Most-Wired Generation Meets Greatest Generation in Census Frenzy

Americans have downloaded 134 million document images from the 1940 census since individual records were released April 2. That’s 2 million more images than the number of Americans who were alive when the census was taken 72 years ago.

The decennial headcount, taken in the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression and shortly before the U.S. entered World War II, has been pure gold for genealogy buffs seeking to flesh out information about their ancestors.

“It has universal appeal,” said Daniel Jones, vice president of content strategy and acquisition for Ancestry.com (ACOM), an online family history provider. “It’s really on the cusp of a historical period.”

The 1940 census numbers, available on the National Archives website, include names, ages, race, family relationships, education, birthplace, 1935 residence, employment and income. The information, the largest collection of data about individuals ever released by the Census Bureau, was suppressed for 72 years for privacy reasons.

About 21 million people who were counted in the 1940 tally, or one in 15 Americans, are still alive. The website is receiving about 40 million hits per day, said Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives.

Tracking Down

Tracking down people from the 1940 census, alive or dead, takes some perseverance. The records aren’t searchable by name. They consist of scanned images of handwritten documents, meaning the individual information has to be obtained by browsing through geographic locations, then through pages of records, some of which were written by enumerators with dubious penmanship.

Provo, Utah-based Ancestry.com, which has 1.7 million paying subscribers, began preparing to digitize the records about two years ago, Jones said. The website has 8 billion genealogical records online, including data from every decennial census dating to 1790, when the first headcount was taken.

The company has joined with the Minnesota Population Center to transcribe approximately 7.8 billion keystrokes from the 1940 data. Researchers at the center, operated by the University of Minnesota, hope to link mortality and demographic data to the more than seven-decade-old headcount to study the impact of earnings, education and family on health.

‘Massively Important’

“This is a massively important building block,” Jones said.

The project is expected to be duplicated by a joint venture involving the National Archives; FamilySearch, a free online genealogy service provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; and Archives.com, a website owned by Inflection, a privately held company based in Redwood City, California. The organizations are attempting to get 300,000 volunteers to enter the data manually.

FamilySearch says about 113,000 volunteers have already indexed 12.3 million names, spurred by contests to win an Amazon Kindle Fire or Apple iPad. The volunteers have completed 75 percent or more of the records for four states, and 1940 records for the entire state of Delaware are available.

The 134 million census document images downloaded from the National Archives’ website represent only part of the online activity surrounding the release of individual census records.

Cooper, the archives spokeswoman, said the archives have delivered more than 100 terabytes of 1940 census data since April 2. One terabyte is 1 trillion bytes, or enough to store almost half the data collected by the U.S. Library of Congress.

The Archives aren’t the only government site receiving traffic. Robert Bernstein, a spokesman for the U.S. Census Bureau, said the agency’s website on the 1940 count has received 1.2 million hits and accounted for 11 percent of all page views on the census.gov website. The release increased the Census Bureau’s web traffic by 60 percent during the week of April 2, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Frank Bass in New York at fbass1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark McQuillan in Washington at mmcquillan@bloomberg.net

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