It's like history has come to life for genealogists, researchers and others who have eagerly awaited Monday's release of individuals' responses on the 1940 census, being made public for the first time.
The National Archives and Records Administration released the 1940 census at 9 a.m. on its website, unveiling a treasure trove of information available to the public for free about people of that era: their names, addresses, who they lived with, their occupations, their levels of education and more. The individual responses, by law, have been kept under wraps for 72 years.
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"In genealogy, we look forward to the release of every census like nothing else," said Dan Jones, vice president of content, strategy and acquisition at Ancestry.com, which calls itself the "world's largest online family history resource."
Ancestry.com will make the 1940 census records available to the public as well -- free of charge until December 2013 -- and will index the information in more ways -- such as by name -- than will be available on the National Archives site, which archives officials confirmed.
"The 1940 census is really important," said Joysetta Pearse of Freeport, president of the Genealogy Federation of Long Island, "because now we have a whole level, almost another generation. We get a little closer to people who are living now."
And that, said Pearse, would probably help people researching their family roots who are hampered by scant knowledge of their background. "A lot of times, people can't name their grandparents," said Pearse, who along with her husband, Julius, co-founded the African Atlantic Genealogical Society, based at the African American Museum in Hempstead, where they provide consultations.
Jones said the 1940 census has relevance to people today. "I think about 87 percent of Americans will be able to find a relative, plus another 21 million still alive, that were on the 1940 census."
While statistical data from every decennial census are publicly rolled out starting a year or so after the census was conducted, the responses individuals give on census forms are kept confidential for 72 years. It's the result of an informal agreement in 1942 between the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Archives, which was codified into law in 1976.
Until now, the 1930 census was the most recent one available providing information on individuals.
The significance of the 1940 census, said Robert Bernstein, a spokesman for the bureau, is "you can find out about anybody who was alive in 1940 and find out exactly how their census form was filled out."
Researchers say the 1940 census is also significant for what it reveals about peoples' lives, recording their answers to 34 questions. And it was the first census to include a supplemental set of 16 questions filled out by 5 percent of the population to explore more fully the social, economic and education status of residents at that time.
"It's the first census [undertaken] as the Great Depressio was winding down," Bernstein said, "and not long before we entered World War II, so it's a momentous time in our history."
Government officials saw the 1940 census as an "opportunity to test the effectiveness of programs" implemented to counter problems wrought by the Great Depression, David Pemberton, a Census Bureau historian, said in a conference call with reporters last week. For instance, it asked about people's participation in Social Security, which had been established five years earlier.
The 1940 census also asked about occupation in a new way, questioning people about their "usual occupation," Pemberton said, a recognition that many had to make a living some other way after the Depression upended the job market.
The query about a person's level of education was new in 1940, too. Prior censuses asked only if people could read or write, Pemberton said.
It's questions like those that led Jones to call the 1940 census "the first modern census."
Many said census records are important to research.
"The census is like a foundation," said Christopher N. Matthews, an anthropology professor at Hofstra University. "It's just so wonderful to have access to it, to be able to kind of abstract from details the real patterns -- who was where and what they were doing, and how -- that can tell us these very specific, but also more broad, patterns for how communities formed."
In inviting the public to search census records on the National Archives website, Rebecca Warlow, 1940 census project manager, said the census "is not the end of the research, but the beginning point." She said the National Archives had 10 billion records available. "There are just hidden gems waiting for discovery."
What you need to know
WHERE The National Archives and Records Administration
WEBSITE 1940Census.archives.gov. No charge to the public.
HOW Users will be able to search by location. A guide to searches and a glossary to help researchers decode abbreviations used on the census forms can be found here: archives.gov/research/census/1940/finding-aids.html.
FORMAT The 1940 census is the first to be released online by the National Archives. Prior censuses have been put on microfilm and could only be viewed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., at its 12 satellite offices or at libraries.
ADDITIONAL INFO Questions about searching the database can be emailed to the archives at 1940Census@NARA.gov. Information can be found at census.gov/1940census.
OTHER SITES Ancestry.com will be uploading 1940 census records onto its website -- ancestry.com/1940 -- today. Data will be free to the public until December 2013.
The United States in 1940
NUMBER OF STATES 48
TOTAL POPULATION 132,164,569
MOST POPULOUS STATE New York, 13,479,142
LEAST POPULOUS STATE Nevada, 110,247
PER CAPITA DISPOSABLE PERSONAL INCOME (1996 DOLLARS) $5,912
NUMBER OF FARMS 6,102,000
% OF POPULATION WITH AT LEAST A BACHELOR'S DEGREE 5