1940 vs. 1930: Census Release Day

Having been a local history and genealogy librarian for nearly a dozen years, I’ve now experienced “Census Release Day” on two occasions as a professional, first with the 1930 and now with the 1940. I’m not one to get caught up in the first-day mania, but I do get excited with all of the media attention the day brings to our field of study. Coupled with the success of the “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Finding Your Roots” television series, genealogy and family history has never been as popular or as mainstream as it is today.

As that smiling face behind the reference desk that assists researchers in utilizing the resources, online tools, and various finding aids to locate their ancestors, I’m particularly interested in the first-day experience from the librarian’s perspective. In my experience here in Michigan, the difference between the 1930 census release day back in 2002 and the 1940 release this week is remarkable. I know it’s difficult (or painful) to remember, but life in 2002 didn’t include Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Flickr, or “The Cloud.” Think of how quickly information (or misinformation) spreads in today’s world, whether it be new product launches, content updates, or hot topic news. Social media platforms and new technologies have transformed genealogy research in immeasurable ways; our online habits, research strategies, and information sharing today is so much more immediate, widespread, and sophisticated than in 2002. Of all the stories that the 1940 census will unlock for researchers, the most remarkable just might be how genealogists access and share information and how librarians manage those researchers’ immediate expectations.

Back in 2002, researchers arrived at the library looking for and expecting the 1930 census both on microfilm and online. The researcher’s realization that the data was often not immediately available, accessible, or indexed, due to server overload, data upload, or processing time, was sometimes difficult. I recall that Michigan was one of the earliest states put up online, yet many researchers still used the traditional access strategies brought via microfilm. As we progressed through the decade, however, fewer and fewer researchers utilized the films and instead relied solely on the subscription databases; online indexing, however frustrating, coupled with the lack of traditional indexes certainly accelerated this phenomenon.

Yesterday, a number of researchers visited the library looking for and expecting the 1940 census online; microfilm is an afterthought. Michigan may or may not be one of the earlier states put up online this time around, but researchers now will instinctively use online access via FamilySearch, Ancestry, and the National Archives. Today, researcher frustrations now center around overwhelmed servers, time delays with page loads, and unindexed content, not the absence of microfilm. Certainly, we have experienced a sea change in access and research expectations from one decade to the next.

Over the years, I’ve learned that being a reference librarian also means being a coach, friend, drill sergeant, therapist, handyman, and information guru. Teaching and guiding researchers of all levels in this age of instant access has been interesting, to say the least. Helping researchers understand that thousands – millions? – of genealogists just like them are also anxiously waiting to study those same images has forced me to demonstrate some of my hidden reference talents mentioned above.

I’m already looking forward to the limitless possibilities of the 1950 Census release-date on April 1, 2022. How different will genealogy research be then? Think of how our research has evolved in the last 10 years, or even the last 5 years. What an exciting time to be researching family history!

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