Order of jurisdictions in census citations

I have always been curious as to why census citations don't include jurisdictions from smaller to larger, ie. - Houston, Harris County, Texas rather than

Harris County, Texas, Houston.

Submitted byEEon Tue, 04/24/2012 - 17:12


Interesting question. EE’s short answer would be custom and logic. A longer answer would invoke access and efficiency in data-entry.

1. Access

How do we access a census record? First, we think about the country and year, so we pull the census options for that country and year. In the U.S., that portion of a census citation would say, for example, “1930 U.S. census.”  Then we would need to locate the specific area of interest in the U.S. If we need data for a household at Cocked Hat, Delaware, then we can't just look up "Cocked Hat" in a NARA film catalog and find a film number. Nor do we approach it that way in the databases of the online image providers. The censuses are filmed by state, thereunder by county, thereunder by district, then by page, then by household or line number—i.e., from the largest element to the smallest.

Census citations (in EE and common usage) follow this traditional large-to-small arrangement with one wee twist that’s based on custom. Instead of citing State, County we cite County, State (or Big City, State) because that’s our everyday usage--not to mention, the order expected by the likes of Miss Thistlebottom.

2. Data entry

When using databases to organize families whose branches scattered across the country, efficiency also argues for the large-to-small arrangement. If entries in our master source list were arranged by enumeration districts or towns, then our source list would be exceedingly long. Conversely, if the featured elements in our source list are the large units (year, country, state, and perhaps county), then the source list can be kept much leaner and a quick click on a source list entry for a larger area can generate an automatic fill in of much of the citation. All we have to do then is to add the small elements that identify the community, page, and household.

Oops, I should have specified I was kidding. I just love Delaware place names. I can just picture folks walking around with cocked hats. (And I honestly thought you made the name up, until I just Googled it.)

"Cocked Hat" does sound like it would date back to the "macaroni" era. Curiously,  it doesn't seem to be in the major national gazetteers before at least 1884. Maybe an EE user can enlighten us both.