The Indiana State Archive and its more than 50 volunteers recently launched an online digital archive — which contains possibly the largest Civil War soldier database in the country.

Indiana, in concert with seven other states and funded through a Library of Congress grant — administered by the Washington State Archives, the lead partner in a Library of Congress effort known as the Multi-State Preservation Consortium — in early 2010 launched the comprehensive, work-in-progress site Indiana Digital Archives. It contains a plethora of public information — ranging from records on state prisoners, military, land, court to naturalization records — that could prove invaluable to genealogists, researchers, families and others seeking historical records.

“What this has allowed is someone from New Delhi who had a relative from Indiana can now go online to the Internet and find information about that person without having to travel halfway around the world, literally to get here and look to see if the record even exists,” said Indiana State Archivist and Director of the Indiana Commission on Public Records Jim Corridan. “The level of access is so much improved from where we were even three years ago, two years ago.”

The most recent addition to the site is an index to Indiana National Guard records, which contains records on thousands of Hoosiers who served the nation from 1898 through 1940. The database, launched in early September, includes the soldier’s name, enlistment data and town or county from which he or she enrolled. Those who joined around the time of the Mexican Border War in 1916 will have additional records, such as physical exams, enlistment papers and service cards, according to a press release.

“The addition of this popular collection will enable users to instantly search for records online, saving them and Archives staff hours of research,” Corridan said in the release. “The National Guard database, coupled with existing Digital Archives resources, provides a useful and comprehensive collection of Indiana soldiers’ records from the Civil War up to World War II.”

But none of this would be possible without the help of the 50 to 60 state archive volunteers, Corridan added. Working at the equivalent of four full-time employees, the volunteers — organized under the nonprofit Friends of the Indiana State Archives — are the ones seeing the records in raw form and interpreting what can sometimes be near-indistinguishable handwriting.

“The volunteers, over time, become accustomed to the different writing styles from different eras,” Corridan said. “It’s not quite as easy as reading a type-written page, I promise you, there’s nobody to ask.”

Such skills come in handy when handling naturalization records, which are considered genealogical gems. About one-third of Indiana’s 92 counties’ naturalization records are online, Corridan said, which mainly range from the 1840s to 1930s.

“Oftentimes the people are right off the boat from Germany or wherever and they are writing in a different cursive than we would use,” Corridan said. “So our volunteers had to become very good at interpreting other countries’ letters.”

While the Indiana National Guard database is the archive’s newest addition, its Civil War database is easily its shining star. With more than 213,000 individual records containing soldiers’ age, muster in and out dates, location, company, regiment and any additional notes, Corridan says it may very well be the largest collection of Civil War soldiers of any state.

Both databases, like all Digital Archives records, allow users to search more than 2 million records, located in 20 different collections, in seconds. The digitization of such public records began with the 1853 Registers of Negros and Mulattos — which contain identifying details from seven counties on slaves at the time, including notes stating whether the person had white blood and any physical handicaps. After attending an African-American Genealogy conference in Fort Wayne, Ind., Corridan said his office started putting such records online in an effort to help research — which launched in October 2009.

And while Corridan is thrilled such historical records are more available to the public, he wants more information out there and in varying formats. Ultimately he’d like digital images of documents made available online. “So you can actually see page 37 of your great-grandfather’s naturalization record,” he said.

For now, people can request copies of the original record from State Archives staff. And while the volunteers are doing most of the grunt work, once they’ve formatted the information, it’s sent to Washington state, which uploads and hosts the database, Corridan said.

For the volunteers, who have processed and indexed records for more than 15 years, the digitized history means they can spend time helping other archivists and researchers. “All of their hard work and effort had an immediate effect for archivists and researchers contacting the archives,” a Friends of the Indiana State Archives press release stated. “Using the databases within the archives meant that archivists could instantly locate records for patrons instead of spending hours plowing through old volumes of often un-indexed records.”

Karen Wilkinson  |  Staff Writer