Posted by on 24 March 2011 in Record Collections

This post was written by PETER GOODWIN, Manager of Preservation Imaging

Damaged census image

Putting a collection of historic records online can be a complex process.  We make millions of records available online every year. But just how do we do it?

The process is to a large extent dictated by the condition and format of any given collection, be it 16th-century parish registers or an early 20th-century census.   Although the ultimate goal – to preserve while providing unparalleled access – remains constant, the journey to that point can be as varied as the collections themselves.

There are several key stages involved in turning an original record, which is only accessible to those who travel to the archive/institution where it is held, into an online record which is accessible to everyone around the world 24/7.  These stages consist of partnership, conservation, digitisation and indexing.

The first of these stages is establishing a partnership with the archive – in the instance of an England and Wales census this means The National Archives.  Such partnerships increase access to institutions’ material as well as preserving the records online for future generations.

Many of the records we digitise from the originals are in a fragile state and require document preparation or conservation prior to digitisation.  The Manchester section of the 1851 census is perfect example of this.  The returns were damaged by flood water and subsequent mould, and our conservator took on the painstaking work of piecing them back together. For these particular returns, however, that was only half the battle. Much of the writing had faded to a state of total illegibility, which presented another problem for the third stage of the process; digitisation.

The method of digitisation is dictated by the records, so for example if the pages were robust and uniform, such as index cards, we may use (with the archive’s permission) a sheet-feeding scanner. For the majority of other material – bound volumes, loose sheets etc – we digitise using overhead cameras, which ensure the minimum amount of document handling.

For the 1851 Manchester census records, neither of these approaches was an option, as the documents were fragile in the extreme and illegible in visible light.  To overcome this problem our imaging technicians built a bespoke camera – the Document Restoration Camera (DRC).

The DRC uses ultra-violet light filtered to the right wavelength, so that invisible ink on each page becomes visible.  The camera can also shoot using infra-red, which can help retrieve script from burnt documents. All in all, it’s a very valuable tool in preservation imaging.

Watch our video explaining how we restored the 1851 Manchester Census

Following digitisation is the indexing.  Once the images and index are in place, the new collection becomes available on for members to search for ancestors and view the original records.

All this provides you with just the briefest of glimpses of what happens behind the scenes here at ‘Ancestry Towers’ when putting a census, or any collection of records, online.  A vast amount of work sits behind each and every one of those processes, so I would encourage you to enjoy the fruits of our labour this Sunday, the 27th March, when all our census record indexes from England, Scotland and Wales will be free to view.

About Kelly

Kelly Godfrey is Senior Manager, Digital Marketing for Based in Ancestry's London office in Hammersmith, Kelly regularly tweets and posts on Ancestry's Facebook page as well as here on the blog.


Caroline Gurney 

An interesting post, thank you, but a shame it didn’t say more about the aspect of most interest to genealogists – the indexing. I’d love to know who does your indexing and whether you use technology such as OCR for typewritten or printed records. What training do you give the indexers? What systems do you have in place for quality control? Do you have any plans to expand the options for users to make corrections, to cover dates and places as well as names? It would be great if you could do a whole blog post on this subject.

24 March 2011 at 10:08 pm
Chris R 

So Ancestry did all of this with no help from anyone else? Have a look at this website:

Clearly, recovering the Manchester 1851 census had been an ongoing project long before Ancestry even existed! Also, the idea of using UV light was the idea of the National Archives, not Ancestry. I am happy to believe that Ancestry built on this idea to develop a specialist camera, and no doubt improved on it, but please give some credit to the people that did the initial work.


24 March 2011 at 11:57 pm
Annabel Reeves 

Hi Chris – if you click here you can see the press release we sent out last year, which talks about the restoration work done to these records, and that also mentions the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society’s work.

However, we can only share with you details of the work that the team here at Ancestry carried out on these damaged records.

25 March 2011 at 12:27 pm