1940 Census: Still Waiting to See the Records

Update 12 noon Tuesday (Census Release Day Two): Success! This morning before leaving for work, I successfully downloaded the 40 pages of census schedules that cover the North Side Chicago enumeration district where my dad lived in 1940. Still haven’t had a chance to look at them, though. The experience was a little odd: After seeing nothing happen all day yesterday and in fact late into the night, I stopped expecting the National Archives to deliver any records. Can’t wait to dig into them.

And speaking of the National Archives, its 1940 census site carries an acknowledgment that its performance has been less than ideal:

Thank you for your patience as we continue to address issues with the 1940 census web site. We have implemented changes so you can now view and download the census images. We are continuing to work on the site and expect to make further enhancements during the day on Tuesday, April 3rd.

One wonders what sort of battle-testing the census site got before it went live yesterday.

Update 12:40 p.m.: It’s official: the 1940 census release is a colossal big first-day dud—so far. If you’re one of the millions who have been trying to view census records, it’s been a frustrating few hours with the National Archives site grinding away and delivering mostly nothing. Here’s why, by way of the Los Angeles Times:

“In the first three hours, we had 22.5-million hits on the site,” said National Archives and Records Administration spokeswoman Susan Cooper. “We’re a victim of our own success.”

Cooper said the archives had anticipated significant interest in the public release of the census, the first time such information has been available online, but not quite as much as materialized.

“It’s frustrating and we share that frustration with the public,” Cooper said. She said some people are getting through on the website, but many are not. “We’re working as fast as we can to fix the problem.”

Update, 9:20 a.m.: Well, the census records are out there, but I guess the National Archives site is getting slammed. I’ve spent the last hour or so waiting for the schedules from one San Francisco enumeration district to appear. It’s like going back to the early days of dial-up 1200-baud modems.]

Original post: The National Archives is holding an early-morning party to celebrate the release of the 1940 census, under wraps for 72 years to maintain the confidentiality of the 132 million people counted that year. The official ceremony starts in Washington, D.C., at 8:30 a.m. EDT (5:30 a.m. PDT), and the archives’ 1940 census site will webcast the event live. The census data—3.8 million pages of schedules that 120,000 enumerators filled in by hand—will go live at 6 a.m. Bay Area time. Closer to home, the National Archives at San Francisco—located in San Bruno—will open at 7:30 a.m. and offer light refreshments for visitors who want to start browsing the census online.

1940 Census poster
The federal government's poster for the 1940 census carried more than a hint of patriotic appeal.

It’s a national holiday of sorts for historians and genealogy buffs. But if you’ve become accustomed to a tidy world of orderly databases and algorithms, you’re in for a challenge. There is no name index, yet, for the 1940 census. You won’t be able to plug your grandparents’ names into a search blank, hit enter, and arrive on their pre-World War II doorstep. To have a hope of finding them, you need to know where they lived in April 1940, when the census was taken. That’s because the data is organized by geography—specifically, by the tens of thousands of enumeration districts into which census officials divided the country.

If you don’t know a family member’s exact address, try city directories if you can find them. The Internet Archive has scanned lots of them, and if you’re looking for family in San Francisco, you could be in luck. The archive includes the 1940 edition of Polk’s Crocker-Langley San Francisco City Directory as well as telephone books from the era (for instance, the 1938 book for San Francisco and other Bay Area counties.

If you know where a family member lived or can ferret them out, then you can go to the next step: matching addresses with enumeration districts (or EDs, as their called in the trade). The National Archives has a page on finding aids, including enumeration district maps. The page points to an external site, the Unified 1940 Census ED Finder, as the authoritative source for matching addresses and enumeration districts.

The archivists who work with this information acknowledge that attempting to find people this way is like looking for a tiny, sharp, sewing-related instrument in a heap of dry grassy cattle fodder. The task will get easier over time as a volunteer indexing effort called the 1940 Census Community Project works on databasing all the information in the millions of census documents. Anyone can participate—it’s a matter of downloading the indexing software (more information here). If you’ve ever wanted to paw through piles of old (digitized) documents and copy them verbatim into an online form, this is the project for you. The result will be a godsend, eventually, for genealogists. (If you spend any time searching through previously databased census data, though, you’ll find that indexing does not guarantee you’ll connect with people you’re looking. You’ll find lots of cases where long-ago census enumerators were apparently baffled by unfamiliar names and misspelled them. A one-letter difference in a name can mean that you’ll miss your search target completely.)

Here’s a little test I’ve set myself for later in the day to see how hard it will really be to use the needle-in-a-haystack method of looking for 1940 Americans: Our current governor, Jerry Brown, was a toddler at the time of the 1940 census. He lived with his mom and dad (also a future governor) in San Francisco somewhere. The challenge is to find the Brown family in the 1940 census and post their page from the census book. We’ll see how hard it is.

Some U.S. census resources to aid in your searches (or to ponder while you wait for document images to download):

And finally: The National Archives video introduction to the 1940 census:

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Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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