As part of its “Year of the Obituary” in 2014, FamilySearch
, the genealogy arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced an agreement with digital newspapers subscription site GenealogyBank
to index a billion of the latter site’s obituaries. FamilySearch called this “the largest—and perhaps most significant—online US historical records access initiative yet.” That’s because obituaries are familiar to a broad audience and deliver names (on average, eight to 10 per obituary), relationships and more in an easy-to-understand format.
But why index all those obituaries when we can already keyword-search millions of digitized newspaper pages? Why not throw the considerable energies of FamilySearch into digitizing more papers or indexing another type of record that isn’t readily accessible?
“Only a small percentage of newspaper pages contain vital-record content that is genealogically relevant [and]…easily indexable,” says Devin Ashby, a community advocate at FamilySearch. And the results of keyword searching digitized old newspapers just aren’t that great: Studies by universities including Stanford and King’s College London show only a 60- to 80-percent accuracy rate when you search digitized old newspapers that were transcribed with OCR (optical character recognition) software. The success rate is even lower for capitalized words—bad news for genealogists searching names.
But human indexers, who can use context to figure out a hard-to-read word, generally do a better job than software. “Most of what we index and publish on FamilySearch.org is above 98 percent accuracy, thanks in large part to our volunteer indexers,” Ashby says.
Those volunteers have already indexed about 84 million names from GenealogyBank’s obituaries. Search the free index on FamilySearch.org
(and eventually also on GenealogyBank); obituary images are available in subscription collections at GenealogyBank.com. The site’s obituaries since 1977 are already “clipped” from the surrounding newspaper pages, simplifying the indexing process. That’s why recent obituaries are being indexed first; older ones will follow. Ashby estimates the project is capturing “90 percent of obituaries being published now and moving forward.”
Other major genealogy websites also are undertaking efforts to help searchers find obituaries. Findmypast.com has a treasure trove of British, Irish and Scottish papers, which include an estimated 3 to 6 million obituaries. Product manager Ian Tester says the company is working on projects to index them and to improve the recognition of names via OCR. “We’ll be introducing more search features shortly to enable filtering by articles that have been specifically identified as family notices,” he says.
, the search algorithm looks not only at the OCR content, but also at the location of the newspaper—a technology called semantic analysis. The number of mismatches on an obituary for Springfield, Ohio, will drop dramatically if matches from a paper in Springfield, Mo., can be eliminated.
Modern obituaries, such as those FamilySearch indexers are focusing on, can link genealogical research to living relatives. But fewer current obituaries are appearing in newspapers as the expense proves too much for many families. One source estimates the cost of an average newspaper obituary at $298 for 20 lines of copy and a photo. The rate can run as high as $600.
Some families forgo an obituary altogether. Others publish memorials online through funeral home websites and services such as Legacy.com
. These may be longer than traditional obituaries, and sometimes include images and allow mourners to post condolences.
But the staying power of these online memorials isn’t guaranteed. They may be posted for a limited time, and websites can go offline without notice. Unless you could recover the obituary in a cached version of an old website, it would be lost as a genealogical resource. A savvy researcher will download these memorials for the family’s future reference. Submitters of online memorials (who own the copyright to the text) might consider adding them to the relative’s profile on genealogy and cemetery inscription websites.
Where do you find relatives’ obituaries?
We have a ton of old scrapbooks. Our family was always cutting out obituaries and saving them.
» Cleveland, Ohio
Not all of my relatives had the courtesy to live in towns that have [obituary] collections online. I still order a lot of newspapers on microfilm via interlibrary loan.
» Albuquerque, NM
GenealogyBank and the local papers (where my relatives resided when they died).
Janet Duval Fortunato
» Gardner, Mass.
5 Questions With Ross Allred
1. You’ve been in this industry almost your entire career. Why?
It’s a fun and growing industry. I enjoy working in a business that benefits people, rather than just selling goods and services. Hearing about people’s family discoveries is so rich and rewarding.
2. What do genealogists look like from where you sit?
I see people who are very passionate about what they do. The number of volunteers in this world—whether they’re indexing or helping other family historians in their genealogy communities—is fascinating and wonderful to me. Helping genealogists make new discoveries directly or indirectly is very satisfying.
3. Are we getting any younger?
I think so, but there are still barriers. I see people showing interest in their 30s and 40s. But different seasons of life allow you to do different things. It’s still around retirement age that many people find the time and the means to do genealogy.
4. Are all these competing genealogy websites good for consumers?
Yes. More and more sites have developed very strong niches. The overall competition is healthy, and as everyone gets better and better at what they’re doing, it will give genealogists the very best products possible.
5. Have you caught the “genealogy bug” yourself?
I didn’t have it at first. Then we took a family trip to an ancestral hometown in Illinois. My wife and I realized our ancestors lived within a few blocks of each other and more than likely knew each other. As I was walking the land, it felt like my ancestors were there with me. There was a strong connection that I’ve never felt before. That’s why genealogy is growing at such a fast pace—other people are having these same kinds of experiences.
From the May/June 2015 Family Tree Magazine