Friday, December 26, 2014

Enumerators--The Record-Keepers Historians both Love and Despise

For the love of all that is holy can you at least write legibly?! I ask this every time I encounter a census like this one for my 2nd Great Grandfather's family:

Although I eventually found him, it was after trying every spelling variation for his last name and removing the birthplace from my search query. Although digital image transcription is a wonderful tool for locating ancestors in census records, the enumerator's handwriting and collecting abilities leave much to be desired here. Transcriptions will often display this name as "Harry Dear," showing his birthplace as Iowa when it was in fact Illinois.

On the other hand you strike it lucky sometimes. I could've kissed the enumerator of this census when I encountered it for another family member:

Right here, my research just became 70% easier. (At least where reading handwriting was concerned).

Oh, those enumerators. How we both love and despise them!

First, why we love them. Let's face it, these guys didn't have an easy job. Taking information for the census record required a person to trek door to door, inquiring about the inhabitants within and recording the data needed on paper. My hat goes off to those who dedicated many hours and miles to providing modern day researchers with one of the most handy tools in identifying a person's residence, age, household, occupation, relationships, etc. May their souls rest in peace and may they be showered with all things wonderful for how their work has helped genealogists.

But then there is the other side of the coin. The drawbacks to doing things the old-fashioned way. The biggest concern for people reading census records is accuracy. Did the enumerator do his/her job thoroughly? Who provided the information that was recorded? Are the names of the residents and families spelled correctly? Was anyone left out for one reason or another? For me the biggest hang-up to looking over census records is being able to read one. Most enumerators seem to forget penmanship when being more concerned with completing the form.

So remember this one fact: While we owe it to the census-takers for doing the arduous job of obtaining information for the form, be ready to pull out the translators if necessary to find your ancestors hiding somewhere in the sea of misspelled and mis-transcribed names. Indexers and OCR programs can't discern everything. Even though it takes time, look over their work carefully, and don't be afraid to look at the actual census, comparing different years if you have to. After all, enumerators are only human.

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