Finishing the digitization of 20 sheets of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania census records from 1900 felt like a huge accomplishment for all of us in Messiah’s Digital History class. Ancestry.com had given us a huge head start since they had already transcribed twelve of the twenty-five fields that we wanted for our project (see The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Navigating Your Way Through the 1900 United States Census Records). However, there is a lot of work that needs to be done before it can be used for anything else. Leaving wrong information could cause problems when we try to put these people on a map of the city. An incorrectly spelled street name or a mistyped house number could slow down the project in the future; it would be cumbersome to halt work in order to figure out why the GIS program is not placing people where it should. We also would be risking the credibility of not only our own names, but the name of the Messiah College History Department whom we represent.
Therefore, our final records need many rounds of thorough proof reading before the next steps take place. Overall, only a few small adjustments need to be made, but our biggest obstacle that has persisted throughout the entire process is how to handle the occasionally undecipherable handwriting of the original census takers. Is that number a “6” or a “0”? Is that person’s first name really “Lvuzue”? And somehow they have proved that it is almost possible to make a “yes” completely indistinguishable from a “no”. Although comical at times, it is also extremely frustrating. The census recorder took the time to record this for us, but since we cannot determine what the intended word was, the information is essentially useless.
I have learned that reading the same person’s handwriting for a while, you almost feel like you are getting to know them. You recognize words that other people would have trouble seeing just because you now have a sort of “relationship” with their writing. Combine that with some background knowledge, and you can stumble upon some surprising discoveries. While I was looking at the residents of Front Street using the digitized index that Ancestry had already created, I noticed someone with the name “Mira S. Dock”. I got a little bit excited remembering the name of one of the most important people living in Harrisburg at the time was Mira Lloyd Dock, so I looked back on the original census. I was thrilled to find out that what the Ancestry volunteer thought was an “S” was actually an “L”, and this was in fact the same Mira L. Dock that we are researching in our project about the City Beautiful Movement.
The information that Dock’s census records gave us is shown above. Starting here gives anyone an easy place to start when doing a detailed search of the woman who kick started the Harrisburg City Beautiful Movement. Living on Front Street in a house that she owned, Mira L. Dock was raised by parents native to Pennsylvania and being single she was the head of her household that she shared with her three sisters. The only unclear information on the records is her occupation; “forestry” is pretty vague.
This is a great example of why it is necessary that we have multiple people check our transcriptions in class before we make them public. This is not only true for the work that we have done ourselves, but also the work that Ancestry.com has already done. If someone had been looking for Dock only using the digital version they may not have been able to find her at all, and this could happen with any of the names and places we have been working with. Reviewing may be the most important part of the process: it builds on the same principle as illegible handwriting. If we have an abundance of mistyped information, those fields are essentially useless for the people trying to use it in the future.