Interview with Family Search Arbitrators ~ Barbara Taylor & Jim Thordahl

Jim: The 1940 census indexing program will soon be complete, and we will be able to search the data. Thousands of volunteers expedite the task. Under the leadership of Herb Abrams, about twenty SOCCGS volunteers contribute to this effort. The indexing process includes a comparison of data loaded by two independent indexers. Differences between their entries are resolved through a decision by an arbitrator. Barbara Taylor, a member of SOCCGS since February 2011, is an avid indexer. I thought it would be fun to hear about her experience.

Jim: What got you started with indexing on Family Search?

Barbara: I was on one day last year and clicked on the website link for the indexing section just to see what it was about. I got a message saying something like, “Thanks for signing up” before I knew what I had done. Shortly after that, I got an email with instructions for doing the training, so I did the training and indexed a few batches here and there when I had time.

When our society signed up to help with the 1940 census, Herb Abrams asked for people to be arbitrators, so I looked at that training and decided that I could do if I was careful.

Jim: What kind of records have you indexed or arbitrated?

Barbara: For the 1940 census, I have done something (either indexed or arbitrated) on at least one batch from each of the 48 states, plus Washington DC, Hawaii and Alaska.

I have also indexed some of the 1871 England, UK and Wales Census, WW I and WW II draft registrations, California Voting Registers (1866-1910) and Texas death certificates (1890-1976).

As of today, I have indexed 2,597 records and arbitrated 28,015 records as of today (5/22/2012).

Jim: How did you happen to index all the US states?

Barbara: About two weeks into the census indexing project, I realized one day that I had done a lot of different states as they became available, so I printed out a list of all the states and territories, then checked off how many I had done. I was only missing about a dozen of them, so I made a point to go find records in those states to either index or arbitrate. Knowing this was an opportunity that would not come again for 10 more years, I found it fascinating to see all the various places that came up. It was like taking a “road trip” without leaving my office.

Jim: Is indexing or arbitrating hard to do?

Barbara: There is online training available for both indexing and arbitrating that have to be taken before you are allowed to do those functions. For the 1940 census, there are “test batches” to help get the hang of it. There are different skills levels for all the work available. Everything I have done so far is at the “beginning” level.

There is a special indexing program that is downloaded to your computer. Then, you download “batches” of work than may be a page of some document or several pages. You can choose how much work to do. Each batch of work is indexed by two people, then a Arbitrator reviews the two records side-by-side to see if they agree. If the 2 indexers don’t agree, the Arbitrator chooses which record is correct (or most correct) and/or fixes any errors in the batch.

As an indexer, you get feedback by the arbitrators that helps you to learn what mistakes are made so you can correct your bad habits.

Jim: How do you know which indexer is correct when arbitrating?

Barbara: When there are differences in names, I try to find other supporting documentation like past census records, draft records, birth/death certificates, or even family trees to see if I can find documented matches for each of the indexer’s entries. For large families, these are usually easy to find on or other genealogy resource sites. I try to be as careful as I can with the choices as I hope others would be with my own family.

Jim: What are some of the interesting things you’ve seen so far in the 1940 census?

Barbara: I have seen a prison, a mental hospital, a hotel, a Coast Guard station, farms, city folks and lots of normal families. In some areas, the families are quite large, sometimes as many as 10 children living at home. I have noticed lots of relatives living with families: mother/father-in-laws, cousins, aunts/uncles, brothers/sisters, nieces/nephews, and lots of lodgers or boarders. Occasionally, a friend or guest will be shown.

One large family listed the name of the “head” and then about 10 sisters all with the first name Mary and different last names and a wide range of ages. I assume that was a small nunnery, though there was nothing to indicate that’s what it was.

For one record, their previous location was listed as “Transient.” I’ve seen birth places all over the world.

Jim: What was the toughest arbitration you resolved?

I’ve seen a couple instances where the last name was completely unreadable on the census image either because the enumerator tried to write over what was there or something else made it illegible.

Those take a lot more time and diligence to figure out. So far, I have managed to find most of them by looking for the family members by their first names, then locating them on an earlier census. In a couple cases, I had to find the neighbors first, then look at the people living nearby to locate the right people by the process of elimination. Many pages have the actual street address on them so if the family stayed in the same place, it is possible to locate them by finding their neighbors first.

It feels really good when I can be absolutely sure that I have found the right family as I know that someday, someone will be looking for their relatives.

Jim: What will you arbitrate after the 1940 census is complete?

There are constantly new records being offered for indexing. I didn’t do a lot of indexing before the 1940 census and don’t expect to do as much after this, though it is nice to “give back” when I have time. I have tried to do at least some every month since I get so much personal benefit from using the indexed records myself.

Jim: How about foreign language records?

I tried a few batches of old English (1871 England, Wales census) records when I first started and didn’t do very well on them according to the arbitrators, so I probably won’t try those again for awhile. I have not tried other language records, though there are plenty of them available for those who can do them. I studied Latin in school and have forgotten a lot of what I once knew. I don’t want to make a mess of something that I don’t know anything about.

Jim: Have you seen any of your own family?

Barbara: The closest I have seen so far is a cousin of my ex-husband in North Carolina while I was indexing the 1940 census. I have been able to locate some other relatives on the raw images or via the states that have been indexed already. That’s pretty exciting and I found other children that I didn’t know about before.

Jim: Has this helped you in your own genealogy work?

Barbara: I have learned how to read many different handwriting styles than I could before I started and it has given me a much better appreciation of what is involved in indexing the census or any other historical records. And, it’s much more fun that I ever expected. We are doing good work and helping to make important records available to others for free.

Jim: How can I learn more?

Go to and click on the “Indexing” tab at the top of the page. You can do a 2-minute “test drive” there. There are more instructions for signing up with our Genealogy group’s efforts in the March 2012 newsletter at