Thursday, November 5, 2009

Are census records reliable for genealogy research?

Michael Hait asks the question "Are census records reliable for genealogy research?" in his 3 November African-American Genealogy Examiner column.

In addition to links to previous articles that examine the 1870, 1880 and 1900 to 1930 US Federal Census records, this article analyzes the reliability of census records by asking the question if it meets the test for being "primary information" - that is, was it provided by someone with direct knowledge of the events described.

We all have the experience that the names, ages, birthplaces, occupations, etc. of the persons in a household in a census record are often erroneous. Michael concludes that any given census record is of "unknown reliability" because the records don't reveal the informant of the information. The informant might be a parent, a child, a lodger or boarder, a neighbor, or even the enumerator, although it was likely that a knowledgeable adult in the household provided the information.

However, Michael also concludes that census records can be judged as reliable if the facts in the records can be verified using other historical records, such as vital records, military records, land records, probate records, other census records, etc. and applying the Genealogical Proof Standard to each asserted fact.

In his article, Michael does not address the issue of "are census records original or derivative sources?" I have always considered them to be derivative sources, since they are usually copied from some other original source material, like handwritten notes, or an earlier census transcription (for example, the microfilms that are digitized for the 1850 to 1880 censuses are the federal copies, the third transcription made by the enumerators after their day of recording information). Other persons consider the microfilmed and digitized census records as "duplicate copies," "image copies" or "record copies" of the original handwritten information, and therefore they should be treated as "original sources." Mark Tucker analyzed this on his ThinkGenealogy blog in the article "Confusion with the Various Definitions of Original Source." Read the comments on Mark's post also. I am sympathetic to the arguments that the original form creates the source, but am still hung up on the idea that the original form may be a pile of scribbled notes that were transcribed or extracted onto the census page forms., resulting in the jumbled names and other data that we all complain about. Maybe that is due to my experience trying to read my own jumbled notes several years after creating them.

Please read all of Michael's article. I appreciate his emphasis on using the Genealogical Proof Standard to evaluate records - we all need to do more of that in our genealogy research. We need more analysis and discussion of the historical records that we all strive to find and use.

This discussion is important because the US Federal Census records are often the first, and sometimes only, source of information found by genealogy researchers, especially beginners and those who only use the Internet for research.

1 comment:

Michael Hait said...

Thanks for the mention!

One comment about census records as original vs. derivative sources. If you consider any original handwritten notes of the enumerator to be an original source, then why would the census form also completed by that same person, not also be an original source?