Genealogists researching census records may encounter various challenges, including:
- Indexers may sometimes have trouble making out enumerators’ handwriting or interpreting records when they are in poor condition
- Enumerators’ ability to spell and transcribe the information they received correctly may greatly influence search results
- Enumerators occasionally translated names into their mother tongue or transcribed them phonetically. Accordingly, French-Canadian names like Jean-Baptiste or Marie-Anne might be translated as John Baptist or Mary Ann
- Many dates of birth may also be inaccurate. For example, our ancestors sometimes had trouble remembering their children’s exact date of birth and even their own
- The household member interviewed by the enumerator might have provided incorrect information, which will also influence search results
Help is at hand!
Over the years, genealogists at Library and Archives Canada have come up with research tricks. Here are a few that are sure to help:
- If you located your ancestor in the 1901 census, for example, but have trouble finding him or her in the 1911 census, just jot down the names of your ancestor’s neighbours from the 1901 census, then try to find them in the 1911 census. With luck, your ancestor will have stayed at the same address, and you will easily trace him or her
- If you are having difficulty finding an ancestor, try limiting your search criteria; for example, if your ancestor has an uncommon name or surname, search for him or her using only that name
- You may find information about your ancestor in a city directory if he or she lived in a large city. If this is the case, try searching the directory of the city your ancestor lived in to confirm his or her residence there. Read our blog post What Can Canadian Directories Do for You? to learn more
- Our Genealogy and Family History section provides search tips and a list of abbreviations found in censuses
Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!
Great blog; great tips. thank you!
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Good idea, to look at the neighbor’s names and find them in the next census.
The census data, so easily accessible as presented at LAC, has been invaluable to my genealogical research. It has made it so easy! Your search fields allow so many ways to find people. Very user friendly arrangement. Thank you to all who contributed to the indexing, over the years. Monumental work. ( I know Automated Genealogy volunteers did a lot.)
P. S., I was even able to use just the first name (“Given name”) search field here, to learn that “Orenda” was actually a name given to females, in the 19th to early 20th centuries; as I found several women with this name in Canada, throughout the years of censuses. My ancestor’s middle name had always been recorded as “Oredna,” which I am now going to state with some confidence has been misspelled all this time, based on the census data at LAC.
Is there a LAC page advising how one should cite (for publication) the digitized census material used for genealogical research?
Hi there, we recommend you cite census returns like this example: Library and Archives Canada, RG31, 1891 census, District 10, sub-district g, page 5, microfilm T-10522.
I have always wondered how to interpret 1850s Nova Scotia census. It tells head of the family’ first and last name and for instance says 3 females, 2 males. Is the head of the family excluded from the 2 males. Is there any way of knowing is it wife and 2 daughters or 3 daughters?
That’s a great question. Our Genealogy section should be able to provide you with more information about early Nova Scotia census returns. Please use our Ask us a question form (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/assistance-request-form/Pages/assistance-request-form.aspx?requesttype=1)