History Dept. Research, Day 1: 1850, -60, -80 Censuses

06 January 2015

Today was my first day working as a Research Assistant for the History Department on an ambitious, interdisciplinary project to create a GIS map of Long Island that would incorporate data ranging in time from colonial settlements to the present day. The best way to describe it would be to compare it to a Google Earth map of Long Island, with many layers to account for soil types, dairy production, slave populations, wool output, different time periods, and so forth. Because of my interests in local history, literature, and mapping, and because of my previous experience working with digital census transcriptions (for the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society: NYGBS) and archiving (two different positions at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans), I was hired to spend part of winter break collecting and organizing data that will be fundamental to the project.

My mission today was to digitize data from the Three Village area from the 1850, 1860, and 1880 Censuses. Much of the information from the 1860 and 1880 Censuses was already entered into Excel files, so the plan was to go into those Excel files, figure out what information was missing or unclear, find that information in the original Censuses via Microfilm, and create a finalized, accurate transcription. Since no work has been done on the 1850 Census whatsoever, my next step will then be to transcribe that Census from scratch (again taking information from the Microfilm images and entering it into an Excel file).

Unfortunately, as soon as I began, I discerned numerous disparities between the 1860 Census and the information that had been transcribed previously. Searching for each new missing piece of data, I would find three or four errors nearby. I contacted my supervisor, and we agreed that it would be best to proofread the entire document in addition to filling in missing information. In the end, this amounted to making probably 400-500 emendations and additions.

Microfilm Viewer

This task consumed the rest of my day, but not without some great “efferents” (or takeaways).[1] I’ll start by saying that this was my first time in many years working with Microfilm, and certainly my first time setting it all up by myself. I felt a burning sense of pride when I got the old dinosaur of a machine running and saw my first images up on the screen. Since the Microfilm of the 1860 Census is blurry to begin with, however, I had significant trouble viewing the messy orthography of the Census taker.

Blurry 1860 Census


Since the Microfilm of the 1860 Census is blurry to begin with, however, I had significant trouble viewing the messy orthography of the Census taker. After an hour of intense squinting a few inches from the Microfilm viewer, I noticed a high-resolution Microfilm scanner attached to a desktop computer in a nearby corner in the library. It took a few tries, but I quickly mastered the ins and outs of it, and discovered that it allows custom zooming, brightness adjustment, contrast adjustment, cropping, and an array of other features that proved extremely useful. I felt even more accomplished after teaching myself how to use this technology, and I’m sure that it will be a valuable tool in the future.

DSC_0153IMAGE: High-Resolution Microform Scanner

Once I had the high resolution images scanned as PDFs and uploaded to my laptop, it was a much easier job of moving around the document, zooming, and keeping track of my location while I bounced back and forth between the Excel file and the Microfilm images. I called it a day after finishing the 1860 Census, and, although I didn’t accomplish all the tasks I set out to do today, I considered today a great success. Fluency in Microfilm technology is an important skill to somebody interested in historical documentation and archiving, and I feel much more confident about my own research skills after today. My next task will be to proofread and enter missing data for the 1880 Census, and then I’ll start the 1850 Census. Thanks for reading!

[1] See Chapter 3 in Rosenblatt for a great read on the “efferent,” or what students (and all readers) find meaningful and take away from a text. One of Rosenblatt’s main concerns is how, as teachers, we can help our students read for a purpose.

Rosenblatt, Louise Michelle. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1994. Print.

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