Conserving the 1921 Census

We spoke to Stephen Rigden, Records Development Manager for Findmypast, to find out about this huge project to publish the census online. In this blog, we’ll find out more about the essential work that has gone into conserving the census throughout the project; in our other blog we look at the census itself and how Findmypast have digitised it – click here to read it.


Preserving history

In the context of the 1921 Census, conservation means conservation for digitisation. This is an approach that focuses on preparing and stabilising the documents for imaging. The objective is to be able to get the very best possible digital image from the paper document. Every schedule was individually inspected and assessed and a range of conservation tasks was undertaken, for example:

  1. The straps holding each bound volume closed were untied or removed.
  2. The strap bindings on each book were cut.
  3. Foreign objects between the pages, or pressed onto pages (including squashed invertebrates from the summer of 1921!), were removed.
  4. Surface dirt was delicately cleaned using smoke sponges.
  5. Edges were flattened and any folds that could conceal handwritten text, such as the householder signatures and schedule numbers towards the corners, were gently turned back using a Teflon bone folder or heated spatula.
  6. Minor damage, such as straight tears, was repaired using Japanese tissue (tengujo).
  7. Unsatisfactory historical repairs, especially those obscuring text, were carefully undone and the document then professionally repaired.
  8. Particularly damaged or vulnerable schedules were inserted into archival clear polyester sleeves – 87,000 of those sleeves had to be made bespoke for the project by specialist conservation suppliers.
  9. Historical inactive mould was cleaned using museum vacuums in fume cabinets in a contamination room.
  10. Blocked pages (those horribly stuck together by historic mould and damp) were carefully separated and pages consolidated (reconstructed) as far as possible.

Findmypast’s team of qualified conservators and enthusiastic conservation technicians worked on this project between January 2019 and October 2021 – they had to contend not just with the massive task of preparing the census materials for digitisation but also with the unexpected impact of COVID-19 and social distancing.

An archivist is at work with an old census book.
The studio in Titchfield

As these processes take time, conservation started several months before imaging; if the two tasks were to start at the same time, the imaging team would catch up and not be able to work at optimal capacity. For a period of several months, therefore, the conservation team worked to build up a buffer – several thousands of prepared volumes – sufficient to protect them from being caught up by the imaging team. Only when the buffer was in place did the imaging team begin its work.

In due course, each box of volumes prepared by our conservation team was collected by the imaging team. The requirement of the project was to create an exact digital surrogate of the paper original – we want the online experience of viewing the census to be as close as possible to handling the original forms.

This meant imaging everything within the collection, and everything meant everything. As well as the actual census returns, the team imaged the cover boards, blank pages – all ephemera from the Census Office of 1921 which had inadvertently been left in the books. This included internal office memos, the occasional punch card, private notes passed between the punch card girls and even a tram ticket. They photographed the stubs of pencils and petrified rubber thimbles, spent matches and roast chestnut shells – everything in each volume was imaged from cover to cover, meaning over 18 million images were produced.

Two different technologies were used to create digital images:

  • Sophisticated duplex feed scanners were used for those schedules which were in sound condition or had been placed in transparent sleeves by the conservation team. These machines scanned both sides of a document at the same time.
  • Rostrum-mounted overhead cameras were used for cover boards, the most fragile or damaged schedules, schedule fragments, and found objects.

Every image was then individually quality checked within the studio itself to make sure it was complete, fully in focus, not skewed and, in short, in every way true to the original document.

Following imaging, our conservation team members re-assembled each volume – this involved removing any polyester sleeves and any paper slips which had been used to flag vulnerable schedules. All the schedules were then checked thoroughly before being re-shelved.

The next time those boxes were handled was on their journey to The National Archives’ deep storage facility, where they are stored in environmental conditions that aid in the long-term preservation of the documents. Each page’s digital twin will be preserved online on Findmypast and will be available for you to explore very soon.

17 comments

  1. Philip Houghton says:

    So exciting to read. It would be great if there were a TV documentary made about the process. I’m also curious about the next stage: transcription. How much of that is automated and how much done manually? Historically I’ve always found FMP’s transcriptions and image quality to be superior to their rivals so I’m hoping this continues.

  2. Colin Edwards says:

    I agree with Philip Houghton. – I’d love to know about how the handwriting has been turned into searchable digital text. Was it an army of people in India or do you have some VERY clever OCR software?

  3. Christine Davis says:

    Would love to watch how this procedure was accomplished. A TV Programme would have been ideal as I have read there was a lot to be done and had to handle everything so delicately. Well done to those people involved.

  4. Mrs Anne Cleave says:

    This is so exciting! I’ve already been given my new 2022 Diary and the release of the Census is the first entry in it! I have a deep worry that, in the future, Governments may abandon the census for reasons of economy. That would be a disaster.
    The 2021 Census in Scotland was delayed for 1 year and I’m still trying to fathom the impact that decision will have for genealogists in another 100 years time.
    Well done and thank you to the teams at the National Archives.

  5. Susanne Rush says:

    I agree with the idea of making a television programme about the whole process. That would be absolutely fascinating.

    I’m so excited. My mother and father will be on the census for the very first time, so will two of my uncles and my husband’s parents. My grandparents will be there as a married couple and I’ll be able to see where countless relatives were living and what they did for a living. It’s all living history!

  6. RichardF says:

    On the FindMyPast website, they will be charging £3.50 for every image! They should add it to a premium subscription, not charge more than double than even ScotlandsPeople does. In their webpage FAQ, they say: “Anyone will be able to view the images of the 1921 Census of England and Wales for free online at The National Archives upon release on 6 January 2022”. How will this be possible if they have a pay-per-view model on their own website?

  7. John Michael Bibby says:

    What data was put on punched cards? Do the cards still exist?

  8. Derek Thom says:

    What an amazing effort has been put in to give us access. Well done to everyone involved and thank you. I can’t wait to see what is revealed.

  9. Seamus says:

    Sorry but I would have to disagree with the first comment about transcription of records. As far as the Irish RC Registers of BMD are concerned no one ever checked through the records to see what nonsense had been transcribed – I have several examples. this matter has not improved in the last five years. In all, more than 10% of the documents relevant to my research have unnecessary transcription errors that could have been detected by simple examination of the records on computer. Something I have had to do as part of my job. The problem is so bad I have stopped sending in error messages (after more than a few hundred), I haven’t got the time. I am sure FMP has learned from this and will have better techniques and technology to use. Accuracy will give a reputation and better user support.

  10. EIRA HOPKINS says:

    This blog has been a very interesting read. Especially the preparation of the documents so that the people who were working to digitize them could do so with ease and as much information as possible will be available to the public. Many thanks to all those who participated in this endeavour.

  11. Karen B says:

    I would love to get more involved in the transcribing of documents. I am currently a voluteer transcriber for a couple of free websites and really enjoy it, but would love to do more. How do you get involved with this, can anyone help please?

  12. Mary Agnes Young says:

    I have just learned of this exciting development. Can hardly wait to see what my family were up to in this “brave new world”, as it were.

  13. Rosemary Coombs says:

    Unbelievable the hard work that has gone into getting all these census ready. Yes it would be very interesting too have a TV documentary on the process .Roll on January.

  14. Naveed Khan says:

    An Excellant effort

  15. John Ankrett says:

    Yes, not having a TV documentary would be a big “missed opportunity”.
    Also, as a one time computer programmer, what on earth was on the punched cards? in the 1920’s!

  16. John Ankrett says:

    And I must also say thank you to all of the people involved – particularly the “Higher Up’s” who decided that the (presumably considerable amount of…) money required would be made available.

  17. Irene Day says:

    What an amazing piece of work that will add to my tree in the year that my dad was born! Will fill so many gaps in our family knowledge.

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