1851 Census page
As I mentioned in my last post, I had the privilege of attending the Dave Obee seminar put on by the Alberta Family Histories Society last Saturday. I learned a lot about sources and records and where to find them but the most important lessons were about the goals of doing family history (which I wrote about last week) and about research techniques to maximize results.
Good research skills do not come naturally. We aren’t born with an instinct to find records (food, yes, data, not so much). Research skills are a tool, just like your genealogy software and your laptop. They are the most important tools however, because if your goal is to find your ancestors and tell their stories you must become a sleuth and to do that effectively, you need to learn how to look, not just where to look.
It helps, when you are looking at a record, to know what it is you are looking it. Is it an index, a transcription or an original document? Our goal as outstanding researchers is to track back to the original source, so indexes and transcriptions are just “maps” to help us uncover those documents. In many cases, those maps are just like the ones drawn by the gas station attendant on the back road in Italy when you find yourself lost. There may be language barriers, varying levels of local knowledge and drafting skill, and even changes in the landscape such as washouts and road works.
What this means in purely practical terms (and to not stretch a metaphor too far) is that you should use every index and transcription available. For example, there are several different indexes available for Canadian census records. Automated Genealogy has an index created by an army of volunteers. This is a particularly good index to the census records because it is done by people who are familiar with local names and places. FamilySearch also has indexes done by volunteers. Ancestry (available at Calgary Public Library branches) has all of the census records for Canada indexed and available on their site. Their indexing is done commercially, often by off shore companies, and this can sometimes cause problems.
So, what would you do if you couldn’t find your ancestor in the census in one index? Would you stop there and assume they weren’t in Canada at the time? What we should do, if we want to be the Sherlock Holmes of genealogy researchers, is check every index and transcription available (and sometimes this means paper — oh the horror!)
What if they still don’t show up, but you know they were there? Library and Archives Canada has a number of censuses scanned on their site. There are no indexes but you can look at the original documents without having to touch microfilm. Sometimes this is the only way to find your folk. You will recognize a family name when someone who isn’t familiar with the name doesn’t.
Dave has written a book on how to get the most from Canadian census records, Counting Canada, which includes lots of other pointers for squeezing every last drop of information from a census record.