- Associated Press - Monday, March 19, 2012

NEW YORK — It was a decade when tens of millions of people in the U.S. experienced mass unemployment and social upheaval as the nation clawed its way out of the Great Depression and rumblings of global war were heard from abroad.

Now, intimate details of 132 million people who lived through the 1930s will be disclosed as the U.S. government releases the 1940 census on April 2 to the public for the first time after 72 years of privacy protection lapses.

Access to the records will be free and open to anyone on the Internet — but they will not be immediately name searchable.

For genealogists and family historians, the 1940 census release is the most important disclosure of ancestral secrets in a decade and could shake the branches of many family trees. Scholars expect the records to help draw a more pointillistic portrait of a transformative decade in American life.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard University professor and scholar of black history who has promoted the tracing of family ancestry through popular television shows, said the release of the records will be a “great contribution to American society.”

Mr. Gates, whose PBS series “Finding Your Roots” begins March 25, said the “gold mine” of 1940 records would add important layers of detail to an existing collection of opened census records dating to 1790.

“It’s such a rare gift,” he said of the public’s access to census records, “especially for people who believe that establishing their family trees is important for understanding their relationship to American democracy, the history of our country, and to a larger sense of themselves.”

More than 120,000 enumerators surveyed 132 million people for the Sixteenth Decennial Census — 21 million of whom are alive today in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The survey contained 34 questions directed at all households, plus 16 supplemental questions asked of 5 percent of the population. New questions reflected the government’s intent on documenting the turbulent decade, by generating data on homelessness, migration, widespread unemployment, irregular salaries and fertility decline.

Some of the most contentious questions focused on personal income and were deemed so sensitive they were placed at the end of the survey. Less than 300,000 people opted to have their income responses sealed.

Still, finding a name in the 3.8 million digitized images won’t be as easy as a Google search: It could be at least six months after the release before a nationwide name index is created.

In the meantime, researchers will need an address to determine a census enumeration district — a way to carve up the map for surveying — to identify where someone lived and then browse the records.

“It may very well frustrate the newcomers,” said Thomas Macentee, an industry analyst helping recruit volunteers for a name indexing effort sponsored in part by the Mormon-run FamilySearch.org. “It’s like showing up on Black Friday. If you really want that TV set, if you really want that census record, you are going to be ready to go and you are going to keep at it no matter what.”

Publicly-traded Ancestry.com, which has over 1.7 million customers, is also working to make the census records searchable by indexing almost all fields and providing proprietary tools to mine the data.

Josh Hanna, a senior adviser for the company, said the 1940 census will be the biggest database of its kind. “It’ll be the deepest level of indexing we’ve ever done,” he said. Access to the index and tools will be available for free through the end of 2013.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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