Discovering our Ancestors' Travels and Travails

Accessing Records

When I first started researching family history, I was amazed at being allowed to touch original records. They were stored in town vaults or church offices, and I was allowed to go through them in searching for family members. Etiquette required white gloves and penciled notes, but that was not always rigorously observed, and some fragile records were damaged.

It made sense to me in the late 20th century when copies of the records became available on microfilm or microfiche at archives and libraries. The originals could be filmed once, and the records duplicated and shared to various locations. Now many of the same records and others have been digitized and are available on the internet.

Not only are records more available, they are more often indexed! We take it for granted now, but in the 1930s earlier census records were painstakingly converted to a soundex code that grouped names by phonetics, so that similar sounding names with various spellings would be indexed together. All names would be converted to a code with a letter and three numbers, put on a card, and the cards sorted manually. In order to make the records available, the cards were filmed and copies made for archives and libraries.

To find a census record, a researcher would have to convert a name to a soundex code, then search through the cards for that code to find the name of interest. It was challenging. Once the index card was found, the census itself could be retrieved and searched.

Now computers do it all for us when we type a name, giving us alternatives and variations as well as what we’ve requested.

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