Sometimes I marvel at the amount of data floating around "out there." Any stranger who knows where to look can discover where I live (and have lived), my telephone number, my age, and the names of members in my family. And that's just the beginning.
Have you ever wondered how different things were in the past?
The Stockton-San Joaquin County Library recently gave the Museum a collection of official records spanning the years 1866 to 1946 that suggests at least some similarities. Starting in 1866, California state law required all county clerks to keep meticulous records of registered voters. At the beginning, they entered these names into enormous bound volumes known as Great Registers, and they compiled new versions every few years to keep their records current.
Here's one way those volumes could be used. Let's say you're a San Joaquin County election official in 1880. A man who looks like a farmer comes in wearing bib overalls and claiming to be a registered voter from Tulare Township. He wants to cast his ballot (women couldn't vote then). He doesn't have a driver's license (automobiles didn't exist yet), and there are no official personal ID cards. So how do you know this person is who he claims to be? You consult the Great Register to see whether the data the man supposedly offered when he registered meshes with the story he currently tells.
This data can be a goldmine. Consider one San Joaquin County resident named Ole Bolsted. The Great Register for 1896 says he was twenty-nine years old in that year and that he lived at Number 2, East Weber Avenue, in Room 5, on the second floor of the "Russ House." It also records that he was five feet eleven inches tall; had a light complexion, blue eyes, and light brown hair; and was able to read English, write his own name, and mark an election ballot. According to the Great Register, he worked as a bartender in 1896, was born in Norway (so he probably spoke with an accent), and became a naturalized U.S. citizen on August 28, 1892, in San Joaquin County. In addition, he had a scar on his forehead.
Bolsted may have left other footprints, as well, especially if he married, paid taxes, ran for public office, committed a crime, had children, started a business, bought real estate, divorced, joined the army or navy, died and was buried in San Joaquin County, or did anything else the law required him to record or offered somebody else a compelling reason to write down.
That's a lot of potential detail, not all of which may have survived.
I won't pretend that the amount of personal data floating around in those pre-Internet days matches the level accessible at present. Nor will I claim it could be found as easily. But I am willing to venture that certain forces leading in that direction were already well in place by 1896—and that the Great Register can be seen as a significant landmark in that process.
So what did Bolsted and others of his time think about these things? I honestly have no idea. But I do know that nowadays genealogists and other students of the past have reason to rejoice, not only for the survival of such material but also for the forces that brought it into existence.