Digitizing and putting the entire US census on the Internet has been no small task. The census records cover the years 1790-1930, 140 years of our Nation's history (census records from 1940-2000 are not yet available to the public due to privacy laws). These records currently take up almost 14,000 rolls of microfilm and represent over 500 million Americans. Currently, only a small percentage of libraries nationwide own a complete set of microfilms of the U.S. census ($450,000 retail). Online subscriptions have now made it available to researchers from around the world, however, as well as much more affordable for many local libraries.
The three biggest players in this online race to create easy-access U.S. census data are Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com and Heritage Quest Online:
- Ancestry.com, part of MyFamily.com, was the first to offer online access to the complete US census - digital census images for all census years 1790-1930 - as part of its proprietary Images Online service. The service offers over 12.7 million pages containing almost 550 million records. In combination with its regular subscription service, there are now more than 1 billion records available for searching on the Ancestry.com site.
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- Genealogy.com, another US census subscription site, was actually the first company to post digitized census images online. They began with the 1850 census and have since expanded their offerings to include all census images available for every state from 1790-1930 as the result of a partnership formed with Proquest Information and Learning Company in September 2002. This census collection also references over 500 million names spanning 140 years. Genealogy.com is now part of MyFamily.com, also the parent company of Ancestry.com.
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- Heritage Quest Online joined with Proquest in early 2002 to launch their US census collection as part of HeritageQuest Online, the result of 10 years of restoration and transcription to create the "highest quality digital census indexes and images available to the public," says Elon Gaspar. This collection is similar to the U.S. Census collection offered by Genealogy.com, except that it is marketed to libraries, not individual subscribers. Many libraries have purchased the Heritage Quest Online collection and offer it as a free resource for their members. Many even offer remote access!
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Overall, in my opinion, it is almost a tossup between the three major online census offerings. Heritage Quest Online has a slight edge due to the fact that its free to members of subscribing libraries and its ability to store census finds in a notebook, but the lack of wildcard or soundex searching and many missing indexes keeps it from being a hands-down winner. Genealogy.com, like Heritage Quest Online, has an advantage with its quick loading, clear images and easy printing, and the fact that it is the only source for indexes to the 1900 and 1910 census, and Ancestry.com leads the way with advanced viewing options and its many every-name census indexes. No one census site has it all, leaving many of us scratching our heads and subscribing to more than one, because where one lacks the other seems to excel. Basically, it all comes down to what you need most - fast loading, clear images, or enhanced index and search options.
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