First [past the] post

Well, I’ve joined the 21st century. And I’m not sure I like it. The cheesy font I have chosen for the header to this post is called ‘Jane Austen’. But would Jane have recognized it? I beg to differ.

She wouldn’t have recognized the census, either (before her time). As a historian, I am thrilled by the census. It lets me track down people,watch the rise and fall of neighbourhoods, lets me see what’s ‘normal’: in my street in 1861, perfectly middle class, if not very prosperous, only one household had a servant. (Take that, ‘Upstairs Downstairs’.)

But as a private (very private) person, I am appalled by the planned census. The Victorians made do with name-rank-serial-number — name, who was the ‘head’ of the familiy, ages, places and dates of birth. The 2011 census, according to the Independent, is going to be 32 pages of questions on my health, wealth, and the state of my central heating (poor, since they ask). Of course, when I was at university in New York, living in a dorm, the census there wanted to know if I had an artesian well.

So perhaps for 2021 a halfway house? I realize governments don’t make their plans on what historians will or won’t want in a hundred years time, but the thought of this perfect time-capsule being destroyed, just because people put their religion down as ‘Jedi’…


  1. elle

    February 24, 2011 - 2:26 pm

    Interesting take because there is a whole kerfuffle (it seems that is not an acceptable word) about the long-form census in Canada no longer being mandatory. The head of stats Can resigned over the issue…ooooh. And economists, former government officials, charities, doctors and educators have all stepped forward to declare how much the private and public sectors depend on the importance of demographic details collected by the mandatory long form. Hmmm . Maybe rotten for the historian in one way, but think of all the ‘information’ in another…wowee, that’s a wealth of important details—maybe something to right books from.

  2. Miranda

    February 28, 2011 - 7:41 pm

    The 2011 census is good news for our family as it will give my husband some gainful employment over the next 7 weeks. The only thing longer than the census form was interview procedure he had to go through before being hired as an enumnerator.
    I think is much more difficult to live as a private person – and here we are on Facebook, I had so many reservations about joining that. It’s like the marketing info collected by a supermarket loyalty card – it freaks me out that they can use the brand of OJ you buy to predict what holiday you’re likely to take – and then advertise it to you as a pop-up next time you Google. This makes me want to buck as many consumer trends as possible!
    It’s fine as long as info is securely held by parties with a legitimate interest in knowing your information – but it is not pleasant to feel spied on, and also worrying to think about where that personal info may end up, and what could happen if a less benign government came to power.
    My favourite comment came from Rowan Atkinson, musing on our right to privacy – he said that it was very important to him that at this time, no one could actually tell what he was thinking! though he suspected that might change in the future.
    Let’s hope not.

  3. SusanF

    February 28, 2011 - 8:19 pm

    I do like this blogger – welcome to the 21st century! As for the census, I’m like a sheep or a lemming (a leep? shlemming?); give me the form, tell me to fill it in and I do. Then I feel happily superior when I find out that I am one of the small percentage of NY residents who actually did what I was asked (told?). Plus I love to real all the juicy information we get from the census afterwards…