Friday, March 30, 2012

1940 Census - Once in a Lifetime

Something is about to take place that only happens once and takes 72 years, truly a "once in a lifetime event." In just a few days, on April 2nd of 2012, the individual family records of the 1940 census will be unveiled and made available to the public. It will also be the first census to go almost immediately into digital format.

Genealogists spend a lot of time gathering vital records about our ancestors. This includes census data which often forms a foundation of knowledge about our family history. In some cases, the only records we have are from the census. Census data, though not actually a vital record, offers a great deal of insite into an individual's situation. In addition to the usual information, such as where they lived and the names and ages of those that made up that household, census records can also tell us about immigration dates, military service, occupation and land ownership. The census record also has its limitations. It is a snapshot and is only taken once every 10 years. Since a lot can happen in 10 years, its value must be put in that context.

For me, the census has been a reliable starting point in researching any particular branch of my family. Part of the reason for this is its availability in digital form. It may take a while to find a family but once I do, I only takes a few minutes to get a sense of that families situation over a number of decades. Census information will often open doors to other finds. It might lead me to a place, where upon further research, I will find other nuggets of information about that branch of the family. Sometimes, research leads to so much additional information that the census record ends up becoming just another data point. Other times, no other information is found and in those cases, the census record becomes even more precious.

Census records can also contain errors (usually with age and birth dates). Getting three or four census records of a particular family will show any discrepancies. Having a 30 or 40 year record of a family will also help you come to a consensus on what parts of the record are correct and what parts are not. I have also found that census records, on occasion, can help you personalize an individual. For example, seeing my great-grandfather (Frederick) listed as Freddie when he was a child, helps to humanize both him and his parents. The variations on names and also information on occupations can help you get closer to those ancestor's everyday lives.

Census "Tabluators" working on the 1940 United States Census

For me, the census has been a window to my past. It often provides a starting point and sometimes a road map to more information. In the process, I have accumulated around 400 census records covering about 30 family names. A few of these go back to colonial times but the vast majority are from the period of 1860 - 1930. In those years, the census data offered a variety of detailed information and from what I have read, 1940 will offer one of the most detailed census records yet. In addition to the normal data, the records will show residency in 1935, detailed occupation data, income data, military service and other information (over 35 columns of information). The aim of the 1940 census was to try and get a sense of the state of the citizenry after a turbulent time. With the depression waining, the government was especially interested in collecting data on employment, population movement and assistance programs.

I have been eagerly waiting for April and the months that will follow (as the information becomes available) and look forward to a "flurry of activity" as I add another decade of census data to my database and learn more about the family.

Additional Reading:
Genealogy and the Internet
New Discoveries are Delightful
The Flow of Information

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