International Institute of Genealogical Studies


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Transcription Tuesday – Census Errors

Transcriptions are needed in all genealogical research. Transcribing Skills are included in the basic level courses for our students at The National Institute for Genealogical Studies.  All researchers must strive to acquire this core skill. There is no way around it. 

Transcriptions are extremely important for census record databases. Transcribers must be precise. However, they are usually not from the area being transcribed, so they could be unfamiliar with the names on the documents, although these may be very common to the ones researching them. For some transcribers, English may not be their first language. This means that they are transcribing letter by letter, plus trying to decipher the handwriting of different enumerators for each district. They do their best, but some entries are just their best guess.

Transcription errors are not always totally their fault alone, Sometimes, it is the enumerator who misspelled the name by mistake, or guessed the spelling when the person giving the information was illiterate. With this in mind, we need to use a few strategies when searching databases. Remember, a true transcription is exactly as it is written – not editing the original text. The transcriber is entering what was written on the document – whether it is correct or not.

When searching names in any database, remember to use your list of variable spellings. Record every variation that you find. Nicknames may be used as children, but then changed when they become adults. Some may use a middle name as their given name. Surnames may have gone through spelling variations in different time periods. Make note of these in your research notes and add them to your list. Example: The German surname Götz became Gaetz and later became further anglicized to Gates. 

When searching, use the most unique name in the family. For this Gates family, sons Osborne and Owen were the most uncommon. When searching the Canadian Census databases for Owen Gates in Nova Scotia for the years 1891, 1901, and 1911, there was only one result. However, he did not show up in the search results for the 1921 census. 

We can expand our search by using the first letter and a wildcard (O*). 

This time it returned 6 results for the first names beginning with O. One of these was for Orven Gates. 

This was a transcription error. The entry was confirmed as Owen by viewing the original image. His family members and neighbours matched the previous entries. You can see where the “W” was mis-transcribed as “RV” making it Orven instead of Owen.

If you find a transcription error in a database, and there is a way to submit a correction, please do so whenever possible. This helps future researchers as the alternate name will be entered into the database for future searches. For Ancestry, it will look like this: 

Always, Always check the original image whenever possible to confirm the information entered into the databases has been transcribed correctly. Errors are always possible, especially when the handwriting on the document is a challenge. Compare similar letters written by the same person on the same page to become familiar with his style. And always transcribe everything exactly as it is written. 

If you are still not finding the entry you are seeking in the database, you can browse the pages before and after where you are expecting it to be. You should also check all the other websites where that census is recorded. Search in their databases. The person you are looking for may be transcribed correctly there. Check the original images – you may find a clearer copy of that census page. 

Census Databases used (Adjust for your research project):
Library and Archives Canada: Censuses Canadian Census Collection
FamilySearch: Canada Census
Automated Genealogy

Next week we will continue with transcribing census records. In the meantime, review some census entries from your own past research. Check each name and surname on the original image. Did you find any transcription errors? If you did, please report the error.
As researchers, we have found that there are many skills we need to employ in order to achieve success in our future research projects. Transcription Tuesday will share guidelines and practical suggestions to help our readers to develop the skills for making effective transcriptions, abstracts, and extractions.

Transcription Tuesday previous blog post
Transcription Tuesday Index
These three core courses demonstrate Transcription principles. They are offered monthly, beginning on the first Monday of every month: Register today!
Methodology-Part 2: Organizing and Skill-Building (Basic Level)
Skills: Transcribing, Abstracting & Extracting (Basic Level)
Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents (Advanced)—————————————————-
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