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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Why Use Digitized Census Records?
by Rhonda R. McClure

September 12, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Recently Genealogy.com announced the release, in partnership with Heritage Quest, of digitized census records for years other than 1900, which they already had. I know that some people have asked me, what is the big deal? Why should we pay for access to the census? Those records are available for free, or almost free on microfilm.

The easy part of the question about why we should pay has to do with why they need to charge for the records. The digitization process of any record, census or other, is involved and requires man hours, computer hours, electricity and more. It makes sense that those costs are passed on to the consumer. We pay for our computers. We pay for the electricity to run them, the ISP to keep us connected to the Internet. Why shouldn't we have to pay for something like digitized records?

Value is subjective.

Is It Worth It?

I can't tell you how many times I have been asked this question. It comes to me via e-mail. I am asked after lectures I give. I have been asked on the phone. And my answer is always the same. If I find an ancestor, you bet it was worth it. Given the money that we spend on marriage certificates, birth certificates and other records from courthouses, most researchers feel the same way.

For years, such costs were accepted as we looked for our ancestors. Then came computers and the Internet. All of a sudden there was a rallying cry that genealogy should be free. In a perfect world it would be free. In a perfect world I wouldn't have spent the last twelve years looking for my 4th great-grandfather on my father's side of the tree.

We have seen costs increase for copies of birth and death records. The costs for military service and pension records went up a couple of years ago. This last year the Social Security Administration increased the costs for the SS-5 form. We continue to pay these costs, though we grumble a little louder, because we need the records in our insatiable search for our ancestry.

However, given that it is available on microfilm, the census poses a slightly different question. We can get films to our local Family History Center. We may even have the films available through a public library or genealogical society library. So, why pay for a subscription to view them online?

Census Any Time

The first benefit of the online version of the census records is the convenience of accessing it at any time. Most of us have day jobs that prevent us from dashing off to the library or archive whenever we have a new name we want to look for in the census. Instead we must either take a Saturday, which is so often reserved for family outings or other events.

With census records online, I am able to gather pages of census informatio as I'm searching the Internet for other information or resources on a given individual or line of my family tree. I make it a point to print these out so that I can file them along with all the other information I have found.

The other benefit to the online census is the indexing. Through the aggressive indexing that is taking place, it is possible that you may discover an ancestor that eluded you in the past, especially if you weren't sure where he went. So often we are forced to limit our indexed searching to a given state — with increased online indexing, this is often no longer the case. While I wouldn't recommend such a search on a John Smith, it may be the one way that you are able to identify where the ancestor went when he disappeared from the state in which you lost him.

Enhanced Images

Finally, the other major advance I have seen with the digitized images is that there are times when the image is easier to read than the original microfilmed page. So often we have come across a page on the microfilm that is so dark, especially in the corners, that we cannot read the last ten or fifteen lines of names. Of course when we finish going page by page through a county and have not found our ancestor, we are left to wonder if they were in one of those unreadable sections.

The benefit of the digitized images is that they have been enhanced, often reducing the blackness and in other times bringing out the faded writing. For some of us this is the chance to go through a county again and see who was hiding previously. This opportunity may be our chance to say with finality that our ancestor really isn't in that county. As long as there are names that aren't readable we cannot say that, but with the enhanced images we may be to able to say we have been through the entire county and our ancestor doesn't show up.

And of course, lets not forget that we can print out the images onto paper. While they are smaller than if we could print them to an 11x17 inch page, I have found that they are readable and I'm given enough space on the page to make a full source citation so that I can properly cite the source of that census page in my genealogy program.

In Conclusion

To those with easy access to the census, the online version may not seem like it is anything special at first. That is, until you take a moment to compare traditional research with the convenience, flexibility, special indexes and enhanced images of an online subscription. When trying to decide if it is a bargain, remember to factor in all of the expenses you incur on your trips to the library. Personally, I have found that the online subscription prices are reasonable and allow me to do a lot of research for the money.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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