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Census Bureau Opens Website for Release of 1940 Census Data

See video at bottom of news report• 1940 Census Release Is 'Super Bowl For Genealogists' says NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’

• Audio for this story from All Things Considered will be available at approx. 7:00 p.m. ET, March 30, 2012

• Video below about 1940 Census

By NPR Staff

Census Bureau Launches Interactive 1940 Census Web Page

In anticipation of the April 2 release of 1940 Census records from the National Archives, the U.S. Census Bureau is launching a new page on its website. Strict confidentiality laws ensure that census records are only unsealed after 72 years have passed, so genealogists, historians and researchers have waited with great eagerness for this release.

The site features an interactive overview of the 1940 Census, including questions asked on the census form, history facts, blogs, a 1940 Census video, pictures and a countdown clock. From the site, users will also find a direct link to the National Archives website for looking up individual 1940 Census records.

In addition, there is a newly released infographic providing a rich visual depiction of how characteristics of the U.S. population have changed between 1940 and 2010.

This is the first in a series of three infographics that will explore topics related to the 1940 Census.

For more information, visit http://www.census.gov/1940census. This site will be updated regularly with new interactive features in the days leading up to April 2.

March 30, 2012 - A sort of national treasure is scheduled to be revealed Monday: In April 1940, 120,000 census takers spread out across America to take an inventory of its residents. Now that the legally mandated 72 years have passed, we finally get to see the names, addresses, jobs and salaries of all the people who were counted.

This lifting of the veil takes place every 10 years, but William Maury, chief historian at the U.S. Census Bureau, says this census offers some particularly interesting information.

"The 1940 census was very close to the end of the Depression, but it was also right at the beginning of all the uncertainties associated with World War II," Maury says. "The census itself tells terrific stories about what we were as a people and what we are as a people now."

So what kind of country was this in 1940? As a newsreel from time explains, it consisted of more than 130 million people, 33 million homes and 7 million farms. Jeanne Bloom of the Chicago Genealogical Society describes the release of all those people's information as "a huge event."

"It's kind of like the Super Bowl for genealogists," says Bloom, who does detective work for the U.S. Army trying to trace family records. "I locate living family members of soldiers that were missing in action during World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam [and] whose remains were never recovered, identified and returned to the family."

Once it's released the 1940 census data could help her track those families down. But she's also interested in the data for more personal reasons — the 1940 census is the first census her mother would have appeared in.

"She was born after the 1930 census, so I'm going to be able to see her family on the farm in rural Kansas with what her brothers and sisters are doing," Bloom says.

'Gold Nuggets' Of American History

Genealogists, and the millions of Americans for whom genealogy is a hobby, speak of "seeing" people in the census. St. Louis genealogist Ann Fleming puts it this way: "I always think of the census as the border of the family jigsaw puzzle. And you put this border together and then you fill in other information in the center. But a lot of good starting points come from the census records."

This year, for the first time, the National Archives will be putting the entire 1940 census online. That makes life a lot easier for Jamesetta Hammons of The California African American Genealogical Society. She recalls waiting for the release of details from the 1920 census 20 years ago.

"I drove to Laguna Niguel, [Calif.,] where the National Archives [Pacific Region] branch is located ... and I slept in my car in the rain so that I could be the first in line to have access," she says. "Someone jumped ahead of me. And so for the 1930 census, I was privileged to be the first in line and I was actually offered the opportunity to open the cabinets and pull out the drawers that held these gold nuggets for researchers."

Hammons says that, personally, she's curious to see where her parents and grandfather were living in 1940. The census also asked people where they were living on April 1, 1935 and if they lived on a farm, so its results will present a kind of picture in motion.

Not Quite A Gold Standard

But the accuracy of that picture is a whole other matter. With so much self-reported information, Census Bureau historian William Maury says the census isn't exactly a gold standard of historical data.

"You can say anything. You can say you're Chief Sitting Bull's son or something like that. You can come up with all kinds of things," Maury says. "When people call us, we just say, 'Well, this is what's on the record.'"

In other words, it's more like a self portrait than an objective picture of the nation.

"But if you take all the discreet parts of it and jumble them together," Maury says, "it's probably pretty accurate."

>> For updates, a transcript and more on this story go to NPR

>> Learn more about the 1940 U.S. census.

>> The entire 1940 census will be available online starting April 1.

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