1940 census

A census taker interviews a family living in a railroad box car for the 1940 census. (National Archives / March 27, 2012)

April 1, 1940: As a Depression-weary nation wondered if President Roosevelt would run for an unprecedented third term and where Nazi armies would strike next, some 120,000 census takers went to work counting people wherever and however they could — even if that meant driving a dog sled in the Alaska territory.

April 2, 2012: President Obama is seeking re-election. The war drags on in Afghanistan. And the details of more than 132 million American lives tallied 72 years ago will be made public as the National Archives posts the 1940 census online at 1940census.archives.gov.

Searching the census site will be free — and you'll be able to download and share what you find via social media and email. But there's one catch: The government has not indexed the 1940 census by name. Instead, you have to look up where family and friends lived via their "enumeration district," which ranged in size from a few city blocks to entire towns depending on the size of the population.

Staff at the National Archives has posted on the 1940 census page suggestions on how to determine what enumeration districts contained members of your family. Or you can wait until the various Web genealogical sites post their own 1940 census indexes searchable by name, but the task could take up to a year.

The impatient will surely want to start their search now. Here's some advice from the National Archives site on how to go about preparing to search the 1940 census:

List people. Write down the names of all the people you want to find. "Think broadly," the archives website suggests, going beyond parents and grandparents to their siblings, cousins or "anybody to whom you are related."

Get addresses. The National Archives suggests looking in city directories from 1940 or adjacent years; many libraries have copies of their local books. Search World War II draft records and naturalization petitions, if applicable; both can be found through the archives' regional offices or online via various genealogical websites.

Identify census enumeration districts. Follow the advice on the 1940 census website on how to get that enumeration district number for each address, including ways to use 1940 census maps to pinpoint the right districts. People who have copies of their families' 1930 census records have it somewhat easier; the National Archives site features a link that will convert your 1930 district numbers into their 1940 equivalents.

Go find your family. Census records are accessible April 2. Use the information you've gathered to find your family. Don't think scrolling through an enumeration district as a chore; you might find other family members — or suspected kin — living nearby that you didn't know about. You can print out the data, download to your computer, even mail it, according to Rebecca Warlow, supervisor for digitization and descriptions at the National Archives. There's also a bookmarking feature, she added, and you can set up an account to store the pages you find.

Keep an open, alert mind. You may be surprised about what you find, or don't find, in the 1940 census records. Remember, this is a time when fact may smack head-on into family lore — or family secrets.

"You have to become a bit of a detective,'' Warlow said.

People may have been living in another town, county or state in April 1940. "Unless you have a good idea where the person lived you might want to wait for a name index,'' said Connie Potter, a reference archivist with the National Archives.

Then there's the element of human error — someone could have made a guess in answering a question or the census-taker could have written it down wrong. And something you think may be wrong might just be right — Potter noted some school districts allowed teens to graduate from high school at the end of their junior year.

Why all the fuss about 72-year-old records? Well, the pages are gold for genealogists, researchers and anyone interested in tracing their family tree, which has become immeasurably easier in recent years with the advent of searchable online databases and genealogy sites.

The 1940 census also came at a special time. The United States was poised to enter World War II; the Great Depression lingered and many New Deal programs were still active. Working mattered; there are 13 census questions on employment and income, Potter noted.

While there's a broad social and historical significance to the 1940 census, there's the personal element to it as well.

"For a lot of us who, to put it nicely, are in the 1950 census, to look for ancestors in 1940 means our parents," Potter said.

"Most of us will remember parents or grandparents. For some people, the 1940 census will be an easy find because it is in living memory,'' agreed Paul Nauta, public affairs manager for FamilySearch.org, a genealogy service based in Salt Lake City and provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Searching the 1940 census will, no doubt, spur some people to begin building their own family trees. It's easy to do. As Nauta noted, "begin by capturing what you already know" and move out from there. Talk to your oldest living relatives and get names, addresses and stories from them, if possible. Choose whatever branch of the family seems most interesting to you and start tracing it back through the years, he said. (The federal government has conducted a census every 10 years since 1790 and all are searchable except for much of the 1890 census, which was destroyed in a fire.)

And keep those 1940 census pages bookmarked for easy access, archivist Potter advises.

"It helps to go back and look at a record again. You get different clues," she said.

wdaley@tribune.com