FamilySearch releases online editing tool for indexed records

With more than 1 billion indexed records available, FamilySearch now offers users the ability to edit online the indexed names of their ancestors.

“This has been the No. 1 feature request from our users for a number of years,” said John Alexander, a FamilySearch product manager, adding that the editing tool has been a year in development and testing.

Of the much-anticipated online innovation, “we’ve done everything we can to make sure indexed data is as correct as possible,” he said.

The new index-editing tool can be used to correct name errors or add alternative name spellings, with the amended indexes increasing the likelihood of success for researchers finding ancestral records.

“Adding corrections to an index when the information does not match the names as written in the original document or if the document was recorded wrong will increase the quality of the index and usefulness to other searchers,” Alexander said.

The online editing does not change or remove anything from the index record; rather, the editing results in an amendment with additional data. And then both the original information and the amended information become searchable online.

“We still keep the integrity of the original document, the original indexing,” Alexander said. “This is all additive — we’re not taking anything away.”

Errors in index fields

Index errors can come in two different forms — information that was indexed incorrectly or original records that contained incorrect information. Incorrectly indexed entries become difficult for researchers to find ancestors looking for a specific name or spelling.

With indexing done by unpaid volunteers and contributors, indexing errors can result from dealing with damaged documents, faded ink or difficult-to-read handwriting as well as from human error such as misspellings, wrongful assumptions and typos — or, as Alexander calls them, “fat-fingered errors.”

A screenshot example from the FamilySearch index record of Merry Christmas Jacobson in the 1930 U.S. Census, which was incorrectly indexed as Mary Jacobson.
A screenshot example from the FamilySearch index record of Merry Christmas Jacobson in the 1930 U.S. Census, which was incorrectly indexed as Mary Jacobson. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

He likens indexing to a single, first draft of a written document — the indexer gets one crack at it, and the index was never fixed, changed or amended. Until now.

Errors in original documents and records may come from uncommon names, language barriers and unexpected spellings.

For many decades, U.S. censuses were a written record from a verbal exchange at the door of a residence, Alexander said. When names were spoken, the census taker may have written down a phonetic spelling, assumed a well-known or common variation or even “Americanized” difficult international names and surnames.

A “merry” example of errors

A recent FamilySearch blog offered actual examples of both type of efforts — incorrect indexing and incorrect original documentation — involving the records of Merry Christmas Jacobson.

The index of a 1930 United States census shows the name as Mary Jacobson, even though the original census document shows Merry Jacobson — an error from indexing. However, the 1940 U.S. census source document shows the name as Mary C. Jacobson, which was indexed as such — or an error in the original document being perpetuated in the index.

The new editing tool allows the edited names of “Merry” to be added in both instances, and all “Mary” and “Merry” versions to be searchable online.

A FamilySearch screenshot example of a name error in the 1940 U.S. Census, with Merry Christmas Jacobson incorrectly recorded as "Mary."
A FamilySearch screenshot example of a name error in the 1940 U.S. Census, with Merry Christmas Jacobson incorrectly recorded as “Mary.” Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

When users find misspellings or other indexing errors involving their ancestors, “they sometimes feel like somehow we’ve wronged their family history,” Alexander said.

Previously, users wanting to change incorrectly indexed names faced the prospects of trying to reach out to FamilySearch support channels in a lengthy process that often didn’t resolve the issue.

The index-editing tool “is solving this for us because our indexes are getting better and better,” Alexander said.

How the process works

Once a FamilySearch user comes across indexed records they know are in error, they can use the new online tool — to make an edit, to cite if the error comes from the index or the original document, and to provide sustaining information for the edit, whether it be a brief note or a lengthy explanation.

Also, users can highlight the name in question on the image of the document, allowing a quick call of attention to the clarification.

Currently, only indexes referring to document images can be corrected, and not all index entries are editable. An icon of a page and a camera at the side of an index entry indicate that a document image is available — users can then check the image and compare it to the index entry.

A FamilySearch screenshot showing the page and camera icons, which can be clicked on, taking the user to an editable indexed record.
A FamilySearch screenshot showing the page and camera icons, which can be clicked on, taking the user to an editable indexed record. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

When a user finds an ancestor’s name cited in an index, a box will pop up with the indexed information on the left and a clickable image on the right. If the index is editable, the word “edit” will appear in blue next to the name. Clicking on “edit” allows the user to follow prompts to complete the process.

The online edit involves inputting the correct name or spelling, choosing if the edit is because of an index error or a document error, adding an explanation for the edit, highlighting the full name in the index image and then saving the edit.

No deletions, no overrides

User corrections won’t override or change the index information, and multiple edits can be added to a single record.

Both the original indexed record and amended name remain, with both being searchable. And no one can edit an edit, although a single record can have multiple edits.

Thousands of online edits have been made already, both during the pre-release testing done by select users as well as after the tool’s late-July public release.

While only names are currently the only index field than can be edited, ongoing development is being done to make other information fields available for a similar editing process, Alexander said.