Using the Census to Find Ancestors: Beginner Genealogy

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Using the Census to Find Ancestors: Beginner Genealogy

Whether you embark on a Genealogy, Family History, or Local History project, you need to consider the types of information you have and what you seek or want to uncover. As a librarian, my focus is identifying the question, considering the types of records that hold or reveal bits of information, and then locating different resources or records. It is all about learning about the records and documents, understanding the resources. Once you have an idea of the types of resources and records available, the trick is to find the data you desire.

Where do you start? Some will say at the beginning with what you know about the topic, the family, or the event. If you have a lot of information already, then you start with your questions. Let’s start with what we already know, having started ancestor / pedigree charts and family group sheets. The next step is census records to build a skeleton.

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Why the census? These records are completed and compiled every ten years by the federal government and provide a snapshot of individuals and communities. You can use census records to compile demographics, learn how a community, township, county, or state changed, study immigration and migration patterns, and collect data about individuals. In each decade, the census bureau collected different types of information by asking different questions. Some questions are the same decade by decade; others are different making it complicated to draw conclusions. This is true of census records in the United States, Mexico, Canada, and the UK.1 There are other census records compiled by states and territories but here we will look primarily at US records unless otherwise indicated.

In 2013, the easiest way to access census records is through one of the various online databases. Ancestry, Family Search, Heritage Quest (through your local public library), and Internet Archive all have digital images of census records. Each provides access through their own indices that aren’t necessarily the same. There is also microfilm for each census year (1790-1880, 1900-1940), and in rare cases, paper copies. Paper indices provide access to census records, again varying depending upon the year and the person or organization that indexed the records. Soundex and Miracode provide access through their coded names and associated abstract cards. Depending upon the complexity of your search, you may need to search the census using all the resources mentioned above. Check out your local library’s genealogy and local history collection to learn what types of census records and indices they have.

My next entry will describe the types of questions answered by census records.


Want to read more about the census? The American Census Handbook by Thomas Jay Kemp (2001) and The 1930 Census by Thomas Kemp (2003) are two excellent books published before the 1940 census was released in April of 2012. There are many articles about the census in Prologue, the official publication of the US National Archives. There is an article about genealogy in every issue.



1. I am not familiar with other countries’ census records.

About Miriam Kahn

Miriam Kahn, MLS founded MBK Consulting in 1991. The company performs legal and historical research for companies and individuals. The information is gleaned from the resources found in Public Record Centers and court houses, Libraries and Historical Societies. As part of their consulting services MBK Consulting provides workshops and training to libraries, archives, historical societies, museums and other cultural institutions in Genealogy and Local History Research Methods and Collection Development. In addition, Ms Kahn helps cultural institutions design preservation, disaster response, and continuous operations plans.Ms Kahn holds a Ph.D. in History from Kent State University, an MLS from Queens College in New York and an MA in History from Hunter College in New York. She worked as a reference librarian at NYPL, an Online Services Coordinator at the University of South Dakota Library and as the Preservation Consultant at the State Library of Ohio. She has been teaching as an Adjunct Professor at the School of Library and Information Science at Kent State University since 1992 and for library and archives organizations throughout the country since 1989.MBK Consulting’s website contains more information about research services and workshops

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