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The Strangest Index You Ever Saw

August 15, 2008

Or at least the strangest index I ever saw. I suppose there must be a good reason for it, but I can’t think of one!

Following a link on the Dauphin County PAGenWeb page today, I ended up at the county’s Public Access website, which included PDF files of an index to county court records of some type, organized into volumes by surname initial. I didn’t think there’d be much to find there, but it appeared to be a very comprehensive index–1785-1973–and long and complete indexes like that are so rare on the web, that I decided to check it out.

Well, early on in my research I’d been introduced to the odd county records method of indexing by initials instead of by surname and then first name, but when I read this index I have to say I was seriously baffled. Here is a transcription of their explanation on the first page:

To Locate Names in Index

Determine first key-letter following initial letter in Family Name. Find section number in the column headed by said key-letter, opposite given name initial desired. Names not containing a key-letter will be located under “Misc.” Corporations, etc., will be located under the first key-letter following the initial letter in the first word of the name, or if no key-letter, under “Misc.” Always omit the article “The.”

I actually had to go over this about a dozen times before I figured out what they meant. In case you missed it too, here is what they are trying to say:

There are five key-letters: l, m, n, r and t. To find someone in an index, first go of course to the volume with the proper surname initial. Let’s say you’re looking for the surname Smith. In the S volume, you must then locate the first key-letter which appears in the surname. For your Smith ancestor it would therefore be m. There is a table on the first page of the volume, under the explanation, with columns labeled with the key-letters. Go to the “m” column, then find the cell which matches up with the first letter of your ancestor’s first name. This cell will list the section number. (Some initials are grouped, for example Herbert Smith and Ira Smith will be in the same section number.) However, if your ancestor’s surname was Davis for example, you will notice there are no key-letters so you must go to the “Misc.” column. In the PDF format they have online, you don’t need to bother with the section numbers, but you do need to follow the key-letter system by going to the bookmark list which (in my version of Acrobat) is at the left of the page, selecting the key-letter, and then the first name initial.

According to the cover image, somebody patented this l-m-n-r-t system. Well, good for them, but, but, um…why do we need it? I’ve never seen it before, and neither has my mom–and she has been a reader of just about everything that can be read for the past half century. If anybody knows the reason behind this system, feel free to let me know, and share your thoughts. Have you used this type of index before, and what do you think of it?

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