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Kimberly Powell

FamilySearch Indexing the 1940 Census - How to Get it Right!

By April 17, 2012

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It is frustrating as a volunteer FamilySearch indexer to spend oodles of extra time making sure you get every last name and detail deciphered correctly, only to have an arbitrator come back and undo your hard work because they didn't spend the same quality time. Or to have one of your batches come back with multiple arbitrated changes -- for situations such as blank lines and 1935 place of residence where you feel you have followed the rules correctly. From an arbitrator's point of view, however, I can say it is equally frustrating having to ding an excellent indexer's arbitration results for a easily avoided, minor error repeated over and over.

Just so we are all on the same page here, this is not a rant or grumble about poor indexing or arbitration -- far from it. I applaud everyone who is volunteering their time to help make the 1940 census more easily available to all (not to mention that there are many genealogical discoveries to be made with the use of an index). We aren't all perfect (at least I'm not). But for all of you out there helping to index and/or arbitrate the 1940 US Census index for FamilySearch, here are some tips and resources to help us all get it right and eliminate most if not all of the frustration.

Read the Instructions
It isn't just new indexers who need to read the project instructions. Even if you are a long-time FamilySearch indexer, each project has its own quirks and rules, and the 1940 U.S. census is definitely no exception. Read the online project instructions, as well as each of the individual "Field Helps" within the indexing tool so you will know how to handle situations such as blank lines, initials, crossed out text, etc. You'll also want to make sure you know about the dropdown lists for standardized answers for the relationship and locality fields.
FamilySearch Indexing: 1940 Federal Census

Not all instructions are 1940 Census specific, so if you can't find it above then look for the answer in this helpful User's Guide to FamilySearch Indexing.

Stay Current with Updates
A large number of the indexing and arbitration errors that I've been seeing this past week have been addressed in the most current project updates. For example, you are supposed to use <blank> to indicate the place of residence in 1935 for children under age 5, even if "Same Place" or a city name is written in, but this rule is commonly missed by indexers and arbitrators -- at least in my experience so far.
FamilySearch Indexing - Project Updates

Adjust the Highlights
As you tab through an indexing project, the field you are currently indexing is highlighted in light blue which is a big help in keeping your place on the correct line and column when indexing a large record like a census page. If you don't see these highlights, then check the "View" tab in the FamilySearch Indexing program to make sure that "Show Highlights" is checked. If you do plan to use highlights (and I highly recommend it), then I would suggest checking to be sure these highlights are lined up correctly with your record whenever you first open a new record batch. Often they aren't initially lined up just right, but fixing this is easy. I personally just use the click and drag method -- selecting each of the 4 corners individually and moving them to the correct spot.
Adjusting Highlights - A Visual Guide

1940 Census Indexing - Things to Watch Out For

  • Index the number of the household in column 3, not the house number in column 2.
  • Index middle initials and middle names in the Given Names field along with the first names. Don't enter periods after initials.
  • Index what you see in the name fields, even if it is a common given name or surname that appears to have been misspelled by the enumerator, or has an extra letter thrown in.
  • If nothing was recorded in the Titles or Terms column, press Tab to skip the field. Do NOT mark it with a <blank>.
  • In general, enter the correct, standardized spellings for Relationship and Place Names. Check the Lookup column (usually located via the dropdown menu next to the particular field when using Windows or under the Edit menu on a Mac) for the standardized lists. Using this list ensures you correctly spell Pittsburgh with an "h" and don't get dinged for using "step-daughter" (the preferred form is "stepdaughter").
  • If "Same House" or "Same Place" was recorded in or across columns 17, 18, or 19, index that phrase (or any abbreviation of it) in the City of Residence field, and use Ctrl+B to mark the County and State fields as blank. If the term is abbreviated, such as "S. Place," then type the abbreviation as written. Be sure to watch for changes between "Same House" and "Same Place" as they mean different things and are not interchangeable.
  • If localities were recorded in the wrong jurisdictions (such as a state name in the 1935 City of Residence field), just index what you see.
  • If a line does not have a name on it, mark the entire record blank by pressing Ctrl+Shift+B. Do NOT index the line number.
  • If your batch consists of either an empty/blank census form, or one with only information in the header (i.e. no names or places enumerated on any of the lines 1-40), then mark the entire image as <blank>, NOT as "No Extractable Data."
  • Even when "Same House" or a place name was entered in columns 17, 18, or 19, for City, County, and State of Residence for children under the age of 5, mark the field as <blank>. If "Same House," etc. was entered in the Place of Birth column, type what you see.

Need Another Set of Eyes? How to Share a Batch
When you need help making out a name or could just use a second set of eyes to look over your work, FamilySearch Indexing makes it easy to share your batch with others. People with whom you share your batch number will be able to download and see your batch in order to offer input, but you as the indexer (the person sharing the batch) will retain complete control over the batch such as saving changes and submitting the batch for arbitration.
Using the Share Batch Feature of Indexing

While we are talking about a second set of eyes, there's a wonderful group on Facebook full of awesome volunteer indexers who will answer just about any indexing question you may have, or are happy to provide input on hard-to-read names -- usually within minutes! No complaining allowed in this group -- just a positive place to get answers, support, and feedback without negativity. Check out the Unofficial Share Batch Group for FamilySearch Indexing!

Related Content: Famous Americans in the 1940 Census
Clark Gable, E. E. Cummings, Orville Wright, Neil Armstrong, Albert Einstein, Clint Eastwood, and many more...

April 17, 2012 at 1:01 pm
(1) April Robertson says:

Kimberly very good idea about posting on this site and great work!

April 17, 2012 at 6:27 pm
(2) P Kristine Hurd says:

Kimberly, Great post and very helpful! Thank you ~Kristine

April 17, 2012 at 6:38 pm
(3) ~Kimberly says:

Thank you April (and the rest) for your wonderful Indexing group on Facebook!

April 17, 2012 at 7:22 pm
(4) PMWojciechouski says:

I disagree w/marking the 1935 place of residence for under age 5 individuals if the field was completed with data. This, to me, is changing historical data.
If the entire record is blank except for the line number, the line number should be recorded. After all, that is “data” in a field.
I also disagree with “corrections” on name spellings. If a person’s name is recorded as “Victora”, it isn’t up to me to decide it is a misspelling of “Victoria.” I have a step-great-great-grandmother whose name was Victora and NOT Victoria. I switch between low mag & high mag to get a different view of the name & decide on the letters; in addition I compare the letters to others on the form. The additional information lines at the bottom have proved to be helpful also.
As an aside – name spelling is a sticking point with me. If I had a nickle for every well meaning, but rude, person who told me I spelled my last name incorrectly, I’d be a rich.

April 17, 2012 at 7:48 pm
(5) ~Kimberly says:

I’m not actually sure of FamilySearch’s thinking on the 1935 place of residence for children under 5, but since the enumerator wasn’t supposed to record anything in that blank anyway this instruction does help to keep the index consistent. It is important to remember that is an index – not a change to the original records. The line number rule to me makes perfect sense – having a line number and nothing else just adds non-searchable information and bulk to the database for no reason (we won’t be searching by line number after all). There would be no way for people to find information by this field, and again the census image preserves the original information.

I definitely agree with you about not correcting/changing name spellings — and FamilySearch’s instructions are very clear on this as well. For names you Type What You See.

April 17, 2012 at 7:43 pm
(6) Diane Sandoval says:

Thanks, but your comment about the “h” in Pittsburgh is fine for Pittsburgh, PA, but Pittsburg, CA, and Pittsburg County, OK, are spelled without an “h.” Perhaps a look-up in a reputable source would be warranted for place names, unlike indexing people’s names according to what the enumerator records, no matter how odd the spelling.

April 17, 2012 at 8:04 pm
(7) ~Kimberly says:

Good point on the spelling of Pittsburgh — not a great example, I just happen to be indexing Allegheny County, PA records at the moment. But both spellings are in the FamilySearch lookup list. I would consider their lookup list for place names a “reputable source,” and their providing this standardization does make the index much more searchable :)

April 18, 2012 at 3:37 am
(8) Pam Reid says:

Kimberly, I was going to address some of the disagreements with the indexing rules, but I see you that took care of it. Thank you SO much for helping go get this information out there. These are the problems that have been coming up in indexing and arbing – there is still a long way to go in the Project and if we get the correct guidelines read, it will be much smoother.

I like that you make the point that an index is an index and all we are doing is creating an index so that a researcher can find the record and examine it for themselves.

Thank you.

April 18, 2012 at 3:45 am
(9) Jim Jenkins says:

I am new to the indexing, but not new to interpreting legal documents. I wonder why there is no capability for notes or highlighting what clearly appears to be incorrect spelling of names. It is true that there are variations in spelling of names, and even different names that are close in spelling to the most common. However, in some languages, the odd spellings of given names could barely be pronounced, and are obvious errors. I do not disagree with the policy of spelling the name as the enumerator did, but why no capability to attach a note to the record? Just curious.

April 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm
(10) Terry says:

Thank you SO VERY MUCH for this comment. I am a new indexer and have tried to be very careful to get things right. Yes, I did make several errors and it was caught (thank goodness). I also find it very frustrating when I have been careful to follow the rules and find the arbitrator not using them. I wish there was a way to comment to the arbitrator as to “why” I feel I am correct. We have the luxury of going to previous years census’ to help correct minor typo’s and when the arbitrator does not do the same, there lies the difference. If we could record why we wrote what we did it would help. That said, this has been a good experience and even though I get frustrated, I realize we are just that much closer to having the indexes online.

April 18, 2012 at 12:42 pm
(11) Robert Jones says:


It is interesting about spelling of names. I found myself and my aunt, who I was living with and who raised me, and guess what — her name is misspelled. As a result she would never be found using the spelling in the census or would she ever be found if during indexing the name was changed. A catch 22 I guess.But then again she will be found using her husband’s name.

My wife and I have volunteered to help with the indexing so I am saving your comments as a resource when we do start.

Thanks for all the good work you do to help us struggling genealogist

Bob Jones

April 18, 2012 at 7:51 pm
(12) Nekkel says:

Although I appreciate the article, I have to agree with everything PMWojciechouski said. It’s just annoying to spend hours and hours, etc. “following the rules” and have someone else say you did it wrong anyway. So..I don’t help out as much as I did and (the main thing) I’ve stopped looking at the reviews/corrections.

Someone on Facebook mentioned that it was the last straw and they weren’t helping anymore. Well, I think I have two straws left and then I’m done.

April 19, 2012 at 10:38 am
(13) Betty says:

As to not filling in City, County, State information for children under five:

They were not alive in March of 1935 so they did not live anywhere on earth.

April 22, 2012 at 7:55 am
(14) Linda says:

It has been most interesting finding out I am not the only one who is frustrated by indexers and arbitrators not being on the same page! I had questions as to why some of my work had been “corrected” and was told in a live chat that each sheet is indexed by two separate people. The combined info is then compared and only when the two do not match does the arbitrator make a decision. In the case I was talking about the arbitrator chose to go with the incorrect information for some reason. I can only assume that the arbitrator had not been keeping up on the updated rules as I had but the mistakes will remain as they have the last say.
I too have suggested a way to comment on particular answers, at least when reviewing ones “corrected” work. Just clicking feedback and hoping someone actually looks at the page does not fill me with confidence that it will ever be done right.
As some have said, it is frustrating to try so hard to do things right and have others playing by a different set of rules “correcting” you but I am not going to give up. I can see where some of my original concerns have already been addresses and adjusted so obviously the whole project is a work in progress.
Think we have problems? Just imagine what it was like to decipher the records from 1840! Now that had to be a real challenge!!!

April 23, 2012 at 7:38 pm
(15) DiAnne Chamberlain says:

Thanks for the heads up. Everyone needs to read the helps. I do both indexing and arbutrating not fun when the indexers are so far off on what they read and type. Everyone is doing better with the new helps. Thanks for doing such good work.

April 25, 2012 at 12:16 am
(16) bob says:

Well folks, we are just beginning to see what a monumental task we are facing. Things are pretty rough right now but if we don’t work together things will get much worse. Please do not lose sight of what we are trying to accomplish here. We are trying to build a searchable index .
We are not trying to duplicate the census record nor correct it. If we do our job well, the descendants of the people listed in the census will take care of all the corrections much better than we could ever do.. No way will we ever reach the goal of 100% accuracy. Hopefully we will get real close if we work together. How….simple….FOLLOW THE RULES. To do this KNOW the rules. I will be the first to admit I make my share of mistakes, many of them from just not knowing the correct rule to apply, but I am learning still. Virtually all my careless mistakes are being caught, and I could not be happier. I am reviewing each of my batches and surprised at the careless mistakes I have made.
I am sure each of us have had our own experience with other indexes. That is the reason I am doing this volunteer work, to make this the best ever…

May 26, 2012 at 5:43 pm
(17) Patricia Grams says:

I am completely frustrated with this entire project. It will be chock full or errors when released because of arbitrators. When I come across a name I cant quite make out, I will look up the same family in the 1930 or earlier census records to get an accurate spelliing and arbitrators are changing my work to reflect errors.

July 5, 2012 at 12:49 pm
(18) Paulette Dunn says:

Question: If the census taker records “wife’s sister”, should it be indexed “wife’s sister” or “sister-in-law”

July 14, 2012 at 1:50 pm
(19) warner says:


I found my name in the 1940 census but only because I knew my next door neighbors. It concerns Los Angeles, California – my father’s name was Warner J. MCINTIRE born Ohio – mother Mary B. and me Warner J. Jr. Whoever copies the abstract with ancestry.com spelled it Warrer
MC DOTIRC. Can something be done to correct the abstract copy in Ancestry.com please

Warner McIntire
(941) 316-9592

July 17, 2012 at 9:48 am
(20) Sally Pavia says:

Is there a way to correct a name on the 1940 Census? I have a friend who has proof that his father’s name should be Jimmy and on the census it is listed as Jean; is there anything that can be done?

November 19, 2012 at 6:34 am
(21) Angela says:

What does a circled check mark next to a baby born in 1940 (1939?) mean in regards to the 1940 U.S. Federal Census? Thank you.

March 22, 2013 at 12:26 am
(22) phone number says:

Valuable information. Lucky me I discovered your site unintentionally, and
I am surprised why this accident didn’t came about earlier! I bookmarked it.

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