Reading Canadian Census Records (National Institute)

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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 ($).

The quality of the microfilmed records available varies from census to census, and at times from page to page within a given census. You will find some sections written in beautiful copperplate handwriting which has survived the test of time. Other pages may be written in a type of script which is difficult to decipher, either because of a unique handwriting method, or the type of writing utensil used. Some pages will be very difficult to read because the ink has faded, or the paper was marked or stained prior to microfilming. You may even find some pages that are impossible to decipher at all. Microfilming was a new technique in the days when these records were filmed, and the focus or exposure variations can present problems.

Tips to Read Difficult Census Pages

  • Handwriting skills varied from enumerator to enumerator. If you are having difficulty in reading the script for a particular entry, look at other entries made by the same enumerator. Some capital letters are difficult to determine. Letters such as F and T, or J and I, often look very similar. Look for other examples of these letters to see if you can determine how this specific enumerator formed these letters.
  • If the writing on a particular census page has faded, and therefore the microfilm image is difficult to read, try using a coloured paper placed on the reflection screen of your microfilm reader. A coloured divider for a 3-ring notebook in a light colour such as yellow is easy to carry with you. This may make the reflected image a little easier to read as the image will be shown on the coloured paper. This will provide a little more contrast.
  • If the page is out-of-focus, try adjusting the focus knob on the microfilm reader. If this does not help, it may be due to the fact that the technician did not focus the machine correctly when making the microfilm.
  • If the original copies still exist (i.e. those Library and Archives Canada film with a “C” or “H” prefix, excluding the 1881 census) you may try contacting the Library and Archives Canada to see if it is possible to obtain a clearer copy made from the original, or if they will consult the original and clarify the entry you need. For those census records that were destroyed after microfilming, this is not possible.
  • If there is a blot or scratch on the section of the page you are trying to read, try moving the film slightly by hand. If the blot or scratch remains on the same words, then the page was marked. If the blot or scratch is on the lens of the microfilm reader, these marks will show up on all pages. It may simply require that the reader lens be cleaned to rectify the problem.

Additional Information

See: Canada Census


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

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.