Technology will allow first-time, instant public access to federal records that provide an extraordinary snapshot of Americans at the end of the Great Depression and on the verge of World War II. Lauded as a goldmine for researchers and the public, the 1940 Census will be released online April 2. The records document secret details of 132 million people, including 21 million who are still alive today, what their lives were like during those trying times, how long they were out of work and what America looked like in a different century.

It will provide us with a real slice of life during a momentous time in our nation’s history.” – Robert Bernstein, a well-known genealogy site, has turned census reports going back to 1790 into digital images. But this is the first time the federal government has taken on the task and is making the images available for free. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has spent the last three years turning microfilm into digital images of the census that weren’t previously available to the public.

“It will provide us with a real slice of life during a momentous time in our nation’s history,” Census spokesman Robert Bernstein told Breaking Gov.

The wealth of information – 3.8 million original document images – describes the country during the tumultuous Depression, how many people were immigrants, how many were dislocated by the pain of a devastating economy, how long they were out of work and when they found a job.

In 1940, many Americans didn’t have a high school diploma, most women didn’t work and many African Americans were migrating from the rural south to find work in northern cities.

“For the first time, the 1940 Census will offer specific information regarding people’s wages, education and housing costs; making it the most comprehensive census available to date,” said Dan Jones of

There were many first-time questions in the 1940 census, according to Census Bureau historian Michael Snow. Among the groundbreaking questions that will add to the picture of the impact of the Depression:

  • It’s the first census that asked people where they lived five years before – providing the first information about the majority of Americans in mid-decade and how they kept migrating for work
  • The first census to ask people detailed income questions, providing a fuller and detailed picture of depression-era work and unemployment
  • The first to ask if people worked for New Deal emergency government agencies –the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps
  • The first that asks people if they were foreign-born and an indicator of how many Japanese-Americans and German-Americans lived in the U.S. on the eve of World War II

The data will be there, but it will take some work to do the research. The public will not be able to search the information by name. They can locate people by identifying the enumeration district in which they lived in 1940 and then browsing the census population schedules for that enumeration district.

The National Archives
has placed copies of the enumeration district maps and descriptions in NARA’s Online Public Access catalog (OPA) to help people dig deep into their roots.