Friday, 14 August 2009

Mrs Green, who are you?

I have been proofreading St David’s Ward, using the originals provided by Ancestry. District 3, with its 458 schedules, must be one of the longest of the lot. This morning I called for the next Ancestry image only to find that it came complete with their own transcription and the facility to advise alterations. As a result I have been checking two transcriptions at once—mine and theirs--and finding all types of errors in both of them!

One type of error is worth mentioning. Because the census was being filled in by the householders, the members of the family are described much more in the manner of the era than they would be if the information was being copied down by an enumerator constrained by rules from above. In the 1860s this meant that wives were very often referred to as Mrs J Smith or Mrs R Brown. To admit that your wife was Mary Smith or Ann Brown was just not done. This seems to be more true of couples in their twenties than in older families

The LDS FamilySearch Indexing project (who prepared the transcription for Ancestry) was not prepared for this habit. Their rules instructed indexers to leave a blank in the given name field instead of writing “Mrs”. This made sense when I did a bit of transcribing for them, but now that I see the results in Ancestry, I am less happy. I expect a blank given name field to infer something unreadable or omitted. Instead, it turns out to be a schedule on which the lady of the house was referred to as “Mrs”. The atmosphere of the era would be far more evident if “Mrs” were present when it was used, just as it would be if they had chosen to include occupations.

The situation also gives rise to another mistake. Take a family headed by William Black followed by Mrs W Black. Nickels to doughnuts her name was not Winnifred or Wilhelmina, but some transcribers have removed the “Mrs” and made the assumption that her name began with W. Given the sparseness of other records of the time, this type of error will find its way into many a family tree.

It just proves that even English-speaking transcribers can’t get it right 100% of the time.

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