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You say you like puzzles?

1940 US Census for Niwot, Boulder County, Colorado, Sheet No. 7B, enumerated on April 17th My maternal grandparents Harry and Anna Slater and their sons are listed beginning on line 67. (Source: National Archives)

If you’re up for a real challenge, the 1940 US Census Community Project has millions of them for you.

On April 2nd, the National Archives released the 3.8 million digitized pages of the sixteenth census of the United States, after the obligatory 72-year delay, and volunteers all over the country began the monumental task of indexing those records.

Census records are the only records that describe the entire population of the United States on a particular day. The 1940 census is no different. The answers given to the census takers tell us, in detail, what the United States looked like on April 1, 1940, and what issues were most relevant to Americans after a decade of economic depression.

The 1940 census reflects economic tumult of the Great Depression and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal recovery program of the 1930s. Between 1930 and 1940, the population of the Continental United States increased 7.2% to 131,669,275. The territories of Alaska, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, the Panama Canal, and the American Virgin Islands comprised 2,477,023 people.

Besides name, age, relationship, and occupation, the 1940 census included questions about internal migration; employment status; participation in the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and National Youth Administration (NYA) programs; and years of education.

Each individual record is being indexed by two different people and then a third person acts as arbiter in case of disagreement. As soon as all the records of a particular state have been indexed and checked, that state’s records will be searchable by name by the public for free, forever. A little less than a month later, almost 25% of the pages have been indexed and only Nevada, Delaware and the District of Columbia are done. If you want to see what progress is being made there’s a dynamic map here.

I’ve indexed about 60 pages so far, including from the states of Kentucky, Delaware, Texas, Florida and California. There are 40 lines on each page and most pages are completely filled. Attempting to figure out what the written names actually are by deciphering handwriting of varying degrees of legibility really can be a test of puzzle-solving skills. (I can assure you that there are many unusual names in the 1940 census.) Some pages go quickly, others don’t–I’m currently taking a short break from indexing records from a town in central Louisiana.

Note: If you know exactly where your family was living in 1940, you can search the full page scans of the records using the process described here or here. It’s somewhat cumbersome and you may well prefer to wait for your state to be indexed.

Meanwhile, back to Louisiana for me…au revoir!

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