“Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain”

April 23, 2012  - by 

Pulling Back Curtain
In a memorable scene from the classic film The Wizard of Oz, a frightened Dorothy, Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion are commanded by the “great and powerful Oz” to step closer to his larger-than-life, fire-spewing visage and account for why they have dared to disturb his peace. As they cautiously inch their way toward what they believe is the actual Oz, Dorothy’s faithful dog Toto leaps from her arms and runs to pull back a curtain where the real Oz is busy manipulating levers and the minds of his timid audience.

Though unintended, it seems some FamilySearch indexers have a mental image of arbitrators as “great and powerful” wizards who have no accountability to anyone. I say unintended because no one at FamilySearch wanted or expected arbitrators to be perceived this way. It is clear now that the anonymity of the arbitrator role and the nature of that responsibility—to be judges of others’ work—can tend to make what arbitrators do seem both powerful and mysterious.

Granted, the arbitrator role does come with a certain measure of power, but it comes with an even greater measure of responsibility. As for the mystery? Well, that part is just plain silly, so let’s “pull back the curtain” and reveal just who these people are, what they do, and why they are deserving of so much of our respect and gratitude.

Who Are FamilySearch Arbitrators?

Arbitrators are volunteers just like indexers. In fact, they were indexers before they were arbitrators and most still index regularly. They generally do have above-average experience reading and interpreting handwritten records but they’re not typically professional genealogists, and they don’t often have advanced degrees or training that specifically qualifies them to do what they do. They are simply dedicated people who give their time to make records searchable online for the rest of us and the rest of the world. They contribute because they know that they don’t have to be perfect to give a perfectly generous gift.

What Do FamilySearch Arbitrators Do?

Arbitrators determine, based on their best judgment, the outcome of “disagreements” (though they be silent and anonymous) between indexers. Sadly, we can’t all be right all the time, so theirs is the unenviable task of determining who’s right and who’s wrong and which indexing values get published and which are stored for possible future use. If that responsibility sounds important and daunting, then you have an accurate perception of arbitration.

Who in their right mind would voluntarily put themselves in such a position? Naturally, it’s people who can’t bear the thought of records going unpublished, who see a need and believe they have what it takes to fill it.

Arbitrators are human and they make mistakes just like indexers. But because they are human they can learn and they can discipline themselves to slow down, be more careful, study more project instructions, or even remove themselves from arbitrating altogether—in short, to do whatever is needed. It’s okay to expect this of them. It’s not okay to expect infallibility. So rather than vilify them for being less than perfect, let’s all give them the support they need to get better, to make good judgment calls, and to gain the confidence—their own and ours—that they need to keep doing what they generally do so well.

Arbitration Screen Shot
This is an example of what the arbitration screen looks like. To find out more, view the arbitration tutorials.

Arbitration is a key step to publishing the searchable records online. The fact is, if two indexers disagree with one another, they can’t both be right, so let’s be grateful there are people out there who are willing to step up and make the hard choice when it’s needed. We may not always like the decision, but we can at least give arbitrators the benefit of knowing we appreciate them doing the best work they know how to do. If not for them, practically no indexed records would get published.

Not So Mysterious After All

For Dorothy and her friends, continuing to assume that Oz was the frightening projection in the fiery flames was counterproductive and harmful. Only when their perceptions were corrected did their relationship with Oz become helpful and happy.

Like Oz, arbitrators are just people, and it really bothers most of them that they ever have to correct others or choose the work of one fellow volunteer over another, yet they do it. Maybe it’s more comforting to think of them as larger-than-life wizards who are incapable of making mistakes, but that’s not how things really are.

Our future success as members of the FamilySearch family of volunteers depends on our ability to understand one another and work together efficiently and cooperatively. Doing so will help us all align ourselves with the same goals and will make the whole process more fun and satisfying.

*This is the third post in a series of articles about arbitration.

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    1. Judith: As an arbitrator I want you to know that we never get feedback from the Indexer – there are just too many pieces of data flying back and forth for that to happen. Just do your best – and realize that probably 90% of your entries are without question and go into the Census record.

  1. This is a great article. After looking at the comments posted on the forums sites, I appreciate this opportunity to respond. I am an arbitrator and I make mistakes. I do read all about the batches before arbitrating, yet I am human. I usually arbitrate what I see on the image unless it is way off. Sometimes it is hard to decide what to choose on # of marriages “once” or “once before”, or “Mc Clellan” or McClellan”. I enjoy working with indexing and spend many hours at it.

    1. With something like Mc Clellan or McClellan, Di Angelo or DiAngelo, etc., the truth is it won’t matter.

      ALL name search algorithms for the general public ignore punctuation for two reasons: (1) It introduces an infinite number of variations, such as McClellan vs McClellan, and (2) a lot of punctuation characters perform commands in programming languages. For instance, beginners designing databases or spreadsheets often set the ZIP Code field as data-type Number. Then they can’t figure out why when they enter a 9-digit ZIP Code it performs a subtraction or why leading zeroes keep getting chopped off.

      1. Regarding the above comment, I typed it as Mc[space]Clellan vs Mc{space][space]Clellan but the editor stripped out some things when saving.

  2. As an indexer and an arbitrator, I have made mistakes. But it would certainly be helpful to have an area for feedback. I would love to say, as either an indexer or arbitrator, I chose this spelling because look at how the enumerator (in the case of the census) writes this particular letter on this line. In one case, as an arbitrator I was trying to decide between an inital being an I, F, T or J. The choices were I or J. I scoured not only that page but the pages before and after until I found examples of each capital letter used in a recognizable word and could finally say, yes, that is an I. I would have loved to have let the indexers know how I came to that conclusion.

    1. Alissa: don’t worry about the middle initial of people’s names(that is my opinion, not ancestry.com) My middle initial is L and and when the 1950 Census is released it will not matter if someone searches my name with a “J” “I” “S” or anything else – they will find me.

      Focus on the Given and Surnames – when you get them right we can handle the other fields as arbitrators.

    2. Yes, comparisons like those you mentioned are quite valuable and I hope arbitrators make those same comparisons. (Do they?) Even though I’ve been indexing for only ten weeks – albeit I’ve managed over 14,000 name so far – I rapidly found the same method.

  3. I love having someone check my work, especially when I’ve indexed a page that’s nearly impossible to read. Sometimes seeing through someone else’s eyes really helps. I purposely selected a state that I’m familiar with because I know the cities/towns and counties for that state and the surrounding states. The only problem with that is that I automatically spell the city or county correctly instead of how it was enumerated and the arbitrator (correctly) indexes it as written. My bad! I need to do better.

    1. Actually, Glenna, the field help says it’s okay to correct the spelling of a locality if you know the correct spelling. But I agree that what the arbitrator did was not wrong. They were doing their best with the knowledge they had. Keep up the great work!

    2. Glenna: I would add that it is more important that you selected a state you are familiar with because you recognize the names of the people that lived there, or at least their nationalities. Focus on figuring out the NAMES of the people – if you are a member of ancestry.com you can do a search of the 1930 Census to see if you can find those families where the handwriting for 1940 is not so great. As arbitrators we will take care of the really tough handwriting so enjoy Indexing.

  4. I’m grateful for all of the arbitrators and the efforts that they put forth for our future FH work, I’m just wondering why I’ve had some dings for *Daughter-In-Law* vs *Daughter In Law*, or *Granddaughter* vs *Grand Daughter*??? Both are listed in the look up field, and I don’t think that anyone who is looking at the index will be utterly confused if there are (or aren’t) hyphens in such titles!

    I’ve also had dings for entering *City* even if it is part of the official name of the city (EX: Salt Lake, Oklahoma, Oregon, etc)…So what’s up with that? I’m just sayin’…

  5. Before I was an indexer, I was eagerly searching for my ancestors and so grateful that someone had put this info. online for me and others. I started indexing because I wanted to pay back. I was so conscientious because I wanted to get it right for other researchers. Sometimes if was very difficult to read what the census taker had written. I would search how the census taker had written the letter in common names to get a clue, compare to other family members names, do my very best to pass on accurate info. to other people like me that were searching for their ancestors, especially those that couldn’t afford paying sites. When I was asked to be a arbitrator, I wasn’t sure I was willing to make decisions between 2 indexers. But someone had to do it!. It’s part of paying back for the help that I got from other volunteers. And it’s fun.

  6. It’s just really frustrating when the arbitrators don’t follow the rules and mark your work wrong. That happens often to me. It’s really too bad that when it is reviewed after arbitration, that your score isn’t changed. Discouraging when you work so hard to get it just right, then through the fault of another who doesn’t follow the rules, you get it wrong anyway.

  7. I’m a complete newbie to indexing. I am grateful for arbitrators. I would be so fearful of making an errant entry, that I would not be able to concentrate on the job at hand. I’m thankful for all the people involved in this work, whatever their job duties are.

  8. Yes, a way to communicate with arbitrators is a MUST! It may be before arbitration or after, but it simply has to be done.
    I’ve begun to write “(corrected)” next to any place name which needed correction. It still gets me marked wrong, so to speak, but it draws attention to the spelling for the arbitrator. Maybe LDS could demand a simple symbol, perhaps “!”, as standard for drawing attention to a spelling.
    Today, a placename was written as “Pittsburg”. The writer may have meant “Pittsburgh” (in PA), but we don’t know that, and there are places named “Pittsburg”, so I left it. I wonder what will become of it.
    I do hope arbitrators don’t hold indexers responsible for misspellings of names. I had one particular census-taker who simply could not spell names. Imagine (and this is by hand, not typed and subject to typing errors) “Jospeh” for “Joseph” and “Pilluph” for “Phillip” (and others) all on the same page. I indexed them as written, for we are supposed to be recording what is actually written and not what we think it ought to be. Who knows – maybe some family really did name a child “Pilluph”!

    1. As I mention above, at least for the 1940 Census, put your explanation IN ALL CAPS IN THE TITLE FIELD. That field is almost never used, so it can serve as a Comment for Arbitrator field.

      I wouldn’t bother explaining every time I look up a town or city name. If the arbitrator has two values, he can do what at least one of the indexers probably did — look it up in Wikipedia or google it.

      Now if you put some weird spelling that is OBVIOUSLY WRONG –but in fact CORRECT, then explain it in Title. For instance, I found a town whose name in Hungarian ended with something like uknc. I thought “not that’s *gotta* be wrong!” Since it’s name in English was quite different, looking it up in Wikipedia wouldn’t work.

  9. Frustrated with arbitrators?

    Well, I’ve decided there is a very simple solution. –> we can refine our skill level and then volunteer to become an arbitrator ourselves.

  10. I have loved doing indexing. It’s been a way of reaching out to the past and touching another life. I have often pondered and said a quick prayer over the name on a death certificate, especially if they were alone and there were unusual circumstances. I recently started arbitrating and have gained a new respect for those who arbitrated my work. Many times I disagreed with them (sometimes rightfully so too) but now I know if they are trying as hard as I do, they are doing the best they can. I also don’t think the arbitrators decision is the final decision. Those individuals doing each family’s history will make an ultimate decision. We all are only providing them a clue. My own grandfather’s name was misspelled by a census taker and thus later by an indexer and arbitrator. But I was able to correct what I knew and given other priceless information thanks to all.
    Loved this quote from Not So Mysterious After All…”Our future success as members of the FamilySearch family of volunteers depends on our ability to understand one another and work together efficiently and cooperatively.” Thanks eveyone and I’m grateful to be a part of this good work.

  11. I would like to be able to make the page stay where it is unless I move it. I like to index columns from top to bottom, not line by line across. It is easier and much more efficient for me, and my rating is 98%.

    When I make the last entry on a line, the cursor jumps back to the first column, and I have to drag it back, to enter the next one. This happens only when I am markng it blank, not a state name, but there are usually many more blanks than state names in the last column.

    I have enjoyed indexing, especially when I was lucky enough to index my home town! I knew so many people!

    1. Jeralyn, I have to agree with you about indexing by column; I am much more efficient AND more accurate that way. My method (I just came up with it this week) is to index columns through first names, then run the quality check and verify all names. Then I proceed each column across, but in those last three columns, I just arrow through/skip blank ones, leaving them empty. When I run the quality checker, it is so fast to hold down the Ctrl key and hit “B” to fill each blank. If the names haven’t been verified first, you must be very watchful, which is when I learned to go to the Quality tab immediately after keying all the names. Give it a try!

    2. Start every page the same way: Either 1 or 41 for line number, then hold Cursor Down until it hits the last number.

      Press End, then Ctrl-Up. That puts you on Line 1, STATE/COUNTRY. Cursor-Left.

      Press Ctrl-B, Ctrl-B. That blanks the last two fields and kicks you to Line 2, Line Number. (This is unavoidable.)

      Cursor-Up (Line 1), End, Ditto fields below, Cursor-Left, Ditto fields below.

      THE RULES are that if City is Same Place or Same House the following two fields are to be blanked. Hence, in about 95% of the records they should be blank.

      I also type in and ditto City as either Same House or Same Place, Birthplace (the Census state, regardless of what the first record actually is), Marital M, Color White, Sex M. (Cursor down with right hand, change value with left hand. M is a right-hand key.)

      THEN I *start* indexing. When switching Same House/Same Place, I change and ditto below. Routinely SH or SP repeats–especially if it’s a family.

      INDEX ALL GIVEN NAMES BEFORE SURNAMES. It’s a lot easier to recognize most given names than many surnames. This helps decipher handwriting when indexing the surnames.

      By the way, if you haven’t tried it, USE DRAGON NATURALLY SPEAKING for the given names, birthplace, and similar fields. It’s a LOT faster than typing. You do have to delete a few words from Dragon’s vocabulary, such as larger (confused with Lodger), sun, Nice [France], Jenny, Molly. If you check around you can find Dragon in the $35-50 range.

  12. I am an arbitrator and have been for a long time. I have never had any feelings of “power” but rather have had more moments when I realized AFTER I finished a batch that I may have made a mistake and that it may cause some other researcher a problem. I take my role very seriously. But, on the other hand, I’m also grateful for years of reading films and a special knack for being able to read difficult writing so that I can serve in this way.

  13. The bottom line is educate yourself on the rules, then do your best. Let’s be thankful for the chance to contribute.

  14. I just became an arbitrator today, and I am really surprised that people think of them as all-powerful. I do know that some people are angry when their indexing is corrected, and I hope that this series helps them understand that arbitrators don’t have it easy. Thanks for all the information to help me get started!