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A Boom in Genealogy

Searching for your ancestors used to be expensive and time-consuming. Now, it's easy and more popular than ever. We learn more about modern-day genealogy on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm from Ginger Frere, genealogy and local history librarian at The Newberry Library.

Want to start researching your own family history? We talked with the Newberry Library’s Curator of Genealogy and Local History, Matthew Rutherford, about the newly released 1940s census data and how to use it.

What’s different about the newly released data?

The data that was just released was the 1940 census. It’s the first time that data has ever been publicly released. It contains mostly the same type of data from preceding censuses; except the Census Bureau did ask some additional questions about employment and where people were living in the middle of the decade. The government was trying to track population movement throughout the 30s as a result of the Great Depression and the Dustbowl.

Is this also the first time the data has been released online?

Yes. Ten years ago, we had online sources, but the images from the national archives were released via microfilm, as they had been before. In the past, libraries like ours would have to apply to access that microfilm. This time, the national archives decided to dispense with the microfilm and put the images all online.

What kind of information should people gather if they want to do a genealogy search?

What they need to do is to start with themselves and work backwards in time. They should gather as much information as they can before they come in by looking through documentation they have, talking to older relatives, and gathering information, like birth dates and places relatives may have lived. Gather as many facts about names, dates, birth certificates, death certificates, church records, that sort of thing. People should look at the sources they have access to first, before they start looking into the online tool.

What about searching through the 1940 census?

Right now, the only way to access most of the census is to determine which enumeration district the people you’re looking for lived in. The information was released un-indexed, and the government organized it by taking the whole country and dividing it into these enumeration districts, or subdivisions of cities, towns and rural areas. However, several organizations are working on making a name index for the data.

How long might that take?

Some of the smaller states have already been indexed, but no one knows exactly when it will be done. Organizations are relying on a lot of manpower and volunteers to do it. I’d heard it might be finished in a couple months, but it might be sooner.