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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Beyond the U.S. Census -- Expanding Your Frontiers

Many years ago when I was first starting to research my family, I visited the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. I had some specific questions about some of my ancestors and was working from a handout called a Genealogical Checklist. It looked something like this:

This particular version of the checklist came from the Capital Area Genealogical Society in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. There are dozens of variations of this form. I have a different paper copy of the form sitting on my desk
Of course, I had no idea what some of the listed records were and I had even less of an idea where to find them. One of the first records that came to my attention was the U.S. Census records. At that time, the only copy of the Census was on microfilm (ancient pre-computer days). I got some help finding a copy of the microfilm for the place where my ancestors lived and got on one of the old microfilm viewers and started looking. I was entirely dismayed. The images were terrible and virtually unreadable. After a short time of searching, I gave up and, to my knowledge, never looked at another U.S. Census record until they were digitized and put online. Meanwhile, I researched all sorts of records, mainly books, and slowly started learning about the other sources on the list.

Now we fast forward to today. All of the U.S. Census records are online in multiple copies and freely accessible. In addition, many of the types of records listed in my original source checklist are also readily available online. Because of my early negative experience with the Census, I was, in a sense, forced to look at a broader selection of records. What do I find today with new researchers? I find a fixation with the U.S. Census and little more. But the tragedy of the easy availability of a core of records centered around the U.S. Census, is that today's researchers are blinded by the bright sun of the U.S. Census and cannot see any of the other useful records. They are spoon fed the U.S. Census and cannot get past that record.

One of the most common symptoms of this lack of vision is the common complaint that they cannot find a relative in a certain U.S. Census year. The dialogue goes something like this:

Q. (Researcher or someone helping the researcher) Can I ask a question?

A. (Me) Sure, go ahead.

Q. We (I) have been looking for this particular ancestor and we find (him or her) in the 1910 and 1930 U.S. Census but cannot find the family in the 1920 U.S. Census. What should we do? We are completely stumped.

Now there are multiple layers of problems with this particular question. The simple answer is that the family is there in the Census but the index is faulty and they need to go look at the Census location page by page. But the issue is much deeper than that rather simple answer. The real question is what do they think they are going to find in the 1920 Census that they cannot find from other readily available sources of the same time period? At this juncture, I should point out that the Genealogical Source Checklist above, while helpful, is far from exhaustive.

The underlying problem faced by this researcher is the inability to view the family in the historical context of the time and visualize the cloud of possible records that might accompany the family. The technique here is to examine the two extant census records and begin the process of discovering other records that might exist depending on exactly where the family lived. At this point, my answer is usually a series of questions:

  • Where did the family live?
  • What was the occupation?
  • Were they renting or owners of their property?
  • Did they speak and write English?
  • Have you tried searching for each family member separately?
The questions can go on almost indefinitely. At some point, the idea that there might be other important records to examine finally occurs to the researcher and off they go to look for a record they had not thought of previously, mainly because they were fixated on the U.S. Census. 

Back to the checklist example I have included above. Here is a sample list of links to different online forms following the same pattern:
Guess what? We have online sources that give us exactly the same type of information. That is, they guide us to various sources. The most valuable of these, of course, is the FamilySearch.org Research Wiki. Basically, this is whole website is nothing more or less than an enormous expansion of the checklist I used to used in the Family History Library. 

I used the example of the U.S. Census in this post to illustrate the point that there are so many types of records available that no one can really claim to have searched everywhere for one particular family. On the other hand, it is also a good idea to milk the records you do find for all that they are worth, especially as suggestions as to where to find additional records. 

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