Anyone involved in placing census records online can tell you that scanning the records is the easy part. The labor-intensive part of the job is the creation of indexes - databases of names, dates, and locations of the original data. The only practical method of making the indexes is to have humans spend thousands of hours in front of their computers, reading hand-written records and transcribing the records into a database.
In most cases, only commercial companies can afford to pay the expenses for this sort of labor. Those companies then charge fees to genealogists viewing the transcribed records in an attempt to recover expenses, hopefully even making a profit. Now a group of volunteers is undertaking the huge task of extracting U.K. census records and placing them online on a free web site, available to genealogists all over the world.
FreeCEN is a project started by FreeUKGEN, an initiative to place high quality primary (or near-primary) records of relevance to UK genealogy online, preferably for free. FreeUKGEN provides the tools and support for several projects, including FreeCEN and the better-known FreeBMD (transcription project for the Civil Registration index of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales). FreeUKGEN organizes a large-scale volunteer effort by reducing duplication of transcription and indexing efforts and by providing widespread access to the information resources that are produced by such efforts.
The goal of FreeCEN is to provide a "free-to-view" online searchable database of the 19th century UK census returns. FreeCEN presently has more than 2,000 volunteers sitting at home around the world, extracting records and uploading the results to a central server. The extracted records are then reviewed and merged into master databases to be made available to genealogists. While 2,000 volunteers obviously is a large number, many more are needed. In fact, YOU can help.
FreeCEN is organized by geographic lines. At the data entry level, volunteers are grouped by counties or highly populated areas. Each county coordinator typically has a few years of genealogy and/or local history research experience, particularly in the chosen county.
The volunteers that enter the data need a computer and access to a microfiche reader although CD-ROM disks are also available for 1861, 1871, and in some areas, for the 1841 censuses. FreeCEN uses custom-written software called IN-CENS that is designed to make the data entry task as easy as possible. The county-level organizers supply the data transcribers with microfiche, CDs, software, instructions, and lots of adviceby. There is also a dedicated mailing list, where one can ask questions and receive advice about changes or upgrades to the software.
Each transcriber has the option of transcribing his or her allocated microfiche in one of three ways:
- Directly from microfiche to the computer while at home
- Directly from microfiche to a computer at a library or LDS Family History Center or any other publicly-accessible computer
- A two-step transcription:
a. transcription from fiche to paper (by hand or printed output from microfiche)
b. transcription from the paper form to computer
The third method is obviously more labor-intensive; so, the organizers try to find methods to use one of the first two methods wherever possible. Another volunteer checks each transcribed record, using another computer program. This double-checking obviously adds more labor requirements but results in much more accurate data transcriptions.
Once the transcriber's work is verified by a second volunteer, the data is sent to a third person, someone with local knowledge of the county, to assist in the validation of place names. Finally, the data is uploaded to the FreeCEN database that is visible to everyone on the World Wide Web.
Data transcription efforts are now underway on the 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, and 1891 census records.
I found the search software on FreeCEN's web site to be simple to use. You first specify the year of the census to be searched and then optionally specify as many of the following parameters as you can:
Surname (exact spelling or phonetic)
Age or birth year
Age or year range (plus or minus 2 to 10 years)
Whether or not disabled
For any information that is unknown, simply leave the field(s) empty. Here is a typical example of a record I found in the 1891 census database:
First name(s): Adela M
Relation (to the head of household): Dau
Occupation: Confectioner's Assistant
Where Born: Hampshire - Romsey
Census Place: Romsey Extra
It is interesting to note that this 13-year-old was not in school; she was earning a living.
All in all, FreeCEN is a great service. It offers transcribed data from U.K. census records and a user-friendly interface, all at no charge. To learn more or to access the FreeCEN database, go to http://www.freecen.org.uk.It is obvious that the FreeCEN project is still in its early stages. Even with 2,000 data transcribers already busily involved, only a bit more than 5 million records have been transcribed and placed online to date. This is a fraction of the number of records to be transcribed. As this resource grows, its value will also increase.
FreeCEN is looking for more volunteers. The transcriptions can be made from microfiche and also from CD-ROM disks for certain years. If you are interested in helping, look at the information available at http://www.freecen.org.uk/project.htm.