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1940 Census data: what you need to know to look up relatives

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Initially, those looking for information about their roots will need to know where their relatives lived in 1939. A specific address would help but even a street corner will do. Eventually, some 300,000 volunteers will enter the information into a computer database where it can be searched by individual name.

What those looking up their genealogy will find is such personal information as their relatives' ages, race, marital status, education, and whether they were foreign born. But they will also find whether they had jobs, how much they made, and whether or not they were working for the government. Since 1 in 20 people surveyed were asked supplemental questions, they might also find out where their parents were born, what their mother tongue was, if they were veterans, or if they had a Social Security number. Some were asked if they had been married more than once, the age of their first marriage, and the number of children they had.

All the information was gathered by some 120,000 “enumerators," who methodically went from door to door asking questions.

As David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, said, it’s a “street-level view.”

For that reason, many historians will also be shifting through the 3.9 million images as well. “Up until now, we had an outline. Now we can look at the individual tiles in the mosaic,” said David Sicilia, a history professor at the University of Maryland, at the Census press conference.

He points out that by looking at the individual data, historians can “explode” myths. For example, the aggregate data may indicate a city or community had only a minor change in population. However, the individual data may show that Americans were moving from city to city in search of jobs.

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