1940 census data release excites genealogists

8:02 AM, Apr 3, 2012   |    comments
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Tampa, Florida - In April of 1940, 120,000 census takers fanned out across the country to document changes in the U.S. population.  They did it by asking people dozens of questions.

"What kind of work did your husband do on his last job?" an enumerator asks a woman in a black-and-white informational film from the day.

While general census information from 1940 has always been available, all those handwritten reports have been kept under wraps for 72 years. That is until today.

"It's Christmas and everything else rolled into one," explains USF Librarian and genealogy expert Drew Smith. He and others like him across the country have been waiting for this day.  On Monday morning, the National Archives and Records Administration not only released the 1940 Census records, but put them on the Internet for anyone to use for free.

For people hungry for information about their family's history, the data's delicious. "Maybe you've always had questions about your family, that if you could just look at that 1940 census, it would answer those questions," explains Smith. "So it's like that treasure box, you couldn't find the key to."

On Monday, it appeared so many people were using the website it was working very slowly, if at all. Ancestry.com is also providing some of the same data.

For families and historians the information on the hand-written forms can paint a picture of the past. Just to give you an idea of how things have changed over the years, back in 1940 there were only 48 stars on the American flag, the median income was less than a thousand dollars a year and if you lived in the country, a flush toilet was a luxury.

To search the website now, you need an address or neighborhood, but a massive indexing effort underway by volunteers should eventually make name searches possible.

Tampa Bay is home to the state's oldest genealogy group. For more information on the Florida Genealogical Society, their meetings and speakers, click here.

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