? Certainly finding a hand-written birth certificate or census record of your distant ancestor in the 19th century is not something that happens without a human being spending the time to decipher the handwriting and enter all the relevant information into a database. Yet how do these databases get created?

In the world of Jewish genealogy, probably the biggest project to index records is JRI-Poland, which has put indexes of over four million Jewish birth, marriage and death records from Poland (and places that were once part of Poland) online. JRI-Poland doesn’t actually put the records online, but an index to those records. Usually the information in that index contains the most important details that you would find if you could view the actual record, such as the name of the person, sometimes the names of the parents, associated dates, etc. although on the flip side, without seeing the actual records you can never be sure that all the information is 100% accurate and you don’t know what was left out (sometimes records have notes written on them that contain information important to genealogists). JRI-Poland works by locating relevant records in archives across Poland, figuring out how many records exist for each town covered in the archives, then soliciting donations for the indexing projects for each town. The idea is that if you know your family is from a specific town, then you’ll likely contribute to have the records indexed for that town. In their favor, if a town has a lot of records to index (thus costing more to index) there are usually more descendants of those people to help contribute to the indexing projects. Once the money is raised for a town project, JRI-Poland makes copies of all the index pages from the archive and then pays people in Poland to create the electronic indexes of the records. Why use locals instead of crowdsourcing the indexing like other sites do? I think the main issue is that records from Poland from the 19th century and the early 20th century (when most of these records come from) can be written in a mix of Polish, German and Russian. It all pretty much depends on who was in control of the particular town at the time the records were created. Poland was divided among the various empires in the area multiple times the same town might have been under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which generally used German for records) or Russia (which obviously used Russian for records). Finding descendants of the people from those towns that speak those languages and is difficult to do. In order to make the indexing easier and to insure there are fewer mistakes, JRI-Poland finds local Poles who know the languages they need, and pays them to do the indexing. So your contribution in the process is fairly simple, pay the money.

There are other ways that online databases get created. Sometimes individuals or groups take it upon themselves to put either records or indexes of records online. Sometimes people just post their contributions on their own web pages, sometimes they contribute them to existing online projects (like JewishGen) and sometimes they coordinate their efforts through sites set up for such projects, like USGenWeb or the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild (ISTG). These sites help volunteers to coordinate their efforts and bring records online, where a set of local vital records on USGenWeb, or a ship passenger manifest on ISTG. Sometimes these kinds of records are difficult to locate, so indexes to the indexes pop up, like Census Finder.

One very good example of a volunteer site is GenTeam.at, which indexes Austrian records. As a group they have indexed over 2.7 million records from across Austria, including hundreds of thousands of Jewish vital records. The records are all indexed by volunteers and the site is free to use (although you must register first).

Another way databases or indexes of records get created is by companies that make money from making the records available online. These companies spend a lot of money in acquiring records, scanning records and creating indexes of these records so that they are searchable on their sites. These companies either have experts in their employ who create the indexes of the records, or pay people to do the work for them (usually overseas where labor is cheaper). Examples of web sites that do this are Ancestry.com, Footnote.com (recently bought by Ancestry.com), WorldVitalRecords.com, etc. Footnote.com, for example, made a deal with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to gain access to many of the files they have (such as naturalization records) and make them available online. Sometimes these sites will let you search their records for free, but if you want to actually see the records and the information in them, you need to join the website and pay a membership fee. There obviously is money to be made in this area as the large companies each have over a million subscribers each paying them money monthly or annually. In these cases, your membership money goes towards their indexing efforts, but not in a directed fashion of course. You’re not contributing to an indexing effort as much as the company’s bottom line, but in the end you do get access to new records.

I won’t go into detail now about the role of genealogy in the Mormon Church, but needless to say it is important on a religious level, and the church has invested a lot of time, effort and money into collecting records from all over the world. They have collected billions of records from countries across the globe, generally on microfilm, and keep those microfilms in a secure underground archive in Utah. From the original microfilms kept in that archive, copies are made available in their Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City, and in Family History Centers (FHC) across the US and across the globe. For decades the only real way to access these records was to go to the FHL in Salt Lake City, or go to an FHC near you and request access to specific microfilms, which if they didn’t have they could borrow from the FHL. Accessing these records were difficult for another reason, which is that if you didn’t speak the language the records were written in, you would need to hire someone who spoke that language to go to the FHL or an FHC and sit in front of a microfilm reader and find th records you were looking for (if they exist at all). Obviously this was (and still is) an expensive proposition.

Of course, with those billions of records on microfilm it was only logical that people would start asking to make the records available online. The problem putting them online is not only to scan all those microfilms, but to have people create the indexes that will make the records searchable. The Family History Library’s online presence is known as FamilySearch.org, and it is through that web site that Mormons as part of their religious duty collaborate in creating their own family trees, but also where the Mormon Church has started to make those billions of records available online, for free. With such a massive undertaking, FamilySearch.org had to come up with a way to find help in creating the indexes for all their records – what they came up with is FamilySearch Indexing, where they allow anyone who has access to a computer and Internet to help them index their massive collection of records. FamilySearch claims that over 300,000 volunteers have indexed over 7 Million records since 1996. This year they were trying to index 200,000 records (with only a few days left in the year they’re around 185,000 records).

To help out yourself, you start by signing up on their site, and then downloading a computer program which lets you do the actual indexing. The program lets you specify the difficulty of the records you’re willing to work on (easy ones are recent records typed or written in block print, harder ones can be handwritten in a fancy script and be written a hundred of fifty years ago when handwriting was different than it is today) and what languages you can understand. Once you’ve set up the program it runs your through some easy sample records so you get how it works, and then you can start indexing records by downloading them in batches. Batches are collections of records that make up a kind of work unit. You work on all the records in the batch and when you’re done, you can submit them for review and get another batch of records to work on. A single batch might have only a few records to transcribe if they’re difficult, or perhaps dozens of records if the records are all listed on one page and are easy to read.

As you index more and more batches of records, you earn points. Generally, easy records earn you one point and harder records can earn you more points. Mainly, the points are just a way to keep track of how much work you have contributed to FamilySearch Indexing. The site does offer a Premium Membership to volunteers who earn more than 900 points in a calendar quarter. This gets you a Premium Membership for the rest of that quarter and the whole next quarter. FamilySearch estimates one would earn 900 points a quarter by spending about half an hour a week working on indexing. What does a Premium Membership get you? Well, it seems that while FamilySearch.org owns a lot of the records they put online, they don’t own ALL of the records they make searchable online. In some cases they need to pay the owners of these records whenever someone accesses the image of the actual record. As such, in order to see those records, you need to be a Premium Member, either because of your records indexing or because of membership in an organization that sponsors FamilySearch.org (such as the Mormon church). If you do find a record that is restricted to Premium Members only, you could of course index 900 records that calendar quarter to gain access to it, although sometimes you may find that the record exists elsewhere and just knowing it exists is enough to send you to another site to find the actual records without doing that much work.

I would say, however, that if you use FamilySearch.org, which for what you can access is always free, you should think about contributing to their efforts by doing some indexing yourself. It doesn’t cost you anything but your time, and the next time you find a record on FamilySearch.org that is connected to your family, just remember that the file was probably made searchable by a user like you who contributed their time to indexing.

As one of this blog’s focuses is Jewish genealogy, and there has been some controversy with the Mormon Church and the Jewish community concerning the Mormon practice of posthumous baptism of their ancestors (some of whom were Jewish), and even the posthumous baptism of people not related to the church members, in particular famous people – including, for example, Anne Frank, who has apparently been posthumously baptized at least nine separate times, I want to point to an overview of this whole topic at JewishGen: The Issue of The Mormon Baptisms of Jewish Holocaust Victims And Other Jewish Dead. The issue is going to come up eventually, so in the context of discussing FamilySearch in this post I figure now is as good a time as ever to bring this issue up. I’m not going to dwell on the whole issue, except to point out that even though there have been several attempts between Mormons and Jews to resolve this issue, it continues. There are voices on different sides of the issue – those that believe that the very idea of posthumous baptisms of Jews is sacrilegious, and those who view the religious rites of a different religion as irrelevant to their own. This fight has engendered strong words on both sides, and frankly I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Certainly many Jewish genealogists have worked hard to make sure whatever information they have on their family is not made available online (such as on public family tree web sites) in order to prevent the possibility that their research might lead to one of their ancestors being baptized posthumously. In this way Mormon genealogy efforts have made Jewish genealogy more difficult due to the added security and protection many Jewish genealogists have implemented with their family trees, yet on the other hand FamilySearch.org has made many very useful records available to all researchers for free, and that has helped all genealogists, including Jewish ones. I think every non-Mormon needs to make a decision on their own what they feel about this issue, and how closely they want to deal with FamilySearch considering that it is a branch of the Church of Latter Day Saints. As I’ve shown above, I don’t think there is a problem to use FamilySearch.org to search for records, and I’ve encouraged people to give back by helping index new records, but beyond that interaction, each person needs make up their own mind about sharing additional information with FamilySearch.org and their parent organization, the Church of Latter Day Saints.