The September webinar was held jointly with our friends in the Devon Family History Society when we were joined by Dr Lesley Trotter whose presentation looked at how historians can use census microdata to research social history. This was a popular topic with members of both societies and over 115 people joined in the webinar.

Lesley began by reviewing the reasons for the census – to collect whatever data on the characteristics of the population which was deemed by the government at the time to be necessary to inform decision making. This data is published in the census reports in histpop, a vital resource for one-placers when getting an overview of our places.

The enumerators’ books are essentially a by-product of this process yet have vast potential as the basis of other research. This is most commonly in our genealogical researches yet the information contained within these books can be used to research communities or social groups. Lesley used examples from her own researches in Cornwall, particularly her studies into the wives of miners who emigrated abroad and the extent to which they fulfilled the popular conception of their being ‘abandoned’ by their menfolk. Many of us may use similar techniques in researching our places, for example in looking at in-migration within different occupations in our places.

This type of study requires collation of the data. This is made more difficult by the tendency of the commercial database providers to focus on records pertaining to the individual and for some resources only to be available to academics. As data collection is time-consuming researchers may use sampling, either as a deliberate technique or simply due to the survival and availability of sources. This raises questions regarding how representative the sampled data is of the entire population – what would the missing records tell us?

Pooling of information helps provide a fuller picture and makes data more readily available for social history research. Lesley encouraged us to produce and share information in such a way as to make it readily available to other researchers to analyse in creative ways in the future, and to be open to the ways in which the stories of others can enhance our understanding of our families and places. Oh and please keep updating media formats as technology develops, to allow this to continue to be of use!

A fascinating talk which both illustrated how the information contained within the census can give fuller pictures of the social history of our places and set this within the context of the records at the time of production and of the factors influencing their use today.

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