The twenty-first century has brought a boon to genealogists. Records are constantly being digitized and placed online. Because of the expense involved in digitizing records, however, it is a time-consuming process. In the meantime, many indexes are being made available online and these can be very helpful.
Many record sets were prepared with their own indexes from the get-go. We’ve all seen land, probate, and vital records with indexes at the back of each volume. Many agencies created cumulative indexes over time as well. And some created them as they went along. In Massachusetts, for example, the index to the statewide vital records was created in five-year increments starting all the way back in the 1850s.
Indexes can contain a wide variety of information. At a minimum, one usually finds the surname and the page number on which it appears. Sometimes you might get the given name as well as the surname.
If the index covers multiple volumes, you should see the volume letter or number as well as the page, and sometimes you will see a year (although years are often included in the title of multi-volume indexes). Records that include multiple parties, such as land records (which have both grantors and grantees or mortgagors and mortgagees, etc.), many have multiple sets of indexes.
Some indexes are in alphabetical order, usually by surname. Some, however, just group the names together by the first letter (i.e., all names starting with a letter A together, all with a letter B together, etc.). You will also find indexes that are simply in chronological order, or in order by page number. Multi-volume indexes are occasionally grouped by volume letter or number as well. They can appear with each volume subdivided as mentioned above, or the above groupings might be subdivided by volume letter or number.
Indexes can also contain a great deal more information. You might, for example, see the exact dates of transactions, or the date the transaction was registered. Vital records might include the names of parents and/or spouses. The names of the towns, villages, or townships where the event took place might also appear.
Images of indexes can sometimes help you find information that is hidden, with spelling variations that don’t always appear when you search for them. In addition, indexes are often available for modern time periods, where the records themselves are not available online. They even be closed to the public, and the indexes may be the only information you can access. In the worst of all scenarios, the actual records may be destroyed, and published indexes may be the only information that survives. A perfect example of this are those of Devonshire, England. Bombing in during World War II destroyed these records (among others) in 1942. Aside from some individual records abstracted before the bombing, the only surviving records are the published indexes.