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If you've waited this long to look up information about the "Greatest Generation" and the members of your family who were in it, it appears that you will have to wait a little longer. The National Archives is attempting to activate more servers to handle the crush of people searching for information from the 1940 U.S. Census, which was made available online at 8 a.m. this morning.
The release of the complete 1940 Census data is a major event for several reasons, including the depth of information being released on individual households at a pivotal time in American history between the Depression and the American entrance into World War II.
"What we're going to have is 100 percent of the population," said Steven Ruggles, director of the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota. "We're going to have the actual data on each individual. It will be the largest dataset there has ever been for scientific research. It's the first time anybody has ever had data like this, so it's really very exciting."
Researchers, for example, can use the data to develop hyper accurate conclusions, reports and visual maps on issues like racial and economic segregation of households. Individuals, for the first time, can see the actual records about their ancestors -- where they were living, who they were living with, and how well they were living. Ruggles said the 1940 Census was unique, because the Roosevelt administration added questions about economic stability in an attempt to understand the Depression's impact and spread throughout the country.
The Minnesota Population Center and Ancestry.com are using federal grants to make all of these records searchable by name on the Ancestry.com web site. But the results of that effort won't be available for months. Individuals can already use the National Archives web site to find that information, as long as they have some basic geography information about the whereabouts of their relatives in 1940. They also have to be willing to sift through Census documents from an entire region to find the pertinent information about their relatives.
A particularly helpful piece of information is the enumeration district -- a local-level geographic boundary used in the 1940 Census. The Steve Morse web site offers a great tool for locating enumeration districts, and launching searches on the National Archives for records from that district. But as mentioned, you're going to have to be patient if you try any of these searches today, or probably this week.
The recent passing of my 88-year-old grandfather, Charles Johnson, made me eager to look back at the Census records to learn more about his family and his upbringing in East Chain, Minn. He would have been in high school still -- before he joined the Army and was deployed to Cuba as a mechanic working on B29 airplanes. Before he married my late grandmother and raised his family on a farm in Jackson, Minn. But 30 minutes later, I'm still waiting for the images of the Census records for East Chain to load onto the National Archives web page.
Ruggles isn't surprised by the heavy interest and the slow search results. "It's 100 percent of a very large country," he explained.