After 72 years of being kept confidential, the 1940 census will be released on April 2. This is exciting news for historians with an interest in the Great Depression and general census enthusiasts. Actually, it is kind of neat, and the records will be available to anyone online. You just can't search by name, in case you were hoping to dig up specific dirt on your great-grandparents.
On a larger scale, this is an expansive historical record, one that will likely be pored over for years to come.
Researchers might be able to follow the movement of refugees from war-torn Europe in the latter half of the 1930s; sketch out in more detail where 100,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II were living before they were removed; and more fully trace the decades-long migration of blacks from the rural South to cities.
The 1940 census contained 34 questions and 16 supplemental questions that 5 percent of participants were asked. Questions on homelessness, unemployment, and migration were of particular interest following the Great Depression.
Having the entire census online is a big step forward — researchers used to have to browse microfilm like cavemen. But not being able to search immediately by name may make the endeavor frustrating for non-professionals: interested parties will have to use their ancestors' addresses to determine what district they were in, and then work from there. The article notes that this "won't be as easy as a Google search," which automatically makes it sound too difficult.
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