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Public Can Access Census Records 72 Years After Each Decennial Census

America Counts Staff

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) today released 1950 Census records. America Counts asked NARA staff to discuss the significance of the release and how it will benefit the public.

 

You can search the 1950 Census population schedules by name and address.

When did NARA start releasing responses to historical decennial censuses?

The National Archives began providing public access to the 1790 to 1870 Censuses in 1942 after it received them from the U.S. Census Bureau and added them to the archives. Before 1942, the public had to contact the Census Bureau for access to the information.

Why does the National Archives release Census Bureau records?

The role of NARA in the U.S. government is to maintain the permanent records that document the activities of our government and to hold them in trust. Currently, following every decennial census, the Census Bureau transfers the records to NARA for permanent storage. NARA disseminates the records to the public 72 years later based on the “72-Year Rule” (92 Stat. 915; Public Law 95-416; October 5, 1978).

 

Why 72 years later?

In 1952, the Archivist of the United States and the director of the Census Bureau made an agreement that the 1880 (and later) Census records could be released to the public after 72 years. In 1978, Congress codified this agreement.

What can people see? Name, address, age, etc.? Who responded for the household? All the responses to the decennial census?

The records for 1950 include each person’s name, age, gender, race, marital status, relationship to head of household, state or country of birth, naturalization status and employment information, such as occupation, industry in which the person worked, and type of employer (private, government, for themself or without pay in a family farm or business). 

In 1950, there were five versions of the questionnaire — each with different lines marked for "sampling." The people on these lines were asked further questions such as where they resided one year before, country of birth of parents, highest grade of school attended and completed, income of the person and their household in 1949, and, if male, whether he had served in the armed forces in World War I, World War II, or some other time.

Questions on census forms used in U.S. territories and possessions were generally similar. The 1950 Census does not indicate who provided responses for the household.

 

The Census Bureau has collected data on race since the first census in 1790 and on Hispanic or Latino origin (referred to as Hispanic origin in this blog) since the 1970 Census.

How these topics are measured, and statistics on them are collected and coded, has changed nearly every decade throughout the history of the census, reflecting social, political and economic factors.

Currently, the Census Bureau collects race and ethnicity data in accordance with the 1997 Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity directed by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

How can I find my family?

You can search the 1950 Census population schedules by name and address. The Indian Reservation Schedules will also be searchable by reservation name. 

The overseas records for military personnel and their families living in Germany and Japan and those serving on merchant ships are not included.

What time can I access these records?

The National Archives launched the 1950 Census website at midnight on April 1, 2022.

How can I access the responses to the 1950 Census? Online? Will I have to pay for access?

NARA is making the census available online at no charge.

Who do I contact if I need help finding a record?

You can post your questions and get assistance at the History Hub or email inquire@nara.gov.

Are Social Security numbers included in the information?

No. The Census Bureau does not collect social security numbers in its surveys and censuses.

What is an enumeration district? How do I find it? Do I need it?

An enumeration district was an area that could be covered by a single enumerator (census taker) in one census period, generally within two weeks in cities and within 30 days in rural areas.

Enumeration districts varied in size from a few city blocks in densely populated urban areas to an entire county in sparsely populated rural areas. Enumeration district maps are available on NARA’s website. Determining a person’s enumeration district can be helpful if the person’s name is not indexed under the expected spelling.

Are military personnel included? Overseas residents? Territories and possessions?

The 1950 Census includes the U.S. territories and possessions of Alaska, American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, Panama Canal Zone, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. There are also census schedules for Canton, Johnston, Midway, and Wake Islands included.

The information does not include the Overseas Census Reports filled out by those military and U.S. Department of State employees and their families stationed overseas in places such as Germany and Japan.  

Some previous censuses were only available on microfilm. Are they now all available electronically?

The 1940 Census is available online at NARA’s Official 1940 Census website and in the NARA Catalog. The 1890 Census is available here in the National Archives Catalog. Federal census records can also be accessed online at popular commercial genealogy websites. NARA plans to add additional population census records to its online catalog in the future.

Who usually wants to access these records? Historians? Genealogists? Demographers?

The U.S. population census is a very important building block in American genealogical research. Genealogists use census information to learn more about their family or other families. Many different types of researchers also use census records. They give a snapshot of information on individuals and families at 10-year intervals that can help researchers trace, reconstruct and learn the story of their ancestors’ lives. Historians and demographers use census records to learn about sociological shifts in the nation’s communities or groups of people.

What is the census information used for?

The primary reason for taking a census is the requirement in Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution that a census of the population be conducted every 10 years to fairly apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. State and local legislative bodies also use census data for redistricting.

Statistical data collected during the census also help demographers, policymakers, business leaders and others understand where government services need to be located, such as schools and parks, or potential markets for commercial products. Read more from NARA’s subject matter expert Claire Kluskens in “1950 Census: How the Data were Used.”

Tell us what’s different this year? What new technologies are you using?

The 1950 Census website will allow visitors to search by name, which we could not do with the 1940 Census. 

NARA utilized an artificial intelligence/optical character recognition (AI/OCR) tool to extract the handwritten names from the digitized 1950 Census population schedules and develop the initial name index that will be used to search names.

For the first time, the public can immediately search the records for free through the NARA website starting today.

What is Optical Character Recognition?

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is a technology that recognizes text within a digital image. OCR software can be used to convert an image into an accessible electronic version with text. 

NARA utilized an artificial intelligence/optical character recognition (AI/OCR) tool to extract the handwritten names from the digitized 1950 Census population schedules and develop the initial name index that will be used to search names. Because the initial name index is built on OCR technology, it will not be 100% accurate.

The National Archives is asking the public for help in submitting name updates using the 1950 Census transcription tool, which will be available on April 1, 2022.

Will OCR be used to correct errors on the questionnaires?

No changes or corrections can be made to historic archival records, but edits submitted using the transcription tool will stay linked to the record online.

My family’s name is spelled incorrectly in the records. What should I do?

While no changes or corrections can be made to historic archival records, the 1950 Census website will feature a transcription tool that enables users to submit updates to the names. Those updates will be added to the name index to improve search accuracy and make the records more accessible for everyone.

Your branding this year is “Explore and Collaborate.” Are you working with outside groups such as ancestry.com, etc.?

While NARA is not working directly with genealogy groups such as ancestry.com, improving the records through the transcription tool will improve information available in these types of services. NARA encourages everyone to explore the 1950 Census records and collaborate to improve the transcription (index) of this census.

Why did the American Indian reservations get a separate form? What was this used for?

On many American Indian reservations, Native Americans were enumerated on two forms — the standard Form P1, 1950 Census of Population and Housing, and the Form P8, Indian Reservation Schedule.

Form P8 asked questions about the extent to which Native Americans were adapting to the culture of the White population. According to contemporary documents at the time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs requested this information be collected “in connection with their present program in aiding Indian citizens to become economically self-sustaining and in order to lessen or remove governmental supervision.”

The Story of the 1950 Census P8 Indian Reservation Schedule provides more information.

 

 

 

 

Exploring the 1950 Census


 

 

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