The U.S. census records have been available for years on microfilm. In the past few years, two commercial companies (Ancestry.com and ProQuest/HeritageQuest Online) have been digitizing the original census records and placing them online, along with computer-searchable indexes. However, access to these online records is expensive since the commercial companies need to recover the large investments they made in digitizing and indexing these records.
USGenWeb has an ambitions project underway that should result in transcribed copies (not the originals) of these same records, available to everyone at no cost. The project aims to transcribe all the data found in each census entry. This is in contrast to the commercial databases that create simple indexes of names and then link them to scanned images of original documents for all the details.
The USGenWeb project uses volunteers who transcribe the records at home and then send their work via FTP (File Transfer Protocol) to the USGenWeb servers. Each transcriber retains the copyright to his or her work but makes the information available to all via USGenWeb.
A look at the project's Web pages shows that this is very much a "work in progress." That is, only a fraction of the U.S. censuses have been transcribed to date. Two and a half gigabytes of transcribed census data is now online, but the final product will obviously be several times that size. However, the information here can be valuable if an area of interest to you has already been completed. You can see the projects completed or in progress at http://www.us-census.org/inventory/.
There are three different methods of searching for information here:
1. Select a state, and then browse through the counties already available. In fact, you can download an entire file to your own computer, if you wish.
2. Use the USGenWeb census search engine to search for specific names. Options available include to search all transcribed records or to search by state or by census year.
3. Browse through the available files, one-by-one. Again, you can download entire files of a county to your own computer.
I found the records on the USGenWeb Census Project easy to search. I was able to find a few particular individuals that I am interested in. However, many of the counties and dates of my own interest remain as "future work to be completed."
I found that there is no easy way of printing out census records from this project onto a single page because of all the columns. Printing directly from the Web browser resulted in many of the right-side columns being cut off. However, it is easy to copy-and-paste into a word processor, using the Windows or Macintosh clipboards. Once the information is within a word processor, it is easy to select a smaller font as well as landscape printing to squeeze the needed information into a single printed page.
Copying-and-pasting is also an excellent method of transferring the data of interest into the source citations section of your favorite genealogy program.
As with all transcribed records, remember that the USGenWeb project will have occasional transcription errors. Never believe any information you find there until you verify it by looking at the original documents, either on one of the online services or on microfilm.
The USGenWeb is coordinated by Connie Burkett. She and her many volunteers are tackling a Herculean task: transcribing many millions of records. Once completed, this will be a high-value resource for all genealogists researching U.S. ancestry.
For more information or to search the transcribed U.S. census records, go to http://www.us-census.org.
If you would like to contribute your efforts to this worthwhile project, look at http://www.us-census.org/volunteer.htm.