It is such a boon to be able to look at indexed census records online! At the risk of sounding like an ancient, I must tell you that I well remember the period before there were indexes to many of the available federal population censuses. In order to find a family, you had to know the state and county where they lived, get your hands on the microfilm, and crank away on the reader with pad and pencil at the ready. I spent many a lunch hour at the library (where I worked) peering at borrowed film in just this way.
Then more printed indexes became available, thanks to Accelerated Indexing System (AIS) and others, and, despite their much publicized error rate, these did make it easier to find most names. I still have photocopied pages of some of those indexes, which come in handy when I am looking at census records for years not yet indexed online by Heritage Quest. (Of course I can also go the the local Family History Center and tap into Ancestry's indexes at no charge.)
A reminder for beginners: Heritage Quest's offerings are available through the local public library. To sign on via the library's own site at home, all you need is your library card number. Go to sonomalibrary.org
There are still gaps and errors in these indexes, of course. The enumerators misspelled names, or wrote so poorly that interpretation is a guessing game, and some pages are so faded it is virtually impossible to read anything on them. But, despite the problems, today's family historian has a far easier time of it than he or she did in the so-called good old days.
And there are some ways around the problems you come up against in searching census records.
Genealogical and historical societies have, in some cases, created indexes for their counties. Others have used tax lists to help re-create missing census records. Sources for many of these may be found at the USGenWeb.org site online. Another source for links to censuses, their substitutes, and many other county-based materials, is the website linkpendium.com. Also, Cyndislist.com is a treasure trove of links to useful websites. Each of these three is worth checking for its unique offerings. (Duplicates and cross-references abound, of course.)
In 2001, The LDS's own Family History Library in Salt Lake City came out with an every-name index for the 1880 census, on a set of CDs. Soon thereafter, it was put online at their familysearch.org site.This index, as you probably know, includes much more than just the name of head of household – it lists every person in each dwelling, and shows his/her age, race, and place of birth. Besides that, it allows for non-exact searches, handy if you don't know how great-grandpa's German-sounding surname might have been spelled by the census-taker. In fact this index is so thorough you may be tempted to stop there, instead of going to the original record. [My advice: don't-- you might miss something important]
Now Heritage Quest is indexing the 1880 census as well. To see which states have been completed, click on the nearly hidden "what's new" button after you sign in and reach the "Census Search" page. [My wish is for Heritage Quest to index the 1850 census, the first to show place of birth.]
Once you have found the record you are seeking, there is much to be done. Printing out the filmed image is a good idea. You may want to copy preceding and succeeding pages, too, depending on the situation. Be sure that complete information as to place, date of enumeration, etc appears on the page itself, or, if anything is missing or unclear, make notes on the printout. For ease in filing and retrieving, I put across the top: [Year, State, County] followed by the primary surname found (there may be others on the page, of course).
Once you have the printed out sheet in hand, it is time for what serious researchers call "analysis." There are more clues than you might think on a straightforward census page!
More about that next time.