06 April 2012

The 1940 Census Is Here!..... Uh, Now What?

On Monday, April 2, the U.S. 1940 census was released to the public amid much anticipation. Old researchers and new hobbyists clamored for the records; some with immediate success, some not so much. Ancestry has announced that today by 2 p.m. Eastern Time, they expect to have every image of the 1940 census up and viewable. An amazing achievement that they should be lauded for accomplishing so quickly.

Now I'm going to be quite honest. I wasn't planning on blogging about the census. I figured there were so many sources, blogs, videos, chats, twitter feeds and Facebook pages, that I wouldn't be needed on the scene. I thought that I had only the information everyone else had and you didn't need a repeat at the end of the week. I was wrong. I didn't take into account the people whose foray into the genealogy field would start with this census. I didn't think that people researching a new database wouldn't know where to find information prior to it's release and couldn't make themselves prepared for its arrival. Volunteering my advice on Ancestry's Facebook page has allowed me to see my error. So many questions that many of us "Aces" had thought answered thoroughly beforehand are asked frequently. And the expectations of some have been dashed when they found that a simple search of a name wasn't going to bring them their answer. Again, those who had been feverishly pouring over blogs and videos (as well as remembering the release of previous censuses) were well aware that an index wouldn't be immediately available. Even today I see people ask why a search isn't giving a 1940 census hit at all........ and the question will be repeated for months to come I'm sure. So my intent today is not to reiterate everything to be found, but to link you to the place to find it. I'll also point out some broad strokes that will hopefully answer a few of the more frequently asked questions I've seen.

In the beginning.....
Officially, NARA is the holder of the census. If you don't know, NARA stands for National Archives and Records Administration. The nation's records of legal or historical importance are preserved by NARA. They have local offices in many areas for researchers, but they also have online options. Many of their records are also provided or indexed by genealogy sites like Ancestry.

What I learned:
  • The 72 year wait is a mandatory law enacted by Congress to protect the privacy of the citizens. Which is actually quite lucky considering that many states and countries require 100 years to pass before a record can be released.
  • Certain questions were asked to gauge internal migration and usefulness of public programs after the Depression. These questions can also help a researcher that has lost track of the family sometime around 1930-1935.
  • What all the questions asked and codes used mean. What do the numbers in the education column mean? What is the CCC and WPA? Find out in the FAQ on NARA's site.
  • This census was done door to door. If the enumerator missed someone on a street the first time, they listed the people they caught up with on the final pages of the district (so relatives houses not listed in order may be in the back). Also, people living in a hotel or trailer park were enumerated separately, which is helpful if your family member was in a moment of transition in 1940.
  • Two lines per page were chosen for extra questions that may lead to information for a lucky percentage of researchers. Why only two? Well, that way it was a random sampling of about 5% of the nation. A snapshot of the larger picture, if you will. I only hope to find a family member on one of those lines!

I learn by watching
Ancestry has always had a YouTube channel for it's instructional videos, and I've suggested them before. Now, with so much newness in the 1940 census, they've got a whole new batch of videos to explain the process in which the census will be indexed and how you can use it prior to the index being completed.

What I learned:
  • How to use the new viewer on Ancestry.
  • How to navigate a search without an index.
A quick read can help
Ancestry also has a Sticky Notes blog that has always been helpful, even more now that the census is available. Juliana has been giving her own personal testimony on census searching as well as a few hints even I didn't consider.

What I learned:
  • print out or screen capture the map and make it a diagram to more clearly delineate the ED I'm looking in and easily determine if a street was skipped.
  • Inverse the colors on the census so that the writing is white (and possibly more legible)
As I said earlier, there are hundreds of blogs to peruse. Some of my favorites are Olive Tree Genealogy, Genea-Musings, Archives.com, and FamilySearch. This is just a handful of the ones I keep a serious eye on for this particular topic. There are literally thousands of blogs, so finding information is not as hard as sifting through it.

And I've said it before, but I feel the need to say it again: You may need some knowledge of world, or at least local, history. If you love family history, but abhor the dry world history that your family lived and died creating, then you will stunt the growth of your own research before you even start. And if you have no intent to familiarise yourself with even a brief historical sketch of the time you are researching, then you have picked the wrong "hobby", my love, and should choose something else to spend your time on. It may sound harsh, but it is true. Without knowing where the world has been, you won't know where your family is going.

"I'd rather wait for a search by name feature, tyvm!"
To be honest, I think that's a nonsense idea. If you don't know exactly where your family was from, it is difficult. I have searched at least five enumeration districts so far for my paternal grandmother and still no luck. On the other hand, I expanded my search for my grandfather to include a little town I had a faint remembrance of hearing in passing with family. And there he was on page 14 out of 20. While that's the only direct link find, I was able to locate several cousins and soon-to-be kin in the towns and counties in which the family seemed to flourish. It could take months for an index to be complete, so small searches of page by page in between your regular research is something that could help break a few barriers in the meantime; even if they aren't exactly the line you wanted. Use city directories and other records from prior to the 1940's to narrow your research. It can be daunting, but its immeasurably easier for this census than any other. And for those of you who have never ventured outside of the Internet and your own home for research, take this as a bit of practice for that first time you will have to search a physical index in some corner of an archive. And no matter how much is found online, my dearest Reader, you will eventually have to journey to a far flung library and talk to a blue-haired lady who will be very shocked you've gotten this far without knowing how to use a projector (or why they get so upset when you mention how much easier your Internet searches have been in comparison). Not everything we want will pop up in a search bar for us, even though sites like My Heritage, Ancestry and FamilySearch are trying to make it so.

As of 8 p.m. last night, when I finished up this post, Ancestry had announced two states were ready for name searches: Nevada and Delaware. A great start, but remember, it'll take some time for all of them to go up and hints to start attaching. I'll add updates as I see them.

Want to help create the searchable index? Several societies, companies and sites are indexing and looking for volunteers. Your society members can become volunteers and key a few pages for the community. You never know, you might see a relative on your journey! I've volunteered some of my scant free time to index with  FamilySearch.org. Ancestry isn't using volunteers, but an actual company to make their index. However, their World Archives Project is available for other projects (which are important to our communal history as well). So don't just stop with the 1940 census! Improve your genealogical karma and become a volunteer keyer today; every record is precious.

-And with that, back to the salt mines

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