The Great Census Debate

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The Great Census Debate

What's the best way to enter census information? What's the best way to enter citation sources? What's the best way to phrase the census sentence? The debate about the best way to deal with census information in TMG was raging before the Maryland TMG User Group was founded in 1997 and it still goes on. Although I know I've said it before, the best way is the way that works for you. Determine what you want your census evidence to provide and make TMG give it to you.

To decide what works best for you, answer these questions. The answers may help you consciously determine exactly what you want from your census data and, hence, what you expect TMG to do.

My TMG "census procedures" will be presented here. Not only will you see what I do, but why I have chosen to do it. My system works for me and it might give you some ideas. For additional points of view, investigate these TMG user pages:

Census Analysis

An isolated census is not worth much. It may provide some evidence, but its true value appears when placed in context with other censuses and contemporary documents. "Benjamin Gifford appeared as head of household, age 21, shoemaker, born in Pennsylvania, in the 1850 census of Tioga Co., Pennsylvania," doesn't say much. I want a report that lets me see all the census data about a person, family, region, or time period at once. TMG will not print up reports that resemble some of the excellent charts and diagrams found in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, but these reports help me analyze the census evidence, see patterns, give me ideas for further research, and help me create graphic analyses more easily.

  1. An individual census history to let me look quickly at the census information on the focus person
  2. A family census history to let me check on the status of my census research on the family.
  3. A tabular report showing the statistical information found on all pre-1850 censuses available for a given head of household with a column for my interpretation of each hatch mark
  4. A list of all households in a geographic location in dwelling and family number order
  5. A report that shows what census information, both positive and negative, I have on a research group
  6. A spreadsheet report showing all members of a research group and their residences each census year to allow me to chart family migration patterns

If you're interested in any of these reports, follow the links to see how they're created. Some of these reports are dependent on data input. For example, you can't create a list of households in dwelling and family number order unless those numbers are entered in a data field.

Census Presentation

Ah, the great Census Sentence. How should it read? The introduction of Roles in TMG turned my simple census sentence on its head. Like many users, I experimented with various possibilities, but no matter how I reworked TMG's sentence variables, the end result still didn't come close to my benchmark, articles in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. I returned to basics.

Census Tag sentence structure for 1850 Census and later:

Both sentences are similar to those used in the Sample data base. Words in italics are added as necessary to state precise information found in each census.

There are several items to note in these sentences.

Why do I enter my census information this way? It's a result of my answers to some of those previously listed questions.

Census Tag Entry Screen

Another point of debate arises occasionally. Should you use the official enumeration date of the census or the date the census taker visited the household for the Census event date? Remember, all questions were supposed to be answered relative to the official enumeration date.

Finally, many TMG users create a new census event tag for every census year: 1790-CENS, 1800-CENS, etc. For me, that would mean 43 separate census event tags at the moment. I'm a lazy person, so I like to keep things as simple as possible. I can see two possible reasons for creating more than one census event tag:

  1. Do you want to create a different sentence or different roles for each census year? I did want a different sentence for any census that didn't name all household residents, hence my two census event tags.
  2. Do you have a special report that can only be generated if each census year has a different tag? I haven't thought of one, but one might well exist.

Census Documentation

There is one major debating point in the question of how to document a census: what constitutes the source unit?

  1. A geographic entity such as county or city?
  2. A physical entity such as the NARA microfilm roll or the census volume?
  3. A household?

Source Definition Screen: General Tab

There are pros and cons for all three possibilities. I use the physical entity, microfilm roll, volume, or CD, as my basic source unit. It results in far fewer entries in the Master Source List than entry number 3 and requires less content in the Citation Detail than entry number 1.

Source Definition Screen:
Output Tab

Citation Detail

I am a 'minimal user' of the Split Citation Detail, using only CD1 and CD2. I decided that I would need to closely edit any report I submitted for publication, so the flexibility provided by nine split citation details was moot. As long as the citation contains all information necessary to identify and locate my source and determine its reliability, the exact form was immaterial. Terry Reigel's documentation method is similar to mine and he makes extensive use of the Split Citation Detail.

I frequently include evidence analysis points in my Citation Detail field. For example, if the 1850 census is my source for a circa 1813 birth year, I include "age 37" as part of my citation. After all, that is what the census stated. A birth year of "circa 1813" is my interpretation of the data.

Source Definition Screen: Supplemental Tab

I reserve the <comments> field for two pieces of information: problems with the actual census, such as legibility, missing pages or townships, or drastic date variations, such as an 1810 census being taken in 1812; and background information derived from the census itself, such as population count or mean and median property values.

Another frequent question is, "What is the right source abbreviation for a census? Should I begin the abbreviation with CEN? with Year? with Geographic location? with Head of household?"

When I began my research, censuses were found on microfilm, in original volumes, or transcribed. Now, digitized images are available on CD-ROMs and online. Should you add a separate source for each of these media?