National Archives hosts an event for the “unveiling” of the records
The U.S. Census “gives a gift to the nation twice,” remarked Robert Groves, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, at the unveiling of the 1940 Census records yesterday at the National Archives in Washington D.C. The first gift is of overall aggregations of data, released shortly after the count is done. The second gift is delayed for 72 years to protect privacy, and involves the release of the actual forms filled out by individuals and enumerators. The 1940 forms were released yesterday, April 2, 2012.
For the first time, researchers are able to search and view these records online from the moment they are released. A partnership between Archives.com and the National Archives has resulted in a digital archive of 3.85 million records, scanned from microfilm and searchable by census enumeration district. Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero and Robert Groves demonstrated a typical search as the data went live, and experienced a long wait for the scanned images to download as they were joined by researchers around the world eager to explore the newly available records. Archives.com plans to release data on site visits soon.
The records are now only searchable by census enumeration district. However, within six to nine months, a host of volunteers will have completed a name index, allowing researchers to completely bypass the enumeration districts. FamilySearch.org is coordinating the volunteer effort, and claims that over 100,000 volunteers have already stepped forward for this massive undertaking, including the members of 612 genealogical societies. The coordinators of this effort hope to ultimately crowdsource the work to 300,000 volunteers. Volunteers can sign up and receive documents online.
David Sicilia, professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park , described the importance of these records for historians who want to look at “individual tiles in the mosaic.” Economic historians will have a better view of individual debt, including data linked to particular lending institutions. Historians of technology will have access to information about which households had radios and flush toilets, and will be able to cross-tabulate this data with data on race, immigration status, and so on. In a conversation after the event, Sicilia pointed out that the effectiveness of the New Deal is back in the public discourse, and historians will be able to use these records to bolster previous arguments or puncture myths. The newly available records, he continued, open up windows on everything from gender relations to race relations to economic activity.
Remarking on the release of the records via email, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history professor Margo Anderson, author of The American Census: A Social History and co-editor of Encyclopedia of the U.S. Census, emphasized that the 1940 Census was enhanced to capture the “effect of the Great Depression on ordinary people.” This was especially evident in how the government “added new questions on income and economic situation, added a housing census, and introduced probability sampling.” She also pointed out that the 1940 Census provides a historically significant snapshot of the Japanese American community just prior to internment.
The public-private partnerships and crowdsourcing involved in the release of this data clearly illustrate a trend toward broader involvement in the historical enterprise, and raises questions of where historians fit into projects of this sort. In a conversation after the event, John Spottiswood of Archives.com addressed issues the AHA has been raising regarding careers for historians outside the academy. He sees opportunities for trained historians who can identify archival collections, perceive how they are important, and guide the indexing process. Further, he sees a need for historians who can work with community stakeholders who have an interest in the preservation and dissemination of collections. Archives.com, for example, is working with Asian American associations on materials related to the Angel Island immigration facility in California. This sort of work will clearly require historians who are comfortable working both with information technology and the public.
The 1940 Census is online now at 1940census.archives.gov. The National Archives will be holding sessions on searching the data at locations throughout the country—see the Genealogy Workshops page online for more details. Researchers are using the Twitter hashtag #1940census to share research tips and discoveries.