Thursday, March 29, 2012

At Long Last

Photo of downtown Birmingham, 19403rd Avenue North, Birmingham, Alabama, c1940
Courtesy of the Archives Department, Central Library

Genealogists the world over have been waiting patiently for April 2, 2012. On this date, the 1940 Federal Census will be released to the public. But wait, didn’t we just take a census and aren’t we seeing articles and news reports about those statistics? Don’t we already have access to the 1940 Census? The answer is yes and no. Yes, we do have access to all of the statistical data and have had for decades. No, we do not have access to the personal information that is so prized by family historians. That type of information (name, age, income, occupation, etc.) is kept confidential for 72 years by federal law. Well, at long last the 72 year waiting period is over and genealogists will have another census to study and mine for information about their ancestors.

The 1940 census is unique is several respects. It is the first census to be released electronically. The census will be available free, to one and all, on the website of the National Archives and Records Administration beginning at 9:00 a.m. EDT on April 2. Another aspect of the 1940 census is that it has no index. Once the images are available, sites such as Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org will immediately begin loading the pages and amassing a small army of volunteers to create an index. FamilySearch.org anticipates having every name (there are approximately 132 million of them) indexed by the end of the year. Statistical sampling was employed on a census for the first time in 1940. This means that approximately 5% of the population was asked an additional 15 questions. If your ancestors are among that 5% then this census will be especially rewarding.

The standard questions about age, race, and marital status were asked in 1940. However, questions about income and employment dominate the census. For a nation still reeling from the Great Depression, the census was an important tool for gathering information about if and where people worked, how much money they made, and if they were doing the type of work for which they had been trained. There are a few questions we’ll never know the answer to, however. Questions about a person’s hair color, height, and dog ownership, were considered but, ultimately, rejected.

If you’re interested in learning more about the 1940 Census, check out our subject guide with lots of fun and helpful links. For even more information, call the Southern History Department of the Central Library at 205-226-3665 to register for our upcoming class, 40 Is the New 30: Using the 1940 Census. We still have a few spots left in this one hour class scheduled for April 21, 2012, at 10:00 a.m. in the Southern History Department. The cost for the class is $5.00.

Submitted by M.B. Newbill
Southern History Department
Central Library

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