Very soon, possibly even before you read this, a small army of volunteers will scan through the final pages of data and FamilySearch, the online genealogy and family history hub of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will complete its breathless race to index the 1940 United States Census. The indexing project, under way since April, has plowed through 3.5 million pages of data at a rate that, a little more than a decade ago, might have been termed "ludicrous speed."
"It took us about 10 years to do the 1880 census," said Paul Nauta, referring to a similar project completed around 2000. For the 1880 census project, Nauta said, "we had to make digital copies of the census on CD and send them to our volunteers."
How things have changed. Indexing is the process of digitally transcribing hand-written data collected by census takers, which is then converted into a searchable online index. In 2012, all indexing takes place via Internet and, even though two volunteers separately transcribe every line of data -- the individual entries are then compared for accuracy, and reviewed by a third volunteer, or arbitrator, if they differ -- it's taken barely four months for FamilySearch's roughly 175,000 volunteers to tear through the 1940 census.
Personally identifiable information from census records does not become public, per U.S. law, until 72 years after the census is taken. Hence the 1940 census, released April 1, is the most recent census to be made publicly available. FamilySearch volunteers have indexed every prior census, going all the way back to 1790, when the population of the United States numbered slightly fewer than 4 million.
Nauta said that census records are especially attractive to genealogists because they provide a small burst of detailed information about nearly everyone residing in the United States the year that the census was taken. "Obviously there are people here and there who slipped under the radar," he said.
Generally speaking, however, the census' wide net is an invaluable genealogical resource.
Five minutes here, 10 minutes there
The indexing has been done by volunteers from across the United States, and also in Canada and the United Kingdom, though Nauta said that the bulk of FamilySearch's indexers are heavily concentrated in the western U.S. corridor that includes Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Nevada and other surrounding states.
And while the indexing effort is open to participation by anyone who has an Internet-connected computer, Nauta said that most indexers are Latter-day Saints. Lehi resident Kathryn Jolley said that she started indexing about five years ago after her husband recommended her to an indexing supervisor in the family's LDS ward, or congregation.
"I got hooked pretty quickly," said Jolley. "I like the idea of connecting with the people. I'm the nerd who goes all the way over to the right in a census record to read about where people worked, and where they lived."
Jolley, 43 and a stay-at-home mother of four children ages "almost 14" through 21, said that she fits indexing into different parts of her schedule each week. "The cool thing about indexing is that you can hop on and do as much as you have time for, then hop off," she said.
As an indexer, you can walk away in the middle of an open "batch" -- generally a block of about 50 individual records -- then jump back in where you left off later on. Or, if you leave a batch for several days, FamilySearch uploads as much work as you've done, assigns the rest to somebody else, and gives you a new assignment the next time you log in.
"For me, it's relaxing," Jolley said. "It calms me down and clears my head."
Though she's worked on a variety of projects over the years, Jolley said that census records are especially interesting because of how much even a casual observer can learn. "You get a sense of the neighborhoods and cultures and melting pots that built our cities," she said.
Check marks and inmates
Censuses provide a lot of numerical data: In 1940, the U.S. population numbered 132,164,569, with 550,310 of those counted residing in Utah, the 40th most populous state in the nation at the time. (As of 2010, 308,745,538 people live in the United States, and Utah, with a total population of 2,763,885, is the 34th most populous state.)
There are plenty of other things to learn, however, from searching census records. In 1940, census takers asked for the first time about annual income, education and what area people had resided in five years prior. Lehi resident Emilie Brannelly, who's been involved in indexing and family history work since 2004, said that she enjoys seeing the growth of the census over time.
"I love that each consecutive census has added more information," Brannelly said. In some of the censuses taken in the 19th century, she said, "you see just the husband's name, and a check mark for wife and children."
Brannelly, 35 and a stay-at-home mother of three children ages 8 through 14, said that she started working on FamilySearch records during a six-month period of bed rest with her third pregnancy and has been homebound for extended periods on account of a degenerative bone disease. Indexing, she said, "has been a way that I could serve and participate in something."
Both Brannelly and Jolley said that their children have also taken an interest in indexing, and many of the volunteers who've worked on the 1940 census are decidedly youthful. Fifteen-year-old Lauren McIntosh of Pleasant Grove, who's about to begin her sophomore year at Pleasant Grove High School, said that she started indexing right when the 1940 census project kicked off.
"My mom bribed me with a trip somewhere in the country if I indexed 25,000 names," McIntosh said. She's done about 10,000 so far, and said that -- shh! don't tell mom -- it's actually not torturous. "I like it when I get a batch that isn't a normal life," McIntosh said. "One time I indexed a batch of people who were in jail. That was cool to see their different ages. There was a 99-year-old man who was still in jail."
What were your ancestors doing in 1940? If they lived in the United States, then there's a way to find out.
Time Travel to 1940
Do you know someone who lived in the United States in 1940? Find them in the 1940 census at Family Search: familysearch.org/1940census.