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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian Census Part 1 and Part 2 by Doris Bourrie, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Census Records: Review and Report Writing
In order to make good use of census records for genealogical purposes it is necessary to fully understand census records and what genealogical information they can offer.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Why were census records taken?
- Who compiled census records, and for what purpose?
- What is the difference between “Heads of Family” census records and “Nominal” census records?
- How do I determine what census records are available for the area of my interest, and how do I access these records?
- How accurate is the genealogical information contained in a census record?
- What decennial census would you consult to obtain an individual’s complete date of birth?
- What decennial census will provide specific information on the geographic location of an individual?
- When working with census records, what would be considered primary genealogical information, and what would be considered secondary information.
| Remember, when compiling a report for family or clients, it is just as important to report all records searched that produced no results, as to report those records searched with an explanation of the results found. A list of all records searched should be compiled in order to confirm that all possible avenues have been explored. You as the researcher, as well as the recipient of your report, should know everything that you searched, whether or not the sources produced new information.
Complete documentation of the records searched should be maintained to avoid any confusion in the future as to whether a specific record had or had not been searched.
When using census records to document a specific family it is important that information taken from the census record have a complete citation of source. This is necessary to authenticate the information quoted, and to provide an accurate path to the original record so that this record may be consulted and compared to your report of findings. It is imperative that all information contained in a professional report be completely documented. It is also important to the family historian to be able to cite the location of any information he has included in his family history. If the information is not taken from an original source, a notation should be made to that effect.
This will serve as a warning that the original source should be checked to ensure that the information quoted from a derivative source is indeed accurate.
In order to solve a genealogical problem it is first necessary to analyze the information on hand, and define the problem.
During your own family research through the census records you have undoubtedly found changes in the composition of the family group from one census period to the next. Your analysis of these changes should identify the genealogical problem, which would then lead you to methods of solving the problem.
Examples of changes found during your own research might be:
- You may note that a family member listed in one census record was not found in the census taken ten years later. Your problem analysis should ask “What happened to that individual and why is he or she not listed with the family in the next census?”
- You may have noted that an adult has been added to the family group who was not included in the family’s earlier household. Your analysis should ask “Who is this person? Is she or he related in some way to this family? What is the relationship?”
As you analyze various family groups and compare their information from one census to another, you will find more questions requiring answers to completely understand the changes that took place within the family between the census periods. Once you have analyzed the problems and made a list of the changes that occurred within the family between the census periods, you will need to develop a research plan to solve these problems. You may need to consider a number of possible explanations or hypotheses for those changes, and develop the research plan accordingly, intending to prove or disprove your theories. This step gives you a working plan for problem solving. It will likely be necessary to consult other genealogical records to provide the answers to your questions. It is therefore important that the researcher is familiar with many different types of records, and their specific limitations, in order to know how to search for the required answers. It is possible that the information you seek may be found in more than one type of record.
Perhaps the information will be found in vital statistics, or perhaps it may be found in wills and estate records. The proficient genealogist will take all pertinent records into account, and will develop a research plan to search the most likely type of record first, and then if nothing is located, to proceed to the next possible type of record, until an answer is found. If no record can be located to explain the change in the family group, then all speculations are still possibilities and the theories remain possible until some further information can be discovered.
It is possible that there is no record still in existence to answer this query, and perhaps the explanation will never be found, but all known sources should be consulted, and a list of those sources, with results, should be kept to facilitate later research.
Writing a summary or report about genealogical findings is perhaps the best method for analyzing the information and clarifying certain questions or hypotheses in your ongoing research work. Professional genealogists do this because they must report to a paying client. However, the same process of examination and reasoning is something you owe yourself, your family or descendants in personal family history research. It makes sense to analyze your results on a regular basis; you keep track of new additions that support or disrupt your progress, which thus affect the goals of your next research stages.
Making notes of your progress is best at the end of a research day when it is all fresh in your mind. Remind yourself that someone could then take over your work without beginning from scratch and without needlessly duplicating all the groundwork (and beyond) you have already covered. In effect, these notes are really reports to yourself, or whoever reads them.
Professional guides will suggest two main forms of reports: the letter report, and the formal report. The latter is not applicable in our context here. A letter report is also more formal and possibly longer than necessary for progress notes. Some guidebooks or courses provide pre-printed forms for such recording.
In any case, there are certain elements which should habitually be included:
- your name and the date (please get used to day-month-year, with the month in letters, not numerals)
- the particular goal or hypothesis before the day’s research began
- correct citation of the records used (including sources that yielded no results), with photocopies or precise transcriptions of their information when applicable
- your analysis of the new information, correlating it with previous research
- your re-evaluation of the goal, whether it has been met, or whether a hypothesis has been confirmed; this may logically lead to setting a new goal
As you describe your latest progress by putting it into words, you will see how the habit assists orderly thinking for analyzing genealogical problems, large or small. We are starting with a small one. It may be helpful to make a point-form list at first, to organize your thoughts.
These are just a few examples of goals for comparing two consecutive census years:
- having found a family once, simply confirming their location ten years earlier or later
- identifying a consistent head of household
- finding a (suspected) child or children not present in earlier or later households
- verifying (or not) an individual’s age, place of birth, religion, occupation, etc.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian Census Part 1 and Part 2 offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.