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Find your roots

1940 census data and a wealth of information now online

Created date

June 19th, 2012

On April 2, the 1940 U.S. census was released to the public. For the first time in history, more than 3.8 million pages of digital information could be accessed online free of charge. Within hours, the website crashed as an estimated 50 million information seekers overwhelmed the system. More servers were added and the technology has been working just fine since then, but clearly, Americans are hungry for information about their past.

A window into the past

Releasing census records is an odd event for us; we spend all our lives keeping the data we collect confidential, says Dr. Robert Groves, director of the U.S. Census Bureau. However, once every ten years, we work with the National Archives and Records Administration to release 72-year-old census records that illuminate our past. We know how valuable these records are to genealogists and think of their release as another way to serve the American public. The 1940 census marks the 150th anniversary of the U.S. census. Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero says, It is very exciting for families across America to have access to this wealth of material about the 1930s. Many of us will be discovering relatives and older family members that we didn t know we had, picking up threads of information that we thought were lost, and opening a window into the past that until now has been obscured. We now have access to a street-level view of a country in the grips of a depression and on the brink of global war. The census is like a snapshot of the nation on a particular day in history. Besides name, age, relationship, and occupation, the 1940 census included questions about internal migration, employment status, years of education, and participation in the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, and National Youth Administration programs. Accessing this information is simple. The National Archives has an easy-to-follow online guide to help you search or browse the 1940 census. Simply visit Another website,, has more information about using the census. It also has information and training for people interested in volunteering for the 1940 U.S. Census Community Project which is indexing all of the census records and corresponding images. It s an easy, fun, and fascinating volunteer opportunity.

A treasure trove of free information

Beyond the census data, there s a wealth of free genealogy information available online; you just need to know where to look. The best place to start is the USGenWeb Project (, a veritable treasure trove of information with links to thousands of state and county websites. You can find old yearbooks, marriage and death certificates, even historical photographs of your street or town. All of this information has been collected and maintained by a dedicated army of volunteers. Our goal is to make as much genealogical information available as we can, says Sherri Bradley, the national coordinator of the USGenWeb Project. That grows by people s contributions. We have people who coordinate and submit files; we have transcribers who have access to records in their town. There are between 1,500 and 2,000 volunteers who coordinate the sites. It doesn t matter what age you are and you definitely don t need to have a background in genealogy to volunteer, says Bradley. As long as you can read and type, there are people available to help you get started. Everybody can help. For more information about volunteering, visit Author uses ' DNA ' to trace roots Of course, genealogy can be taken much further than printed records. Marie Rundquist, a DNA project manager and president of an information systems consulting firm, traced her own family history through DNA testing. She linked the results of that DNA testing to historical records and traced her ancestors from Nova Scotia in 1755 to exile in Maryland and later in Louisiana. She shares her quest in her bookCajun by Any Other Name: Recovering the Lost History of a Family and a People. In the book s introduction, R. Martin Guidry, president of the Acadian Memorial Foundation, articulates why genealogy continues to fascinate us. Knowing our heritage and history and what our ancestors experienced provides the foundation upon which we build our lives, writes Guidry, the unique torch that we pass to our children and grandchildren. Says Rundquist, Knowledge of self, knowing one s history and family connections are important to the development of identity, belonging, and interconnecting with others.