Searching for Dead People

You thought this entry might involve zombies, didn’t you? Well, it doesn’t. Instead, it deals with a tool that genealogists value highly when they research dead people: an obituary index. In addition, it issues a call for volunteers.

So what’s the connection? Let’s start by discussing obituaries. In addition to telling genealogists when a person died, obituaries often list when and where she was born, where she lived, the names of her parents and children, her occupation, and the location of her grave—often with other fragments of data. In short, obituaries can be gold mines of data. Unfortunately, however, searching for an obituary in a newspaper can be like looking for that proverbial needle in a haystack. Hence the value of an index that sends researchers directly to their targets.

One of the County’s best-kept secrets is that such a resource already exists for San Joaquin County’s newspapers from the 1850s to the 1990s. I won’t tell you where it is because its owners would get swamped with requests. But I am willing to report that it fills a number of sizable cabinets, that it contains about 135,000 three-by-five cards, and that somebody painstakingly assembled it from local newspapers over the course of several decades. I’m also willing to tell you that the Genealogical Society of Utah has microfilmed its contents.

Recently, representatives from the San Joaquin Genealogical Society, the Stockton-San Joaquin County Library, and the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum gathered with information technologists from San Joaquin Delta College to figure out how this data can be made available over the Internet. The coalition, which calls itself the San Joaquin County Obituary Index Project, has decided to partner with FamilySearch.org, a nonprofit organization that makes its genealogical products widely available for free over the Internet. The project’s plans call for digitization of each microfilm image and incorporation of the results into a sequence of Web screens, one example of which can be seen here.

The objective is simple: creation of an online database accessible anywhere in the world through which visitors can search for obituary citations in San Joaquin County newspapers by name. But before that can happen, data from the digitized microfilm (top half of sample screen) needs to be transferred by hand into the open fields (bottom half). That task requires volunteers.

Anybody who has a computer, Internet connection, and the ability to type can participate. They can work from the comfort of their own home, at any time of day, for any length of time. They need not live in San Joaquin County, but can reside anywhere in the world.

Please let me know via e-mail at leighjohnsen@sanjoaquinhistory.org if you would like to participate, and please share this invitation with others who might be interested. A headcount of potential volunteers is indispensable for the project to plan strategy as it moves forward.

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