The 1940 Census Release: American History Moves Up a Decade

For those of us historians who work in the early twentieth century, one of the major sources of our work (and indeed a lot of what we’ve done here at SOCHA) are public records.  We heavily depend on things like marriage and death certificates, government documents, voter registration lists, and, most especially, census schedules.  As mandated by the Constitution, every ten years, the government is required to count its population.  What ensues is a series of snapshots of the population at that moment in time, recording names, addresses, places of origin, occupations, literacy and work status, and various other tidbits of information that we as historians can use as launching points for our research.

While the United States Bureau of the Census produces raw statistical data on the findings of the census in the immediate aftermath of the enumeration, specific, personal information (basically, the individual schedules recorded by enumerators) is kept under confidential seal for a period of 72 years.  For historians, this means there’s an artificial barrier on how far we can go with this vital information.  With the exception of the 1890 census (which was almost entirely destroyed in a fire), we’ve been able to utilize federal census information going all the way back to the first count, in 1790.  With the advent of the internet, it’s become easier than ever to conveniently search for detailed, personal information and compile large amounts of material in relatively little time from fifteen of the twenty-three censuses.

Yet for the last ten years, we’ve been stuck at the composite picture of the United States as it was in 1930, in the early throes of the Great Depression, and the immediate aftermath of significant restrictions on immigration.  Monday, however, that picture changed quite a bit, as the National Archives released the records for the 1940 census, bringing us past the Depression and to the brink of the Second World War.

The release date was an interesting day, to say the least.  The record set covers some 132 million people, 3.8 million pages of records, coming in at about 18 terabytes of digital data (and, if you’re truly interested, it comes out to 4646 reels of microfilm, which would set you back a cool $580,750).  This was all released as raw image files, with no indexing done aside from the separation of schedules by their enumeration districts.  That’s where the public comes in.

After the unveiling at 9AM EDT, a mad flurry of researchers and volunteers from throughout the country flocked to the official website to begin downloading and indexing millions of pages worth of census schedules, many of them working in conjunction with FamilySearch.org, a rather comprehensive genealogy website operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  Immediately, all of the major genealogy sites started a de facto horse race to get files downloaded, indexed, and uploaded to their sites, a process estimated to last well into the summer.

By noon, the website had received almost 23 million hits, and was almost immediately rendered useless.  (According to the genealogy blog Ancestry Insider, the NARA’s contract with webhost Archives.com called for accessibility for 10 million hits and 25,000 concurrent users for the release date, with overflow handled by Amazon.com).  I spent all day furiously attempting to download several enumeration districts I was interested in perusing, and in several hours of work, somehow managed to download exactly one district, some 29 pages covering several blocks in midtown Manhattan.  By the late afternoon, it was impossible to get even a preview image to load.  By all accounts, the release was a general failure, with the demand far outweighing the anticipated threshold of interest.

Clearly, the release of the 1940 census was something anticipated by many, and it will be interesting to watch as the millions of schedules are indexed state-by-state in the coming months.  Slowly, we will see a more personal picture evolve out of this rich archive, indeed a much more personal picture than we’ve seen out of census documents in quite some time.  It is estimated over 20 million people who appear in these documents are still alive today.

For us here at SOCHA, it means we will be able to move a lot of our stories ten years into the future, and opens up a number of new avenues for research.  I’m excited to see where these documents will take us, and how we will be able to better tell the story of Orthodoxy in America as a result.

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