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Newly Released 1940 Census Excites Those Seeking Details of History

Mabe and other genealogy enthusiasts have been burrowing through a massive trove of personal details from the 1940 U.S. Census released April 2 by the U.S. National Archives. Mabe, to her delight, has found handwritten details about her late parents, both of whom then resided in Transylvania County, N.C., and six of her father’s nine siblings.

“For those of us born in the 1930s and 1940s, it’s exciting to see (names of) people we know,” Mabe said. “When I went through those pages when I was searching for my parents, I knew a large number of people because I came from a small town in North Carolina.”

The federal government releases population figures and other demographic data as soon as they have been compiled following the decennial census, most recently undertaken in 2010. Census-takers also collect personal information — names, ages, occupations and more — but the government withholds those details for at least 70 years to protect the privacy of citizens.

Genealogists and researchers began sifting through the 38.2 million images of documents as soon as they became available online. Though the material is abundant, cataloging a population of 132 million, finding a specific person or family requires knowing with some precision where they lived at the time.

The census material is organized by “enumeration districts” — subsections of cities and towns. Mabe and other local genealogists are volunteering their time to help create indexes that will allow people to search by name. It could be months before those indexes are completed.

The census material, available at the website of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (www.nara.gov) and other sites, offers scanned images of the pages submitted by census workers. The archived images show handwritten answers to questions in 34 categories.

The information includes name, age, race, place of birth, marital status, position in the household and occupation, among other details.

The release of the 1940 census records is a major event for historians and amateur genealogists, said Joe Spann, director of the Polk County Historical and Genealogical Library in Bartow.

“It’s of tremendous value because we’re looking at the country just before World War II,” Spann said. “Wars tend to move people around, move families around. Where a family was living before the war is not necessarily where they lived after the war. So there are a lot of people out there trying to do genealogy research who don’t know where their family was before World War II for many reasons.”

Alvie Davidson, president of the Imperial Polk Genealogical Society, said the material is intriguing in part because many Americans named on its pages are still alive. As a researcher, he said he also appreciates that technological advances make the 1940 records much easier to read than previous releases.

In addition to the National Archives website, the individual records from the 1940 Census can be found online at www.familysearch.org, a free service of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church). A paid website, Ancestry.com, has been offering free access, but that ends today at midnight.

The Polk County Historical and Genealogical Library has a subscription to Ancestry.com and allows patrons access to its records at no charge. The Mormon church also offers free access to Ancestry.com at its Family History Centers in Lakeland and Lake Hamilton.

Several separate efforts are under way to compile searchable indexes, Davidson said. His wife, Dianne Davidson, is one of several local residents — including Mabe — volunteering to enter census details for the website www.familysearch.org.

Davidson said Ancestry.com, the paid website, is privately indexing records, Davidson said. He said the U.S. Census Bureau does not plan to create an index of the 1940 material.

Mabe, 69, has been investigating her ancestry for more than 40 years. She said she has traced one family line back to the 1500s, though information is much more scarce for other branches. A member of the Imperial Polk Genealogical Society, she said she volunteered to help create an index for the 1940 census material because she knows how useful it will be for other genealogists.

“I just thought as a genealogy researcher, it would be much, much easier if you could go in and search for someone in the 1940 census by name,” she said. “I’m a retired person, so I felt I had some time I could devote to it. Since it was going to be such a help to me, I wanted to be a help to them.”

Mabe said it takes about an hour to enter information from one page into the template for Familysearch.org.

“All of it is handwritten, and sometimes it’s hard to figure out the spelling,” she said.

All of the interest in the 1940 census material at times has overwhelmed the servers of the National Archives’ website, said Steve Danderson, who helps oversee the Latter-day Saints Church’s Family History Center in Lakeland.

Danderson said LDS churches welcome non-Mormon volunteers to help compile indexes of the voluminous 1940 census records.

[ Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Join his discussion of books at www.facebook.com/ledgerlit. ]

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