Census, Archives face 'tsunami' of interest in 1940 census data

Thursday - 4/5/2012, 9:49pm EDT

Rebecca Warlow, the supervisor for digitization and description, NARA

Download mp3

Franklin Roosevelt was the President. Katharine Hepbburn was sizzling in "The Philadelphia Story" on the silver screen. Radio was still the most popular form of mass communication and Social Security was some newfangled government program.

You might think the year 1940 is firmly ensconced in the history books. But the Census Bureau, which earlier this week released data from that year's census online, has brought it into the digital age.

The Census Bureau's release of data from the 1940 census drew overwhelming numbers of visitors to its website. It's the first time census information has been posted online for researchers to use all over the world.

Rebecca Warlow, the supervisor for digitization and description at the National Archives and Records Administration, told In Depth with Francis Rose the digitization process was a painstaking process — the 1940 census is made up almost entirely of hand-written records.

Back in 1940, about 120,000 census-takers, called enumerators, spread out across the U.S. going door-to-door to interview families.

The original paper records were eventually transferred to microfilm a few years later. Then, in 2009, NARA began converting the microfilm records to digital images.

"And that's what people are able to search today online," Warlow said.

A 'tsunami' of interest

The Census website received 37 million hits in the few hours after the data was first posted, according to the Associated Press. "We expected a flood, and we got a tsunami," a note posted on NARA's website said.

So what explains the massive interest in records collected more than 70 years ago?

"I think people just have a natural interest in knowing more about their family members," Warlow said. "And whether those family members are still living or family members that passed away some time ago, you can look at the census and find things out about them in a particular point in time."

The interest in genealogy sparked in part by the 1977 television miniseries, "Roots," has been bolstered by new technology, she added.

"I think once we moved into the Internet Age and it became much easier to start to find information, we've just seen interest in family history grow and grow," Warlow said.

NARA teamed with a private company Archives.com to design and build the project's website, and the site is hosted in Amazon's cloud.

"So, it's very different than coming into the National Archives and looking at rolls of microfilm," Warlow said. "It is a way to make things much more accessible."

RELATED LINKS:

Click here for more information about the 1940 census release.

1940 US census viewable online after near freeze