When you think of a typical genealogy volunteer, you might recall a library helper or society president whose retirement has allowed the time to fulfill a role of service. But a new era of virtual volunteering lets researchers participate from home (or elsewhere) in short increments of time. By donating their time and skills online, these thousands of individuals have become a major force behind our ability to find family on the web.
Sharon Thompson has pitched in for nine years in the genealogy room of her local public library in Chardon, Ohio. She shows up for a weekly shift, but mostly she helps from home—or from Florida, during the winters. “We contribute to a statewide obituary index,” she explains. “I index obituaries directly from digital images of our old newspapers or from handwritten abstracts they send me. I can do that from anywhere.”
As a FamilySearch Indexing volunteer, Thompson also indexes records and arbitrates, or reviews records that other volunteers have indexed differently. In 2012, she helped key 132 million names from the 1940 US census in just over four months. Now she focuses on data from death certificates, especially for areas where her family lived.
“It’s fascinating how people died, back in the day.” Her efforts began as a thank-you. “I went to the library to learn genealogy, and they helped me so much,” she says. “And then I discovered FamilySearch. I thought, as long as they were giving me this free service, why don’t I give something back?”
Now, she says, “I’m thrilled when I find something new on my family and I figure other people will be thrilled when they find something I’ve indexed, too.”
Thompson is one of thousands who volunteer virtually. Their biggest task, the extraction of data from old records, is orchestrated by organizations such as:
- FamilySearch Indexing feeds a steady stream of record images to more than 300,000 volunteers. In 2014, they donated an estimated 9.6 million hours to process about 177 million records. The 1940 census partner project set the stage for collaborations with GenealogyBank on obituaries, the National Archives of Italy, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and others.
- The Daughters of the American Revolution’s Patriot Records Project Committee will pursue the indexing of Revolutionary War records from several libraries.
- The National Archives and Records Administration’s Citizen Archivist project offers a bold vision: “One day, all of our records will be online. You can help make that happen.” Volunteers transcribe documents, tag images, subtitle videos, and upload and share their own materials. Projects are of general historical interest, but many are relevant to family historians.
- Ancestry.com’s World Archives Project has coordinated efforts of more than 46,000 contributors to index 215 million records in nine languages. Those include state census, marriage, tax, naturalization and other records. Volunteer-created indexes are free (users usually need a subscription to click through to the record images), and active contributors receive a discount when they re-up their subscriptions.
- The Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS), an umbrella group for local societies, serves as a conduit for information about indexing opportunities. It also helped raise funds for digitizing records such as War of 1812 pensions.
Everyone sharing his or her research online is technically a virtual volunteer, says FGS officer Caroline Pointer. That includes creating gravestone records at BillionGraves and Find A Grave, or maintaining sites on RootsWeb, USGenWeb and other free resources. “Anyone publicly posting online trees or blogging their family history is helping,” Pointer says. “A lot of crowdsourced information is being put in the public space.” There’s a place for anyone to volunteer time and skills—whether at society meetings or library desks, or from a comfy chair at home.
We asked, you answered: How have you contributed as a genealogy volunteer?
“I’m part of the online Greek genealogy community; co-director of the Washington, DC, FamilySearch Center; volunteer coordinator for a Maryland state archives digitization project; and a National Archives ‘citizen archivist.'” Carol Kostakos Petranek, Silver Spring, Md.
“I volunteered for the Ohio Genealogical Society starting in the 1980s for over 24 years, [then served] on the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies. Everything has been rewarding in getting to know so many wonderful people in the genealogy field.” Jana Sloan Broglin, Swanton, Ohio
“I index and will help start family trees for just about anyone who’s remotely interested. I’m also the keeper of the history “stuff” for my family.” Todd Joseph Albrecht, South Euclid, Ohio
From the December 2015 Family Tree Magazine