The questionable pleasures of data entry


As if I wasn’t spending enough time on family history topics, last week I took up the suggestion in the recent Ancestry.co.uk newsletter and signed up to their World Archives Project. This involves volunteers transcribing selected data from images of all sorts of records. A recent example of a completed “keying project” is the ‘London, England, Land Tax Valuations, 1910’ set of records which Ancestry is currently promoting on its home page (the credit to volunteers is there, but perhaps not very prominent).

The featured data set in the newsletter was ‘British Postal Service Appointment Books’, which had some attraction to me as there are at least two closely related people who should appear in these.  I downloaded the ‘keying tool’ and set to for a little while.

For a first time project I found the instructions rather lacking in various areas such as how to handle abbreviations (and so called acronyms) and scattered across various places (overall info, then project specific as part of the keying pack download, on a wiki, and on unobvious project discussion boards). Hopefully they’ll tidy these up soon – shouldn’t be very difficult.

Anyway, I decided to give a different data set a go instead, ‘London School Admissions, Form 2’. This covers admission (and discharge) records for 1841 to 1911 for London School Board, a pace setter in it day.  It is unlikely that any of my direct ancestors would appear here, but some cousins and in-law families should. If you are lucky the records give you name of child and a parent, date of admission, and date of birth, all of which are keyed in, plus address, ‘standard in which last presented’, leaving date and any previous school, which aren’t keyed.

I’m sure many, if not most, people will see data entry as the embodiment of boring tasks. As a sometime bookkeeper/accountant perhaps I take a small pleasure in accurate recording and the low level brain activity needed to keep yourself in line on a repetitive, but variable, exercise.

And for a while at least, going through a set of historical records has its own charms. For instance:

  • Getting a feel for the difficulties faced in transcription. The way handwriting, although often neater than nowadays (and certainly mine), can be difficult to pin down – is that curly capital really a slanted B or an M not quite hitting the line right, for instance? (The keying tool does have a pretty thorough checklist of surnames which auto-matches, but someone has managed to undermine the ‘given name’ check by incorporating many common typos in the validation list.) Plus the ink can be blotchy, crossings out add confusion, curly characters stray over adjacent lines and cover other letters, and so on. Out of this you should get a better idea of what errors may have crept in to online records you are trying to track down yourself.
  • Over the last few days or so, the records seem to be trudging through the east end, late 19th century/early 20th. A Dr Barnardos home near by, a few exemptions to religious instruction noted as “jewish” or “old testament only”. The patterns of recurring names, surname and otherwise, the lack of full or any dates of births recorded for quite a few children, and also a remarkable number of blanks against parent’s name all add interest. And of course the odd amusing or notable name  (I thought Rose Pattle quite fun, just that little bit off being too obvious a play with words).

I’ll keep with it for a little while longer, but maybe not once the spring has arrived!

Also see

Getting posted to the Post Office

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