A census is defined as “an official count or survey of a population, typically recording various details of individuals.” There are many different census’ available to genealogists. The amount of detail included on these censuses varies greatly but they are a very useful tool. In the United States, the most current census that is available is the 1940 census. The most current census of the U.K. available is 1911. The Canadian census for 1911 is also available.
What sort of information can you expect to find on the census? That really depends on which census you are looking at. Before trying to look at the information on the census, it is a good idea to print out a blank document so that you can understand the information that you are looking at.
The earliest censuses may only include the name of the head of the household. They then may give information such as number of free males under and over 16. In the U.S. slaves are also counted in the figures but separate from the free members of the household.
While these are limited, they can be very helpful for placing ancestors in a specific location on a given year. The date that the census was actually taken is usually given. Whenever possible, try to look at the actual record and not a transcription, it cuts down on the potential for errors.
Don’t be discouraged by the fact that your ancestor may not show up where you thought they should be. If you are looking at the index, a transcription error can turn a simple name into something totally different. Look through the census manually, line by line, you may find them exactly where they are supposed to be.
The census is a tool that can send you looking in the right direction. Accept the fact that it is not a primary source but is very useful and offers loads of useful information. Many of the censuses are available at Ancestry.com but you may have to actually buy a membership to look at detailed information.