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1920 Enumerator
An enumerator conducts an interview for the 1920 Census.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Through the Decades

The U.S. Census Bureau carries out hundreds of surveys every year, but its' most well-known duty is the decennial census, which the United States has taken every 10 years since 1790.

Census results have several high profile applications. For example, they are used to reapportion seats in the House of Representatives; realign congressional districts; and factor in the formulas that distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds each year. Because of the importance of the decennial population count, procedural changes in the census often reflect larger organizational shifts at the Census Bureau.

This section follows the evolution of the decennial census by detailing the events surrounding each of them. Political and technological changes, and the shifting public demand for information, have all shaped the modern census and the mission of the Census Bureau.

Individual census records from 1790 to 1950 are maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, not the U.S. Census Bureau.

Publications related to the census data collected from 1790 to 2020 are available at https://www.census.gov/library/publications.html.

Visit the National Archives Web site to access 1940 and 1950 Census records.

Decennial census records are confidential for 72 years to protect respondents' privacy.

Records from the 1960 to 2020 censuses can only be obtained by the person named in the record or their heir after submitting form BC-600 or BC-600sp (Spanish).

Online subscription services are available to access the 1790–1950 census records. Many public libraries provide access to these services free of charge to their patrons.

Contact your local library to inquire if it has subscribed to one of these services.