An ode to family history indexes

An ode to family history indexes
Family history blog
25 March 2019

In a world where everything is seemingly available at the click of a button, finding information about an ancestor can sometimes be as easy as popping a name into a search bar, hitting 'Find', and hey presto -an array of relevant results and digitised records relating to your great great someone or other magically appear!

Sometimes however, the reality is very different…you might get the dreaded “No results found” page, or you’re simply greeted with a cold and empty nothing. Sometimes results may be hidden behind a paywall, just a mere tantalising subscription fee away.


Alas, bupkis again.

Does this mean you’ve come to a dead end? Sometimes - yes, but other times it just means that computers aren’t quite as smart as we are….yet.

Even in today’s world of increasingly online access to digitised records, humble indexes (or indices - either is acceptable) - online, in print or on microfilm - are still an indispensable weapon in every genealogist’s arsenal.

Many indexes have been lovingly created and compiled by family historians, gifting us across the generations with sources of information about where to go next to find even more information. A good index is often the very first port of call for those of us embarking on any avenue of family history research.

 
Our Newspapers and Family History Zone collection is chock full of indexes and guides to help get you started with your research.

Below are some interesting and popular indexes which people use to access collections in the Library and elsewhere.

Physical Indexes

Society of Australian Genealogists reels index

This well-loved little blue book kept behind the Newspapers and family history desk at the Library is one of our most important and popular indexes.

 
The scratch marks are from frustrated family historians.

The 'blue book' is an index to collections of church records of baptisms, marriages and burials microfilmed as part of a joint copying project between the National Library, the State Library of New South Wales, and the Society of Australian Genealogists (SAG). The SAG collection of microfilm reels, as they are known, mostly contain records of Anglican churches in New South Wales, although records of other denominations (Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic) can also be found.  By checking the blue book, I can see what records are available for which particular church in certain towns, and for what years.

N.B. You can also search our catalogue by entering the name of a town/city and the word SAG to see what records we have in this collection.

Birth, death, marriage indexes

You might have used free birth, death, marriage (BDM) indexes available on registry websites, such as the BDM registry of Victoria, or the BDM registry of New South Wales. You might have also accessed this information using a subscription service such as Ancestry.com or Findmypast.

Visitors to the Library have access to a very similar but different index via our eResources – Pioneer & Digger indexes to births, deaths and marriages. It is important to be mindful that not all indexes are created equal - different indexes do sometimes offer different information. Earlier entries in New South Wales Pioneer 1788-1888 index may yield facts about ancestors not found on the New South Wales BDM registry index such as the name of the church where a  baptism took place.

There are a variety of birth, death, marriage indexes covering various dates for most States and Territories in Australia available via our eResources. See what’s available by searching our Genealogy category.

 The Digger and Pioneer indexes can only be accessed in the Library, however if you can’t visit the Library, you can always write to us via our Ask a Librarian service and request a free lookup!

Ship to shore

With constant advancements in technology, indexes on microfiche might be considered a tad outdated – yet we still rely heavily on them. Newspapers and family history staff at the Library receive many queries from people (folks just like you and me) fishing about for a pic of a ship on which an ancestor sailed the mighty ocean. The very first thing we usually check when looking for an image is an index on microfiche: Nick Vine Hall’s excellent Ships' pictures index, 1491-1991 sometimes helps us track down a photo, painting or drawing.

 
Nick Vine Hall’s Index to Ship’s pictures in print on microfiche.

The Log of Logs by Ian Nicholson, mentioned in an earlier blog, is also one of the best and heavily used print guides for dredging up records of ships entering Australian waters from 1788-1998.

Online indexes

Increasingly, even if a collection isn’t digitised, you might find an index to a collection is available to search somewhere online. Some of the indexes that people search and use to access our collections include…

The Ryerson Index

Lovingly maintained by a dedicated army of volunteers, the Ryerson index (http://ryersonindex.org/) is an index to death notices published in Australian newspapers. We answer many Ask a Librarian enquiries from people who have found a name on the Ryerson Index and who then wish to order a copy of the death/obituary/funeral notice through our Copies Direct Service.

With the limits of Trove’s optical character recognition (sometimes you get the odd spelling mistake - read more about the OCR process by clicking here), I always recommend checking the Ryerson index for a notice if your Trove search is fruitless.


Frederick Ramsay’s funeral notice from 1888 didn’t appear from my search of Trove (because of the way the machine has incorrectly translated the text in the original newspaper). However the Ryerson index told me exactly where to find it!

Indian emigration passes to Fiji 1879-1916

From 1879 to 1916 over 60,000 Indians were sent to Fiji under a system of indentured labour. 

Indian emigrants who entered Fiji under the indentured labour system were each issued with passes recording where in India they hailed from, their father’s name, occupation and sometimes additional details. The passes are now rich sources of information for descendants of emigrants who are researching their family history.

The passes, which are held by the Library, are contained within a collection of 42 microfilm reels. One single reel of microfilm alone can hold up to 6000 passes and so finding a specific pass would take an incredibly long time.

 
See our research guide to the Indian emigration passes to Fiji 1879-1916

 Luckily, The National Archives of Fiji have a pdf index to this collection for names beginning with A through to M which can be viewed on their website. The fantastic Girmit.org website also has a fully searchable online index to this collection, as well as stories of emigrants (girmityas).

You can read more about Indian emigration passes to Fiji in an article by Newspapers and Family History team member Alison Massy published in the Library’s Unbound magazine.

Australian Family Histories: A Bibliography & Index (AFH) Search

The Library receives many family history books written by talented genealogists and delivered to us for safekeeping in our collection until the end of time. We also receive many requests for copies of these family histories through our Copies Direct Service

As sophisticated as library catalogues are in this day and age, catalogue records can still be limited in terms of the depth of information they provide about a particular book or work. Generally, a catalogue record for a family history book might only mention the primary family, or a few family names - it won't list all the various other surnames that appear as people marry into the family.
 
Only the Sutton family itself is mentioned in the catalogue record of Henry Sutton : Family History 1828 - 2007 - although many other surnames of descendants of Henry do appear in the book.


So, where might you possibly find this information?

In an index of course!

The index to Australian Family Histories - initially compiled by Ralph Reid and now maintained as a free online index by the Family History Connections website - lists the surnames of families mentioned in published Australian family history books far more comprehensively than most library catalogues.

Why not search the Family History Connections index, and if you're lucky enough to find a family history book that you think mentions your family, use the Library's Trove service to see where the book might be held.

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Every family historian worth their salt has stood on the shoulders of giants and consulted an index at some point, and it's often easy to forget that behind every index there's an indexer - an actual human who has selflessly and painstakingly created a guidepost to a collection.

Does reading through family history book after family history book and jotting down all the surnames that appear sound like a fun Friday night? How about sitting in a cemetery and transcribing all of the inscriptions on the memorials? Every last one? Maybe poring over parish and civil registers to compile a birth, death, marriage index sounds like a jolly jaunt? Perhaps you're an indexer!

Making an index takes time, energy, passion and the very generous desire to make information accessible (core library business FYI) for other researchers.

If you’ve found an index to our collection and want to know more, or if you’d like us to check an index for you, why not Ask a Librarian.

 

 

 

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