Open Source Indexing

Help build a general-purpose, open-source tool for crowdsourced indexing!

Did you watch the volunteers indexing the 1940 Census and wish you could run a project like that for the records you care about? Then read on...

The Challenge

Historic documents often contain handwriting, old fonts, or other text formats that OCR software can't handle. We need humans--from volunteers to paid staff--to read the document images and transcribe what they see into databases which can be searched, analyzed, crawled, and used by researchers. Until now those efforts have required organizations either to outsource indexing to external partners or to cobble together their own off-line or on-site systems.

Our goal is to build a tool that can be used by libraries, archives, museums, historical sites, genealogy and heritage societies to run their own indexing projects, under their own control.

The Invitation

We'd like to invite libraries, archives, and museums; historical, genealogy, and heritage societies to participate in the project. Right now we need advice and examples of indexing projects that real organizations would like to run. This would allow us to work with an eye on real data outside the UK parish registers and English census records which have been driving our development up to the present.

What we need from you

Project definitions including:

These images and project specs will be published online and shared among collaborators.

We also need

Example Project Definitions

The following sample projects have been contributed already (updated April 9):

Contributing further

In addition to example indexing project definitions, we need:

The Documents

Many documents contain structured data, so are more usefully digitized into searchable databases than into text editions. These include:

The Tool

We're basing our online indexing tool on Scribe, a tool developed by the Citizen Science Alliance from their Old Weather project and deployed by the Bodleian Library for What's the score at the Bodleian. More recently, Scribe has been customized by New York Public Library Labs for their Ensemble database of the performing arts.

We're augmenting the Scribe transcription system by adding a database that allows users to search and view records created by the indexing tool. We're also adding support for and offline/legacy transcripts imported via CSV files. Improvements to the data-entry UI and a system for reporting on indexing activity and managing volunteers will round out the effort. (See the data flow diagram.)

The entire system will be released under an Apache license. (In fact, the source code under development already is.)

The People

Open Source Indexing is funded by FreeUKGen(a.k.a. FreeBMD), a UK-based non-profit dedicated to free access to genealogy data. Open Source Indexing is being developed for FreeREG, which offers free indexes to UK parish registers from 1538-1837, and FreeCEN, which offers free indexes to the English and Welsh Census. Ben Laurie is the FreeBMD trustee spearheading the effort and advising the project on Open Source and Open Data.

Development and database design is managed by Ben Brumfield (@benwbrum), an independent software engineer with eight years of experience building manuscript transcription tools. Support for offline indexes has been built by Kirk Dawson, PhD, who has volunteered with FreeREG since 1998.

Additional development expertise has been generously donated by Mocavo, the finest genealogy search engine on the planet.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why "indexing"?
Different communities use different terms for transcribing structured data. Editors usually use "transcription", archivists often use "description", and genealogists generally use "indexing". The kinds of transcription activities that result in searchable databases range from abstracts of names and dates from entire articles (themselves not transcribed) to verbatim et literatim copies of every word in every field on a census form. Because "indexing" is the term most common among the most active volunteer communities in the English-speaking world, that's what we've chosen.

Are you going to index the project we give you or just use it for testing?
We're not ready to host indexing projects yet, so that's not why we're asking for the material. Rather, we're trying to test the flexibility of the tool we're building, which means we nead realistic examples to test with. We'll probably transcribe the same document over and over again, using different data entry templates and different user interfaces. The resulting index won't be hosted permanently.

Contact Us

Email Ben Brumfield at to get invovled!