I hope that you have had a chance to read last months article on the NARA (National Archives Records Administration), the national repository for the census microfilms. It is a great way to get your bearings and gain an understanding of census records. If there is a NARA near you, a visit to the brick and mortar site will provide a good overview of the resources that they have available. Further in your research, you will want to obtain some of the other records in their archives. In later articles, I will cover some of these records.
As helpful as an actual visit to the NARA is, it is time consuming. Scrolling through microfilm, and squinting at the records in the booths as you search for your ancestors' census records is an adventure that brings a moment of exhilaration when you finally find their names. But, with census records now online, you can find what you are looking for more quickly and conveniently. And, you have the added bonus of being able to log on when you find those odd moments of freedom to pursue your genealogical research, even in the middle of the night.
There are two types of online census sites, free and paid. First, let's look at a couple of free sites: Census Finder and Census Online. Both provide links to census records, as well as links to other types of documents, such as birth, death, land, and historical records. Yet, each of these sites has a unique look to it.
Census Online has a very clean interface- easy to use- making it a good place to start your online census surfing. The home page has clear links to useful tools. A very helpful set of tools is the census form downloads. When you find the online census record you were looking for, a couple of quick clicks of the mouse will get you the form you need to transcribe this information.
Census Finder has a more cluttered look, but does provide more links to other records. Very helpful is a short state and census history at each state level page. These extras make spending some time at this site well worth your while.
The free census sites are transcribed records. That is, someone copied the census information from the original microfilm. Because the handwriting on census records is often difficult to read there will be errors, as well as the common human errors when any document is transcribed. Rootsweb is working to get volunteers to get second read-throughs as a measure to eliminate the human errors. This highlights why it is important to still get a copy of the actual census record. It gives you the opportunity to check the accuracy yourself. This is true with any document- always obtain a copy of the original. This will insure the integrity of your research, and allow you to go back over the documents for additional information.
This is where the paid sites come in handy. Both, Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com have images of the original census records. Genealogy.com has a head of household index for most of the years. Ancestry.com is close to having an every name index. These indexes will link you directly to the actual census record. Both have a free trial option, a good way for you to decide which one you would like to subscribe to.
As with all your online research, it is essential to stay focused. You will run across links to other records that may include your ancestor. Make a note to come back, saving the web page on your computer, or writing down the URL, with a note to what it is you will be researching. Keeping a log of where you go and what you find online will save you a lot of time in the long run and help to keep you focused.
When you are searching for you ancestors in census records, so me will appear with little effort; others seem to disappear from one census to the next, or can't be found at all. In my next article, I will be writing about ways to ferret out some of those difficult relatives of yours.