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A Needle In A Haystack: Rīga Census Records

Census records are typically heralded as the Holy Grail of genealogical documents: Family groups, relationships, ages, occupations, and more, easily accessible (as long as there is a search function, or if you know precisely where they lived) right at your fingertips.

Clearly, whoever says this has never tried finding anyone in the city of Rīga in the 1935 Latvian Census. The 1897 All-Russia Census records for Rīga are bad enough – but at least they are organized by street and address. In 1935, there is no such luxury.

There is some organization to the 1935 Census. However, surnames are not it, nor are street addresses, nor are families, even. Each person has their own sheet, and they aren’t filed together (with the exception of twins – they were the only family members I ever saw filed together). So you don’t have to find just one family – you have to find each family member separately, and as you’ll see, that is easier said than done.

The first level of organization in this Census is statistical district – however, statistical districts encompass entire districts of the city. I was examining the records for one of the smaller districts, geographically speaking, and it still took hours upon hours to get through it – and then just the men.

Because that’s the next level of organization – by gender. Though this isn’t foolproof – I saw a few women interspersed with the men, so mistakes were made when everything was being filed.

Next up – ethnicity. While this might narrow the field if you’re looking for someone who was a member of a minority group, if you’re looking for a Latvian, this doesn’t narrow the field very much. Also take care here if a family had a mixed marriage – there isn’t any consistency as to whether a child is filed under their mother’s or father’s ethnicity.

After these three levels of organization, then it becomes trickier. People born in Rīga are in separate files from people who were not born in Rīga, and then the Rīga-born folks are separated further by rough age groups – though these are very rough, so don’t rely on them. People who are not born in Rīga are filed in groups according to the regions they were born in – but again, no hard and fast rules. Generally speaking, people born in Latgale were grouped together – but also interspersed with people who were born in Russia. Most people born in Zemgale were filed together, but there is some crossover with Kurzeme. Vidzeme districts are all mixed together, and sometimes also grouped with people born in Estonia or Russia. And then if you don’t know where someone was born, and you were relying on the census to tell you – well, you’ve got a long road ahead of you.

And that is just about it when it comes to organization. No alphabetical order. No order by street names and numbers. All the typical things you rely on in a census – they do not apply here. I don’t know why they were arranged like this or who did it – though given the state of the folders that hold the documents, I’m guessing not long after they were created, so probably by the statistical office – but this is how they are. For now, at least.

I desperately want to reorganize these documents, so that people can access them in an effective manner, because these census entries provide a great deal of information, if you can finally find what you’re looking for. But the archives are unlikely to do it themselves – like cultural organizations the world over, they are strapped for cash and have so many projects that demand their attention first over such things like reorganizing document collections.

I’ve toyed with the idea of asking them if I could do it. I’m not sure if they’d let me, but it would be worth asking. But it would demand a great deal of time on my part, and I can’t afford to do that right now, as I have paying work to focus on, as well as plenty of other volunteer tasks that I undertake. The archives certainly couldn’t afford it either. But perhaps if enough people are interested in seeing this done, we could establish a fund that provides a certain amount of remuneration – either for me or for someone else – to make it happen.

Is anyone interested in making it happen? It would be so useful for future researchers, and, thinking ahead to when they eventually do digitize these collections, it would help to have them organized in a coherent manner so organizing and publishing the digitized files would be a piece of cake.

4 comments to A Needle In A Haystack: Rīga Census Records

  • NikiMwa

    How many document/sheets are we talking about?

  • Antra

    Well, Rīga had somewhere around 375,000 residents at that time, so probably somewhere in the realm of about 375,000 sheets in total. Though I probably only looked through about 5000-8000 of them, since I was looking for male Latvians in one of the smaller districts.

  • I would be interested in helping with a fund to organise and digitise Latvian records, but I wouldn’t be able to contribute a very significant amount… Maybe if there was enough interest a kick-starter would be appropriate?

  • Or if the records were digitised, we could “crowd source” the job of indexing them in alphabetical order digitally. If they are legible enough I’d be willing to help with that.

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