Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ancestors in the Databases

Went down today to do a little speak at the event launching the Canadian Census Collection today in Toronto: all the Canadian censuses from 1851 through 1916, fully indexed and searchable online -- with an membership required, bien sur. (Promotional consideration: I just got mine in exchange for speaking about the historical value of censuses.) Not to be immodest, but David Miller and I killed -- and the mayor tweeted about it several times.

Talked to some Library and Archives of Canada people there; it's an interesting deal that archives are making with companies like Ancestry. The censuses belong to us the people of Canada and the archives retain custody of them. Anyone can research in them at the archives or online. But no everyone goes to the archives, or can master archival research online. Ancestry claims it adds value by making the censuses, in this case, all fully indexed and searchable and accessible to anyone willing to invest in a membership and then packaging them with a growing range of other Canadian and international family-history resources.

When would the archives (which get access to the Ancestry organizing) ever be able to invest in those additional services? It's a strong claim. And another way in which the monetizing of the internet continues apace, despite all those IP law profs insisting information just wants to be free. Certainly looks like a valid business proposition for the worldwide and growing Ancestry group of companies.

Censuses have fuelled Canadian historical scholarship back to Michael Katz's The People of Hamilton, Canada West and David Gagan's study of 19th century Peel County, Ontario, Hopeful Travellers. I'm not sure how digitizing of census data will influence scholarship, but clearly it's transforming genealogy. I wrote about that phenomenon for The Beaver in a column last year, and the response was strong enough that the magazine has been covering the genealogical scene ever since.

But what I really like about censuses is (to paraphrase my own remarks from this morning) the quick and powerful confrontation with human reality they provide. Looking randomly in the 1851 Canada West census, I encounter Donald Clark, 42, a blacksmith in Oxford County, his wife Jean, 41, and their three daughters and four sons. They and their eldest daughter Catherine, 19, were born in Scotland, but the 15-year-old and all the rest are Canadian-born. They live in a log house, and six of the seven children are attending school. They are nothing to me, but in one family’s entry, I can see the peopling of pre-confederation Ontario. Novels have been written from less.

In the 1901 Alberta census, I encounter Wah Chong in Canmore. Wah Chong is 55, born in China. His son Sam Chong, 16, is American-born. Wah Chong is as married, but no wife is present. Imagine the choices and constraints that brought these two to the mountain town beside the railroad tracks.

Back to 1851 and the parish of St-Janvier in comte Terrebonne, north of Montreal: Joseph Savard, 54, his wife Marguerite Paquet, 46, and seven children live in a wooden piece-sur-piece house with two chimneys. He's a cultivateur, and three sons are listed as journaliers, day-labourers. One of the labourer sons is 26 and married, but his wife does not live in the Savard home; one might guess she lives with her parents, while her husband has to stay with the father who employs him. The other children, girls 16, 9 and 8 and a boy of 10 are all attending school. There's the social and economic history of Canada-East that Fernand Ouellet needed several volumes to elucidate.
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