census taker

Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.

A census taker is someone who collects census data by visiting individual homes, with a goal of getting a head count of all people residing within a given area. Census takers (also called enumerators) typically lived within the local area. In the early days, Census takers were required to ask specific questions of all households; the number and type of questions varied over the years. Enumerators often found it difficult to reach people at home and collected information from whomever was available in the household. If a family was not home, the information might be gathered from a neighbor or from the census taker's own knowledge. A certain amount of interpretation might be required, including the spelling of names, estimating ages, and making a "best guess" when people were unsure of information. As government agents, census takers were not always welcome, often avoided, and those furnishing the information did not always provide "true" answers. Most people, however, answered honestly and to the best of their ability. Today, with modern means of collecting data, census takers may only go out when the census questionaire for a particular address has not been returned.

Regardless of its inherent flaws, the census is an invaluable source of information for genealogists. However, to err is human. And census data, collected by humans from humans, bears significant potential for misinformation, whether intentional or inadvertent, on the part of the informant and/or the census taker. A good rule of thumb for researchers is to seek additional evidence (verification) to support or lend perspective to census data.

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