The federal government unlocked a treasure trove of U.S. history Monday, allowing researchers, genealogists and the public free online access to detailed information from the 1940 census.
Every 10 years, a decennial census becomes public, once a legally required 72-year waiting period has elapsed. But this one is different, officials say, not least because it's the first time the records have been made available online.
“There's a little more excitement this time because it is being released online and it's immediately available to people,” said Rebecca Warlow, 1940 census project manager at the National Archives and Records Administration. “Anybody with Internet access can sit with their PC or desktop and search to their heart's content.”
About 21 million Americans of the 132.2 million counted in 1940 are still alive, census officials say.
The 1940 census may also be of special interest to many because it was taken as the country was coming out of the Depression, a tumultuous era with resonance these days as the U.S. recovers from another time of economic hardship.
The information being released includes people's names, ages, addresses, marital status and number of children. It also includes occupations and, for a sample of respondents, how much they earned.
The site will not be searchable by names, but those looking for relatives, or themselves, can plug in an address or approximate location to find the right “enumeration district” – the area a census taker covered – to start their search.
Then, armed with the district's number, researchers can locate and browse the scanned images of the logs handwritten by the census workers to find the names and addresses they are seeking. The page images can also be downloaded and shared via social media.
The website is: www.1940census.archives.gov.