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Release of 1940 census data will fill in family history

Sunday, April 8, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:37 p.m. CDT, Sunday, April 8, 2012
Tom Stevens, 79, poses for a portrait in the State Historical Society on Thursday. Stevens has been researching his family's genealogy for the past 20 years and hopes the release of the 1940 census this year, once indexed, will help him enhance his research.

COLUMBIA — Family Historian Tom Stevens has at least 50 large, three-ring binders filled and organized with his family's history. He's invested both time and money into tracing his genealogy.

Personal information collected in the 1940 census was released Monday after 72 years in storage, and Stevens plans to mine the data once it's indexed to search for nieces, nephews and cousins.

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Want to find your family history?

The State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia has a full subscription to Ancestry.com which is free to the public if accessed at its facility adjacent to Ellis Library at MU. The Historical Society also has Missouri censuses from 1830 to 1880 and 1900 to 1930. Researchers only have to pay for copies of the data.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Columbia also has computers available for researchers and genealogists to use free of charge at 4708 Highlands Parkway.

The Missouri State Archives in Jefferson City has Missouri census records on microfilm from 1830 to 1880 and 1900 to 1930.

Websites for searching family history include Ancestry.com, US Gen Web Project and FamilySearch.

Want to help index the 1940 Census?

Volunteers who'd like to help index may go online and register with Family Search. Volunteers may join a group and receive guidance on indexing, or index on their own.

Don Alger, the local indexing director for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is coordinating 200 local volunteers. To join the an indexing group, contact Alger at dmalger@aol.com.



"The families sort of vanish after the 1930 census," Stevens said.

Stevens, 79, spends about 25 hours a week searching census data, obituaries, birth records and marriage licenses to complete his family's genealogy to pass along to future generations.

The census data and other state records show family stories that can inform children and grandchildren, Stevens said. "Who you are now is OK for the moment, but where did you come from? It's about family pride and finding your roots."

The new data is free to the public and can be accessed online for the first time. Other than tracing genealogy, the 1940 census data will be used by sociologists, demographers, historians and political scientists, according to the National Archives and Records Administration's website. 

Information collected for the 1940 census includes personal information that was kept under wraps until last week. The decision to keep information about individuals from each census closed for 72 years was designed to protect the privacy of those surveyed, according to a 1952 letter by Roy Peel, director of the U.S. Census Bureau at the time.

In addition to name, age, gender and location, the 1940 census asked for the place of birth of the person's father and mother, the person's usual occupation, the marital history of women in the household and where the respondent was living in 1935.

By combing through census records, Stevens can see how his ancestors' lives changed, where they moved and what they did while they were alive.

Although the data is available online, it is not necessarily easy to use because it has yet to be indexed, meaning it hasn't been made searchable by name.

Searches of the 1940 census are currently done by address, geographic area or enumeration district — the area covered by each census taker. The handwritten records from the specified location or district can be downloaded onto a computer, and researchers may scan each page for the name of the person they're looking for. 

Stevens compared this method of searching to driving down the street and looking for names on a mailbox.

Though he's been tracing his family's genealogy for about 20 years, Stevens said it's easier to wait for the information to become more accessible through indexing.

The time it would take to sift through the census data in its current format would not be worth it, he said. Due to blindness, Stevens uses a paid reader to help organize his family's documents, adding an extra cost to his research.

Stevens has traced his wife's side of the family back to 1495 and his side of the family back to his great-great-grandfather.

"It's nostalgic. Why would you want to know? It's a curiosity," Stevens said.

Indexing the 1940 census is a long and time-consuming process that will be done by volunteer groups.

FamilySearch, the online genealogical database for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hopes to have the 1940 census indexed by the end of this year, Don Alger, the local indexing director for the church, said.

Looking through census data and finding your genealogy is a great experience for a lot of people, Amy Waters, reference specialist for the local State Historical Society of Missouri, said. "The census record makes you a part of American history."


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