Hate the Census, hate your history

I’ve been an amateur geneaologist since long before it became an “in” thing. Tracking down my roots on both my father’s side (mainly Irish, but with a lot of other Celtic branches tossed in) and my mother’s (mainly English and Palatine German, with a smattering of Irish, Scottish and French for good measure) always fascinated me.

The research became more difficult as time passed and I became the older generation. No longer could I call on the family elders to explain an odd name or supply me with an anecdote that might explain a snippet of information I’d tracked down.

One of the most helpful sources of information over the years has been the U.S. census, conducted every 10 years. I’m disappointed that the current version requests far less information than those in the past, perhaps a response to what appears to be a growing public objection to giving personal information to government, even while the willingness to do so for anyone else through such social media as Facebook and Twitter might argue against that.

It was through such old records I have been able to ascertain the homeland of parents of various ancestors, the languages they spoke at home, what they did for a living, the non-family members who might have been living with them and how they were connected (boarder, servant, in-law, student, etc.), even who their neighbors were.

When I was very young, my step-great-grandfather lived with us. Like any child, I’d just assumed he was always there, not giving much thought to how he married into the family. An old census form solved that puzzle for me when it listed he and his wife of the time as living just three houses away from my family’s house in a small Pennsylvania town. As it turned out, the two families had been friends for years, and when both he and my great-grandmother lost their spouses, they eventually married.

Census records have not, of course, been my sole source of information. I also discovered various military records — from the French and Indian War right through today’s records — of relatives who lived here from well before the United States became a nation. Social Security death records, marriage and baptismal certificates, ship’s passenger manifests, property transfers and other family histories that intertwine with mine. … Add those to the volumes of foreign records I’ve researched for my pre-American ancestors, and I could have spent my entire life looking into my roots.

Despite the digitizing of records in most countries, the ubiquity of the Internet, the emergence of such subscription search services as Ancestor.com and so on, the widespread public distrust of, and apathy for, our current census portends troubles for future amateur and professional geneaologists. Even though this year we were given a stripped-down form to fill out, ignoring it not only will hamper governmental planning, it will add to the burden of future generations looking for a picture of their past.

[Note: Published as an op-ed commentary in the Albany (NY) Times Union 04.16.10.]

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About Bill Dowd

Webmaster/social media coordinator for the Southern Rensselaer County NY Rotary Club.

Posted on April 10, 2010, in Governance, History. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Curious George

    Thanks for the thought. It makes a lot of sense for the future as well as current U.S. citizens.

  2. Upstate Observer

    What an interesting point. Maybe we’re just too ready to distrust all forms of government these days and are actually handicapping the next generations.

  3. Great article, especially the part where you point out the dichotomy created in the mind of the public where on the one hand objecting to furnishing the government with personal information but not thinking twice of supplying it to the likes of Facebook and Twitter is well taken.

    Good job!

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