Saturday, April 5, 2008

2010 census - will genealogists care in 2082?

Terry at Hill Country and Blaine at The Genetic Genealogist mention the US Government's plans to go low-tech with the census count in 2010.

Related, I've seen a few bloggers over the past few months discussing what will be asked in the census, with the fear we are headed to shorter census forms, with less information on them. There's also a fear we might go to statistical sampling, and thus not get a complete count. Valid concerns for genealogists.

But how bad would it really be if we completely lost the census as a research tool starting, let's say, with the 2010 or 2020 census? I've been giving this some thought.

Certainly, when I am researching ancestors from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the online census forms have been a godsend. So, one can extrapolate, in 100 years the future generations will find the census forms I am on a godsend, too, right?

I'm not so sure. Records on people prior to 1900, and in the early part of the 20th century are sparse. That's a lot of the reason we love the census. In some cases, it's all we've got. But it's not like relatives are untraceable after 1930. Record keeping starts to improve greatly in the 20th century.

Vital Records are going online. In 2082, 72 years after 2010, when the 2010 census is released, I'd be surprised if there was much information on it that wasn't obtainable easily somewhere else. Maybe genealogists will welcome it as a verification of what they have learned elsewhere. Or maybe we will enjoy reading what our ancestors "said" as opposed to what we we already know.

Back when there was discussion about the "Mother of all Genealogy Databases" I had doubts that such a concept would ever exist because the logic it takes to connect "John Smith 1" with "John Smith 2" will be too complex for computers. Especially with the data available prior to the computer age.

However, with the 2010 census, we're talking about data available now. I can easily envision a government database where one enters the social security number of a deceased individual, and retrieves a display of public information. This display could be just about anything the government knows about that individual not deemed private information. If you're not sure of the SS#, you will naturally be able to look it up like you are now. Sure, lots of our ancestors don't have Social Security numbers, but if we were born in the US, we all do now. (And legal immigrants get id#s too.) This database isn't available now, and probably isn't possible now, but by 2082?

I haven't been doing this very long, but the greatest part of the census seems to be the family groupings allowing you to trace a family back. But recently uploaded the IRS records from the 1860s and 70s, with a handful of later ones as well. I've never had to list dependents on a tax form, alas, but I believe when one does, one names them.

With the Texas marriage and birth records available at Ancestry I was able to find distant cousins born within the past ten years. By 2082 I expect the birth information of everyone reading this will be as easily available to their descendants.

There are probably other reasons to fight against statistical sampling. (I don't entirely trust statistical sampling to be an accurate count, and since the amount of representation is dependent upon the results I suspect there could be political shenanigans with sampling.)

However, while the future is always difficult to predict, I suspect the census won't be as useful a tool for genealogists of the future as it is today.

1 comment:

TheGeneticGenealogist said...

Great article John! I think you're absolutely right - most of us leave a daily trail of records. I think there's some question as to how many of those records will be recorded long-term, and whether they will be recorded in a medium that is still readable in 75 years, but I agree that the census won't be as important in the future. Boy are those genealogists lucky.

I haven't done much in-depth research, but the one thing about the 2010 census that sounds exciting is the pre-checking of addresses using GPS. I wonder if this information will be recorded along with the census.