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Census can be key in genealogists searches
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Genealogy and local history librarian Ronda Sanders on Tuesday flips through a Sanborn fire insurance map of Gainesville from 1937 at the Gainesville library. The maps give street names, street and sidewalk widths, property boundaries, building use, and house and block numbers, which may be useful to genealogists. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

When filling out the 2010 census, few are thinking about how their answers will affect their great-great-grandchildren.

But to genealogists, every census is a treasure.

“You’ll hear the census referred to as the basic building blocks, or the skeleton, of genealogy,” said Ronda Sanders, the genealogy and local history librarian for the Hall County Library System.

People use U.S. Census Bureau records, which are collected every 10 years, to locate their ancestors.

“That gives you an idea of where the family was living in a time period,” Sanders said.

Location is crucial to learning more about relatives. Sanders said once a person finds out where their family was living, they can research marriage licenses, military records, death records, wills, deeds and store record books from that area.

“There are all sorts of things you can look for once you find out where they’re living,” Sanders said.

One of the interesting things about census surveys is that the questions have changed slightly with each census over the years.
The earliest census questions were very vague.

“It can give you just as basic facts in the early ones as the head of the household’s name and whether there were males or females living in the house and the age range, not even a particular age,” Sanders said.

From 1850 and on, the census provided much richer information, including things like how people were related to one another in a household.

The questions often reflected the era in which they were being asked.

“Sometimes it would tell you what the value of their property was,” Sanders said. “The 1930 one asked whether you owned a radio or not. They were trying to find out if you were technologically advanced.”

But Sanders said due to human error, it’s important to take older census data with a grain of salt.

“Some people lied about their age,” Sanders said. “I have a great-great-grandmother who never aged 10 years in a census.”

The 1930 census is the latest available as public record in the state of Georgia. Sanders said they are only released every 72 years to protect people’s privacy.

“I understand that when they released the 1930 census, I would equivalize it to when the first Harry Potter movie came out at midnight,” Sanders said. “It was just full of genealogists trying to get into the census so they could see them.”

The 2010 survey is just 10 questions long. But Sanders said she is certain that future genealogists will use the information that is being collected right now.

“I think they’ll be disappointed by the little amount of information we’re providing them,” Sanders said. “But also we’re keeping so much better records these days that they should be able to pull information from other sources that was not available 100 years ago.”

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