In less than two weeks, genealogists and historians will get their first chance to begin combing the 1940 U.S. census for more clues about what life was like in the early part of the past century.
"It's a very big deal," said Fran Bumann, who volunteers with genealogy organizations in Southern California.
U.S. law states that at least 72 years must pass before data collected in a census can be released. Some countries have to wait much longer. In the U.K., for example, the most recent publicly available census is from 1911.
Bumann said she and her colleagues get incredibly excited before each census is released and hope the 1940 census will fill gaps in their family trees. The best part of being an amateur genealogist, she said, is how easy the Internet has made information-gathering.
"When I started, I would write letters and wait months to hear back, I had to go to the library just to leaf through pages. I probably sound ancient to you, but you had to take notes by hand," Bumann, 72, said. "The Internet has just made things explode."
With more than 8 billion online records, Ancestry.com is one of the major sites in the genealogy research subscription realm. The business is trying to hire 150 new employees this year, most of them engineers. It's also unveiling new features on its site, like an integrated Facebook Connect feature and software that aims to make census forms easier to read.
Other options for hobbyists to use, some paid and some free, include FamilySearch.org, Archives.com, Findmypast.com and U.S. GenWeb. Bumann advocates keeping family tree information on non-subscription-based software, so that hobbyists don't have to pay to access their own research.
Those interested in the 1940s census can keep an eye on The1940census.com. It will take thousands of volunteers to index the census data, which is due to be released on April 2 by the U.S. National Archives. The information will not be searchable by name for months after its release.
Ancestry.com is not participating in the indexing effort described on The1940census.com, which is organized primarily by three other family search companies.
Ancestry.com spokeswoman Heather Erickson said that while the company had initially pledged to help the census-indexing effort, it would have been more difficult to add Ancestry-themed overlays to the data. Erickson said Ancestry has opted to hire third-party indexers and hopes to get an indexed version of the 1940 census onto its site before any other group.
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