Tag Archives: jri-poland

A Major Breakthough for Jewish Polish Records

JRI-Poland and the Polish State Archives have announced a new agreement to expand the availability of Jewish records from Poland. An earlier agreement which was in effect between 1997 and 2006 resulted in the indexing of more than 4 million records which make up the bulk of the JRI-Poland database. The cancellation of that agreement in 2006 was a major blow to Jewish genealogy. There have been ongoing discussions since 2007, but the resumption of cooperation did not materialize until now. This announcement, made on Friday, is much more than most expected, and well worth the wait.

The first major component of the announcement is that JRI-Poland will be able to add an additional million records to its database within the next year. That is in addition to the 4 million existing records already in their database that originate from the Polish State Archives.

JRI-Poland Executive Director Stanley Diamond signing the agreement in the
presence of Polish Consul General Andrzej Szydło in Montreal, Quebec.

The second major component is that JRI-Poland will launch a new Order Processing System, which will allow people searching for records on the site to click on a record they want and order it directly on the JRI-Poland site using a credit card. JRI-Poland will handle the credit card processing and the archives in Poland will copy the records. For anyone who has dealt with ordering records from Polish archives directly, this is a major breakthrough.

While my Finding and getting copies of Jewish records in Poland article is still one of the most popular on this site, and was published in print as well, it is my hope that this announcement means that in the future that article will not be needed.

Polish State Archives General Director Władysław Stępniak signing the agreement,
with JRI-Poland representative 
Krzysztof Malczewski (on left) looking on.

The third major component of the announcement is that the Polish State Archives is starting a major effort to digitize all of their records in all 30 Regional Archives, and make them available for free online. As these digital scans come online, JRI-Poland will link directly to the images from their database search results. As the images come online, the new Order Processing System will be phased out.

The announcement is available on the JRI-Poland site (in English) as well as the Polish State Archives site (in Polish).

I’d like to congratulate Stanley Diamond, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of JRI-Poland, as well as the other JRI-Poland board members, staff and volunteers who made this agreement possible.

I look forward to seeing the different elements of this agreement come to fruition, and will let readers of this blog know about things as they happen.

Finding and getting copies of Jewish records in Poland

Many Jewish researchers will find that some members of their family originated in what is now, or once was, Poland. This post is targeted at Jewish researchers, but anyone who has roots in Poland may find (at least parts of) this information useful. 

Poland’s Borders

Poland’s borders have changed a lot over the years, and what was once Poland might now be in Lithuania, Ukraine or Belarus. In addition, what was once part of Russia, Prussia (part of what became Germany) and Austria may now be in Poland. It’s possible that someone lives in many countries without actually ever moving. The following map illustrates the complexity of figuring out what country a relative of your might have lived in:

A History of Polish Borders (from staypoland.com)

I have many examples in my own family where relatives had said they were from Russia, when the town they came from is currently in Poland. This is a particularly important point when you find records on your family in the US, such as a passenger manifest from their arrival to the US, or naturalization papers, when they say they were born in Russia. Don’t assume that means the current country is in Russia, unless you know the city and can confirm that on a map.

I’m not going to go into how to find where your family comes from in this post (that will in future posts), but rather once you know where and when your relative was born (and that place is or was in Poland) how to find vital records connected to that relative.

Starting with JRI-Poland

So let’s begin. You know the name of your relative, and where he was born and when he was born. If you don’t know the exact date, that’s okay, we’ll deal with that a little later in the post. The first place to start your search is JRI-Poland. JRI-Poland is a database of indexes to Jewish records in what is now or once was Poland. The indexes come from a number of sources, but there are two primary sources: JRI-Poland’s own JRI-Poland/Polish State Archives Project and LDS Microfilms.

Basically, the LDS church microfilmed over 2 million Jewish records, including from some towns whose records were destroyed in WWII. Even with so many records, however, the LDS films do not cover the majority of records in Poland. Those records and their indexes are preserved on microfilm and accessible in the Family History Library, or from the many Family History Centers around the globe. Of course, the records may be in Polish, Russian or German depending when and where they were created, so it is not so easy to access those records without knowledge of the relevant language.

Initially JRI-Poland worked to index records not in the LDS microfilms, since so many were not even available on those films. They created a joint project with the Polish State Archives where they photocopied the index pages for each archive and then hired local workers in Poland to transcribe each record from whatever language they were in to English (or rather, to latin script). JRI-Poland carried this out by arranging for people to figure out all the towns with records of Jewish people in a particular archive, then raising money from researchers interested in each town. Thus researchers would contribute money to the indexing efforts of the town from where their own family came. As JRI-Poland indexed millions of records this way, they eventually turned back to the LDS microfilms and worked to create computerized indexes in English to those records as well. JRI-Poland has indexed more than four million records so far, from over 500 towns.

To use JRI-Poland, you go to their main page and select Search Database. This takes you to their search page which has a lot of options. I’m not going to go into all the options for searching JRI-Poland in this post, but you should check out some of the neat features like searching in a radius around a specific latitude and longitude, which is helpful if you can’t find records of your relatives in the town you think they came from, and want to check surrounding towns. The core of the search interface is really this:

JRI-Poland Search

You can choose which parameters you want to search, but usually this will be Surname and Town. You can, if your surname is rare, try searching with just the Surname to try to figure out the town, but as I mentioned for the purposes of this post I’m assuming you know that already.

In the above example I’ve used the surname Eisenman and the town Tyszowce. Note that for the Surname I’ve used ‘Sounds Like’ as the setting and for Town I’ve used ‘is Exactly’. The reason for using ‘Sounds Like’ for the surname is that it is very common for there to be multiple spellings for names, even for the same family in the same town. Records from one town were not necessarily all transcribed by the same person, so even the same name in Polish might show up spelled differently depending who was transcribing it. The reason for using ‘is Exactly’ for the town name is that each town has an exact spelling, which corresponds to the currently used spelling for the town. As you do your research into towns, you should always use the current spelling of the town, and in this case you should figure it out before searching so you don’t get listings from many similarly sounding towns which are irrelevant to your search.

Different Kinds of Results

If you were to carry out the above search, you would find two sets of results. This means that the indexes came from two different sources. In some cases you might find many sets of results, since some indexes show the town of birth of people who show up in other towns. For example, if your relative was born in town A and married in town B, and you searched for town A you might also find his marriage record in town B (if they indexed the birth town) which would show up a separate result set. The two result sets from the above search start out as follows:

First result set – indexed from microfilmed records (click to see larger)

Second result set – indexed from photocopies from archives (click to see larger)

As you can see in the captions, one set is from a microfilmed index, and one is from index pages copied from the actual archive in Poland. How do I know this?

Take a look at the first image – the last column is called ‘Film’ and the number listed is the LDS microfilm number. If you were to search the LDS library on FamilySearch.org, you would find that there are actually seven microfilms that cost the vital records of Tyszowce from 1826-1890. The first record is from microfilm 766305 and the result shown in the snapshot above are from 766306. Also note that the first two records are children of the same parents, but their last names are spelled differently (and both different than the way I spelled it in the search). This is why you need to use the ‘Sounds Like’ setting for names on the search.

In the second image, you’ll notice there is no ‘Film’ column. In addition if you look closely in the result set description at the top, there is an extra line compared to the first set, where it says ‘records in Fond 785 in Zamosc Archive’. Note that these records are in the archive of Zamosc, a nearby town, and not in Tyszowce itself. 

Ordering Records from Microfilm

So you now have two types of records, ones on microfilm and ones only available directly from the archive. Let’s see how you can get these records. Let’s start with the microfilmed record. Let’s say you want the first record listed. You need to extract the following information on the record:

Surname: Eyzenman
Given Name: Mejlech
Town: Tyszowce
Year: 1840
Type: B (Birth)
Akt: 36
Film: 766305

With the above information anyone with access to LDS microfilms should be able to find the specific record you want. The Family History Library and its associated Centers will not send you copies of records from their microfilm, someone has to actually access the microfilms and copy them. There are a number of ways to get copies, some easier than others, some more or less expensive.

First, you can go to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, or one of the Family History Centers and try to get the record yourself. Keep in mind that if you’re going to one of the regional Centers, you will probably need to order the microfilm in advance, and then return to use the microfilm. If you are interested in copying a large number of records this might make sense, although remember that the records are in Polish, Russian or German and if you’re not familiar with the necessary languages it might be difficult to find the records even if you know where to look. If the number of records you want are small, it will almost never be worth going to the do the record retrieval yourself.

Next, you can have someone else go to the Family History Library for you. For other types of records, particularly those in the US, you can sometimes find volunteers to look up records for you. Examples of places to find such volunteers include Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness and photo volunteers on Find A Grave. In this case, however, I think you will need to find either a friend or a professional researcher to help you. There are many professional researchers who live in or around Salt Lake City and who will go to the Family History Library for you and retrieve records for you. Keep in mind that not all researchers will be familiar with records from Poland, so you’re better off finding someone who has experience working with Jewish records from Poland. One researcher you can try is Banai Feldstein, from Feldstein Genealogical Services in Salt Lake City. She can retrieve records and e-mail you scans of the copies, and you can pay her via PayPal which is a nice plus. For other researchers that specialize in Jewish records, check out the Researchers Directory on the Jewish Genealogy News web site.

Lastly, there is another option, but only in some cases. Beit Hatfutsot (formerly the Diaspora Museum, and now called the Museum of the Jewish People) in Tel Aviv has a collection of LDS microfilms that cover a good portion, but not all, of the Jewish records in LDS microfilms. You can see the full list of the films they have by browsing the database here. If they have the microfilm, they can make a copy of a record and mail it to you. Their rates are very reasonable, only 5nis in Israel and $2 in the US for copied records, including VAT in Israel and mailing with a per-order charge of 10nis (I guess $4 in the US?). While cheaper than using a professional researcher, you need to wait several weeks and you need to receive the records in the mail, since they do not scan and e-mail records. If you were to browse the database for Tyszowce (the town in my example above) you would see they have five films from Tyszowce, not the full seven listed above. That means that if you find records from one of films not listed in the museum’s collection, then you will need to go with one of the above methods. In the first record listed above, which I transcribed the details to, the film number is listed as 766305. If you look at the list on the museum’s website they do indeed have that film.

So how do you order from the museum? You go to their order page, where you will fill out your contact information, microfilm record list and payment information. Let’s look at the microfilm record section of the order page:

Ordering a microfilmed record from the Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv, Israel

Note the list of items I extracted from the record above, and you’ll see they match this form exactly. When you enter the microfilm number in the first field it will very smartly verify that they have that film in their collection – it thus will not let you order a record they do not have. That’s why in the snapshot above the word Microfilm is in red, because it will not let you order a record for a film that does not exist in their collection, and since I didn’t enter a number above, the field doesn’t match anything in their collection. If I had entered the number, the Microfilm field title would switch from red to black to show it was found. If you filled in the form with the record above, it would look like:

Filled out record information in the Beit Hatfutsot order page

If you want to order more than one record, then you just click on the ‘Add Another Microfilm’ button at the bottom and another set of fields will pop up for you to fill in.

So once you fill in your contact info, add the records you want, and add your payment, you just click the Send button at the bottom of the page and then wait a few weeks for the records to arrive.

Ordering Records from Archives

You might remember that there was a second search result, of records in the Zamosc archives. Let’s extract the data from the first result:

Surname: Ajzenman
Given Name: Ezra
Town: Tyszowce
Year: 1893
Type: D (Death)
Fond: 785
Akt: 33

You’ll notice I’ve added in the Fond number from the collection title. The Fond is the collection of records that this record is contained in, and the Akt number is location of the actual record within the Fond.

The first thing you need to do to get this record is to find the Zamosc Archive, where it is listed as being located. JRI-Poland keeps a list of archives that you can refer to to find the archive. Oddly they only list the mailing address and e-mail address, and not the web site for each archive, but the e-mail address should be enough. You can try searching online for the full name of the archive (in this case ‘Archiwum Państwowe w Zamościu’ and seeing if they have a web site (which in most cases they will). In this case the web site shows up as http://www.archiwum.zam.pl/ and if you go to the site you’ll find they have a little British flag in the corner that takes you to an English version of their site. The fact that there is an English web site is a good sign, as many archives do not bother. The web site will tell you more about the records available, and might tell you the pricing for ordering records. In this case the site is not very complete, so it isn’t that useful, but if you browse through the Polish version of the site, you’ll find at least one useful piece of information: the archive’s bank details. Most archives will require you to transfer money directly into their bank accounts in order to fulfill your order. This is annoying to be sure, but there’s not much you can do about it. In my own case, I’ve sometimes had to pay a larger bank transfer fee than the fees the archive was charging me – certainly something which is frustrating.

So you want to contact the archive. You have their e-mail address. What do you write? Well, first you need to decide if you want to try English, or jump ahead to Polish. Many archives do not have English speakers, so you might not really have a choice. If you send an e-mail in English and get no response, you should try Polish.

Sending a Letter in Polish

How do you send an e-mail in Polish? I suggest trying Google Translate. It’s not perfect, but you can check its accuracy in a fairly simple way. I start by writing in English and having it translate to Polish. Then I copy the Polish text and switch the translation direction (click on the little two-way arrow button between the language names) and paste in the Polish text. If the text comes back with more-or-less the same meaning as what I originally wrote, I assume the translation will be understandable to the person receiving the letter. You can always include both the English and the Polish text in your letter if you want.

Let’s start with a simple framework:

Dear Sir,

I am interested in getting scanned copies of the following records:

Please inform me how much it will cost to order these records and how I can pay for them.

Thank you,

That gets translated to:

Szanowny Panie,

Jestem zainteresowany w uzyskaniu zeskanowane kopie następujących zapisów:

Proszę o poinformowanie mnie, ile będzie kosztowało aby te dane i jak mogę zapłacić.

Dziękuję,

If you reverse the translation direction and copy the Polish text back into the translation field, it gives you following text in English:

Dear Sir,

I am interested in obtaining a scanned copy of the following entries:

Please inform me how much will it cost to these data, and how I pay.

Thank you,

Not bad. Probably the text is close enough.

[Tom in the comments below (March 2013) supplied a corrected Polish translation for the above text as:

Szanowny Panie,

Jestem zainteresowany uzyskaniem skanów następujących aktów metrykalnych:


Proszę poinformować mnie, ile będzie kosztować skanowanie tych dokumentów i jak mogę zapłacić.


Dziękuję,

So if you’re going to use the text, you should probably use his.]

Now you need to fill in the information on your record, translating the field names like Surname, Given name, etc.

Using Google Translate, I get the following translations for the field names:


Surname: Ajzenman
Given Name: Ezra
Town: Tyszowce
Year: 1893
Type: D (Death)
Fond: 785
Akt: 33
Nazwisko: Ajzenman
Imię: Ezra
Miasto: Tyszowce
Rok: 1893
Typ: D (Death)
Fond: 785
Akt: 33



Now, considering this is so important to get right I would check this (and of course you can just copy this from this posting, but I’ll explain what I do to check for accuracy. FamilySearch has a number of language resources available on their site, including one for Poland called Poland Genealogical Word List. If you check that word list, you’ll find that indeed the translation is pretty good. The only mistake, but one that would probably be understood, was to translate ‘Town’ into what the wordlist says is actually ‘City’. I doubt the archive would fail to understand what you meant. According to the wordlist, however, the correct term would be Gmina. Also, you may have noticed that it did not translate the word ‘Death’ for some reason. There are several words listed for death in the FamilySearch site, but let’s go with zejść. So your full letter would look like:

Szanowny Panie,

Jestem zainteresowany w uzyskaniu zeskanowane kopie następujących zapisów:

Nazwisko: Ajzenman
Imię: Ezra
Gmina: Tyszowce
Rok: 1893
Typ: D (zejść)
Fond: 785
Akt: 33

Proszę o poinformowanie mnie, ile będzie kosztowało aby te dane i jak mogę zapłacić.

Dziękuję,

Of course, sign the letter at the bottom as well. Now send this letter in an e-mail to the archive’s e-mail address and wait for a response. In response to a similar e-mail which I actually sent in English, I got the following response the next day in Polish:

Opłata za poszukiwania wynosi 25 zł. Opłata nie jest zwracana w przypadku kwerendy negatywnej.

W przypadku odnalezienia aktów powiadomimy o ich liczbie i dodatkowej opłacie 5 zł od skanu.
konto
Archiwum Państwowe w Zamościu
Narodowy Bank Polski Oddział Okręgowy w Lublinie

47 101013390016612231000000

PL 47 101013390016612231000000 (BIC: NBP LP LPW)

Google Translate renders that in English as:

Search fee is 25 zł. The fee is not refunded in the event of a query in the negative.

If you find an update on the acts of their number and to an additional charge of 5 zł scan.
Account
State Archives in Zamosc
Polish National Bank Branch in Lublin District

47 101013390016612231000000

PL 47 101013390016612231000000 (BIC: NBP LP LPW)

It’s not perfect, but it’s understandable. The cost of searching is 25zl and scans are 5zl each. It then lists the archive’s bank details (which are the same as the page we found earlier). Now you can send 25zl and then 5zl later, but frankly the cost of sending money internationally is expensive, so I would suggest just sending it all at once. 30 zloty is about $11 (US).

Sending Money to Banks in Poland

How do you send money to the bank in Poland? It’s not so easy. It would be nice if the archives would start using PayPal or something similar, but I haven’t found one yet that does, so you need to figure out how to get money into their accounts.

You can always give the bank account information to someone in your bank and ask them to transfer the money. Many banks actually let you set up an international money transfer online. I’ve done this from the web interface to my account at Bank of America. It’s pretty easy, but it’s not cheap at $35 per transfer. That’s a lot more than the 30zl fee you’re sending the archives.

Another option is an online money transfer company. I’m not going to recommend any of them since far be it from me to recommend someone who will be handling your money, but one such company I found is Xoom.com. They let you send money to accounts overseas for only $5 per transfer ($10 if you want to pay with a credit card instead of withdrawing the money from your bank account) but you need to send a minimum of $25. Thus if you were ordering that one record you’d be sending $25, which right now is about 70 zloty. That means you’re sending an extra 40 zloty. One way to look at this is that you could spend $46 to send $11 to Poland ($35 bank fee plus $11 to the archive), or $30 to send $25 to Poland ($5 Xoom fee and $25 to the archive). Of course the Xoom option sends more than twice as much money for less overall cost to you. In this case, since you’re sending more money I would just ask for more records. Look up what other records the archive has, and ask them to look for other records connected to your family. It’s not a perfect situation, but usually you’ll probably be order more records and it won’t matter as much.

One useful tool I can recommend using before entering the bank information into whatever service you end up using, is xe.com’s IBAN Decoder. If you look at the bank information given by the archive above, there is a long string of numbers that follow the two-letter code for Poland. There is actually a special way to format that number which you will likely need when entering the bank account information. If you enter the string:

PL 47 101013390016612231000000

it will return:
Your IBAN Number Properly formatted PL47 1010 1339 0016 6122 3100 0000
ISO Country Code PL(Poland)
IBAN Check Digits 47
Bank Code 10101339
Account Number 0016612231000000
Transit Number 10101339

This makes entering the data into whatever fields your bank or other service asks for much easier.

Finding Other Records in Poland

How do you know what archives are actually available for the town you’re researching? JRI-Poland has not indexed every record, and doesn’t have many records that are not vital records. Many other records exist, such as census records, voter lists, notary records, etc.

There are basically two ways to find out what records exist for a given town. First there is Miriam Weiner’s Routes to Roots Foundation. If you click on ‘Archive Database’ on the left menu and then ‘Archive Documents’ under Search on the right, you’re brought to the search page. If, to continue our example, you search for Tyszowce, you’d find there are 14 record groups. These are spread among archives in Tyszowce, Zamosc and Lublin, as well as one record set at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Record types include Birth, Marriage, Death, Voter Lists, Kahal/Jewish, Tax Lists and Notary Records. Sometimes a single record type (such as Birth) are spread among many different archives. In this instance, birth records for 1826-1875 are in Lublin, for 1876-1897 are in Zamosc, and for the years 1898-1915; 1920-1923; 1925-1926; 1928-1938 are in Tyszowce itself.

Let’s say you want to search for Notary Records. Those records are in the Zamosc archives, so you draft a letter similar to the above letter and send it to them, asking how much it costs to search for records. As there is no index, you have no idea how many copies you might receive, so perhaps ask the archive if you can wait to pay until after the search is complete. If not, perhaps send some extra money to cover a few copies and ask them to charge you if the copies exceed what you send only. In the above example, you could ask the archive to search the notary records to use up the extra money you sent.

The second resource you can use to find other records for your town is the Polish State Archives’ PRADZIAD database. The search interface is in English (if you click on the British flag) but the results will be in Polish. Google Translate is useful here – you can use the built-in translation feature of the Google Chrome browser, or the ability to translate pages on the fly in Firefox or IE using the Google Toolbar. Thus you can translate the results. You can choose the types of records in the search, but I suggest just doing a full search on the town. If you were to search Tyszowce in this interface, you would find 22 record groups. Many of these overlap with the Routes to Roots list, but some of these are religion-specific and not Jewish, so probably the Routes to Roots list is more comprehensive. While the PRADZIAD list is primarily, birth, marriage and death records, the Routes to Roots list also had voter lists, notary records, etc. However, if you look closely you’ll notice that there are some relevant records listed in the PRADZIAD list that are not in the Routes to Roots list, specifically Birth records from 1810-1825, which are not listed in Routes to Roots.

Basically, when looking for records not indexed in JRI-Poland, make sure to search both Routes to Roots and PRADZIAD.

Conclusion 

So in conclusion, there are three main categories of records – records in state archives indexed by JRI-Poland, records on LDS microfilm indexed by JRI-Poland, and records in archives not indexed by JRI-Poland (which you can find and then contact the archives to find the specific records). There is a fourth category I haven’t discussed, which is LDS microfilms not indexed by JRI-Poland. Hopefully this category will disappear over time. In most cases those records are also in the archives, so you’ll still find them by searching the archives.

I hope this summary was useful. If you find any mistakes, please let me know in the comments. If you have recommendation for other ways to get records, please also post to the comments. Also feel free to recommend professional researchers you’ve used that can help others with the process.

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.