Volunteers bringing 1940 Census data into digital age

Poring through yellowed-pages of heavy cursive notes, hundreds of volunteers across the nation are converting the 1940 Census logs into a digital database.

More than 160 volunteers are busy translating the records for the 3.8 million individuals who lived in Missouri at that time.

And more volunteers are needed to complete this endeavor swiftly and effectively.

The National Archives and Records Administration released the 1940 census on April 2. It was the first time the information was released online, but without an index.

So organizations like the Missouri State Archives have joined FamilySearch.org to create that invaluable tool for future searchers.

Without an index, a genealogist would have to know precise details about whom he was looking for or be willing to sift page by page through many thousands of documents.

We re trying to encourage people to index, said John Dougan, state archivist.

The sooner all the census data is entered, the sooner genealogists will have access to instant results.

In some of the western states, where the information was released sooner, their data already is 100 percent entered.

The index is the key to get to information efficiently, said volunteer Carol Brunnert. It s fun to be a part of the project.

As one who is adept at details, Brunnert said her meticulous nature fits well in this project that demands accuracy.

The entry project is double blind, meaning the information is transcribed twice and any discrepancy is checked by a third party.

If a name is entered into the index misspelled, then a future user will not find it using the name search, Dougan explained.

And the entry software is easy to use and will result in a user-friendly family search.

An advantage to this volunteer work is flexibility. Entering the data may be done at any time and doesn t even require Internet access.

The software also allows the user to enlarge the copy he is working on. When dealing with heavy, handwritten script, that is a real bonus.

Before this volunteer effort, entering the Missouri Death Certificate information had been the largest project the State Archives had taken on, said Brian Rogers, principal assistant for boards and commissions. That project entered 2.2 million individuals, compared with the 3.8 million names from the single-year census. Those 3.8 million individuals were everyone who lived in the state, the 10th largest at the time.

This is our first time to work with another organization who is ultimately in charge, Rogers said.

The archives staff has appreciated the entry software and has been taken note for how it could help them on future projects.

Inside a census are interesting insights to a past generation.

Census-takers in 1940 recorded name, location, relationships, race, gender, marital status, education, occupation, income, nativity and citizenship. They also logged participation in public emergency work, including Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration.

And new questions were added regarding migration, income, fertility, education and Social Security.

The double census also recorded where individuals lived in 1935, Dougan said.

That will show what type of impact came as a result of the Great Depression recovery and the dawning of World War II.

Historically, this is one of the most important census, Dougan said.

Some notable names have been entered into Missouri s logs, including Chuck Berry, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Lizzie Marshall, Dred Scott s daughter.

And some names were missing, like Kansas City political organizer Tom Pendergast, who was sent to a Kansas prison in 1939, said Christina Miller, senior reference archivist.

And some interesting names have come up, like the Miles family with children named Lotta, Dirty and Last.

It makes you want to find them in the 1950 census, too, Dougan said.

Those entering the data have noticed patterns, too, such as rural areas often having larger families that city-dwellers.

Census data is a great starting point for those new to genealogy research.

For many volunteers like Marvin Jones, they feel a certain obligation to help index this information. Jones has done his own genealogy, and he volunteers with the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, both requiring many hours of census searching and depending on archive resources.

Census records are the Holy Grail for genealogists, Rogers said.

To volunteer, e-mail archvol@sos.mo.gov. For more information, visit www.the1940census.com.


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