“Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the 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.

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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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