A Family Volunteers from Home—and Reaps Surprising Benefits

March 26, 2020  - by 
isaac richins and his grandmother melanie greenway indexing together.

This extended family is working from home to help make the world’s historical records more available. In the process, they are connecting with each other and drawing strength from the past.

Like millions of people around the world, the extended Greenway family is sequestered at their homes. Coronavirus has not yet touched them personally. Rather, they have been social distancing to protect themselves and others.

During this time when most social events are discouraged, and especially with children at home, the family has been looking for meaningful ways to pass the time and stay connected.

They’ve found one. From their homes in several parts of the United States, the Greenways are working toward a joint goal to transcribe at least 2,000 names from FamilySearch’s collection of free, digitized historical records. These transcriptions help others who are trying to learn more about their family history.

Three generations of Greenways have taken up the cause. It’s already proved so rewarding that several family members plan to continue indexing even after normal routines resume. Here’s how they got started, what results they are seeing, and how they help their children to participate.

Getting Started

Ron and Melanie Greenway live in Pennsylvania, United States, but their six grown children and 20 grandchildren are scattered around Pennsylvania, Ohio, Idaho, and Utah. Daughter Emily Greenway Richins recently proposed that their family collaborate on a joint goal of indexing old records. “I’ve done this before,” she says. “If everyone contributes a little, it will add up. If we go over, awesome! I created a group home page, and we FaceTimed to get everyone an account and teach people how to do it.”

the greenway indexing group on FamilySearch
A screen capture of the Greenway family’s indexing group. Anyone can create a private indexing group to pool group efforts and encourage others.

A Teen Indexer and His Mom

Emily’s oldest son, Isaac, who is almost 14, has been one of the group’s most active participants so far. “He’s taken this by the horns! He’ll index for 45 minutes at a time. He cyber-schools, so he’s really good on the computer. He’s good at reading old handwriting too,” Emily says. “He likes indexing the ship passenger manifests; they’re in a list, and he just goes down the names. He has autism and it appeals to the organized part of his brain.”

Emily has found the process personally rewarding, too. A busy nurse and mom, she finds that indexing fills her limited downtime meaningfully. “When I would normally pick up a book or play a game on my iPad, I’ll tell myself I need to index so many names before I can do that,” she says. “Before I know it, I’ve finished four or five batches, and I have no desire to pick up my book.”

isaac richins and melanie greenway
Isaac Richins lives near his grandmother Melanie Greenway. They’re not getting together in person much now, but sharing their indexing goals still helps them feel connected.

“I’ve been indexing death records and passenger manifests,” she continued. “I see the causes of death from, say, 1895. I work in labor and delivery, and I’ve noticed a lot of childbirth and infant deaths. I think to myself, ‘She wouldn’t die from that cause nowadays,’ and I wonder how the family felt. I’ve found stowaways on the ship passenger manifests. I wonder why they stowed away.”

“My son asked me what a stowaway was,” Emily says. “It led to a great conversation about why people would have stowed away. We wouldn’t have had that conversation otherwise. For parents, it’s a good way to open up a dialogue about the challenges other people face versus what we face.”

A Project for the Whole Family

Emily’s sister-in-law in Ohio, Tanya Greenway, is a stay-at-home mom whose four children are now home all day too. Tanya loves history but is new to indexing, and she has been pleasantly surprised. “Indexing is an education it and of itself—for me, not just my kids. I’m learning geography and history. Records mention countries that don’t even exist now,” Tanya says. “I’m seeing how people spelled their names. Who knew you could have that many vowels and consonants in one name?”

She especially enjoys the stories she sees unfolding in old records. “They have become real people to me,” explains Tanya. “One man got his citizenship one day after his birthday. What a great birthday present! Today I ‘met’ a woman from Romania who was about 4 feet and 11 inches and weighed 100 pounds. She was about 20 years old and a seamstress. I could just picture this petite little seamstress. Someone’s description says he had a scar on his neck. I thought about how that might have happened, what his life must have been like.”

How are things going for her children?

family indexing on a bed
a young boy indexes on his computer
a young boy and his mom together
Images from left to right: Tanya Greenway with Madelynne and Owen; Jackson Greenway; Luke Greenway helps his mom, Tanya Greenway.
  • Madelynne, 14, had previously done some record indexing. “She helped me get set up, because I’m not good with technology. It was a great opportunity for her to teach me something,” Tanya says. “Now she works mostly independently. I don’t tell her how much to do or when—I want this to come from her. I just check on her to see what she’s working on.”
  • Jackson, age 11, “needs more of a one-on-one experience. This is new to him. I sit down with him to work in his account. He’s soaking up the one-on-one time and asking his dad to do it with him too,” Tanya says. “He tends to move quickly through things, and this requires him to be meticulous, which is good for him. He can’t read cursive, so we’re helping him choose projects with typed records rather than handwritten ones. We want him to feel competent, not frustrated.”
  • Luke, 7, is too young to have a FamilySearch account to do his own indexing, Tanya says. “He was sorely disappointed! He likes to look over my shoulder and help me decipher handwriting. We compare how the person wrote the same letter on different parts of a page. He’ll read numbers for me. He likes to try to pronounce the names.”
  • And baby Owen, just under age 2? His main job is to take his afternoon nap. “When Owen is awake, he wants to sit on my lap and snuggle while I’m typing. For him to sit still for even a minute at this age is a bonus, so I’ll take it.”

The Oldest and Youngest Volunteers

What about the Greenway grandparents? Ron is an experienced indexer who, like his daughter-in-law Tanya, enjoys the kinds of glimpses the records give him into history. He also loves when someone makes a record discovery from something he indexed and then that person sends him a thank-you message. “It’s like, wow, this meant something to someone,” he says.

Indexing was a new experience for his wife, Melanie, who doesn’t use computers often. “We went through one indexing batch, and then I had to leave the house,” says Ron. “When I came back, she had completed the project. She was excited she could pull it off. I think she’s going to continue on—she’s got time on her hands!”

anna and william greenway on a computer together
Anna Greenway gets help indexing old records from her older brother, William.

The youngest Greenway indexer is Anna, age 8, whose family also lives in Pennsylvania. Her mother, Lynn, describes how she guides Anna’s participation while ensuring that the indexing is done accurately. “We are careful to find batches that are relatively short and are typed. Sometimes I will return a few batches [of records] before I find one that works. Then we usually play find-and-seek with the document. She’ll hunt through it to find the birthdate or event place, and then we’ll type it in. I’m usually the one that helps her, but sometimes her older brother, William (age 12), helps too.”

Seeing the Bigger Picture

The Greenways set up their family challenge as a competition. “It’s not about the numbers,” says Tanya, “But for some of the younger family members, being in friendly competition with their cousins is motivating. If you want a tip for getting a lot of names quickly, passenger lists can do it!”

“It’s fun to talk to my grandchildren about it,” says Ron. “And when the cousins talk to each other, they up their enthusiasm. Someone suggested having a prize. We may end up giving out lots of little prizes. The fact that we’re doing this project as a family is the most exciting thing to me.”

Emily sees this project as incredibly timely. “Right now, our challenge is the pandemic. Indexing old records lets us see our challenges in perspective. The world was crazy and chaotic back then too. Everyone’s always had difficult times; their difficult times were just different. We can still learn a lot from them. They got through it, and so will we.”

Experience for yourself the benefits of indexing old records. Better yet, invite others to do the same in a private indexing group!

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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  1. Our missionaries in the Canada Montreal Mission are doing lots of indexing now too! I hope FS can keep making records available!

  2. Dear Greenway family, thanks for doing all that Indexing. I’m one of many who are doing the reviewing of those records that you are Indexing. Thanks for keeping me busy. I am an 83 year old great . I love ❤️ Indexing and it sounds like you do too. Won’t it be wonderful when our temples open again and people will be able to take these names and do their work and keep gathering Zion on both sides of the veil. Keep up the great work you’re doing

  3. I’m trying my best to do indexing! i find it very challenging, but I’m willing to learn! I am trying to get my family involved. We have been doing family history research with friends and family members in my home every Sunday. our goal is to take at least one or more names to the temple each week, e were so excited gathering together each Sunday, until this covid-19 put a stop to everything! We had soo many people attend. The challenge now is trying to get my immediate family involved! i have been wanting my family to do indexing while we’re waiting for things to get back to normal! but its seems like they have other interests on their mind

  4. I am interested in learning how to do this. Where does the information come from. I have completed a family tree book which has 900 members in it. How could I included my closest deceased family members on the list.