Census Records: The 72-Year Rule

On April 1, 2022, the National Archives will open the 1950 Census. For more information on the records release, visit the National Archives website.

Shortly after the National Archives was established, the Archivist of the United States made an agreement with the Director of the Bureau of the Census to acquire the decennial census records from 1790 through 1870. In 1942, the Census Bureau transferred the 1790–1870 census schedules to the National Archives, and the Archives made them available for research shortly thereafter.

The issue of public availability for future census records was unresolved when Congress passed the 1950 Federal Records Act. The legislation imposed a 50-year limit on restricting access to executive agency records unless the Archivist determined they should be closed for a longer period. When the act was working its way through Congress, then-Archivist Wayne Grover testified that census records were among the types of records that could be restricted beyond 50 years, but the records would eventually be made available to researchers and would not be restricted in perpetuity. Because the Federal Records Act took precedence over earlier laws, the National Archives was authorized to open census records when they became 50 years old.

In recognition that census records may require a longer restriction period, on October 10, 1952, Roy V. Peel, the Director of the Bureau of the Census, and Wayne Grover, Archivist of the United States, made an agreement to put in place a 72-year period of closure for population census records transferred to National Archives. Per the agreement, the Archives made available to researchers the 1880 census records in 1952 and what survived of the 1890 census records in 1962 (a 1921 fire damaged or destroyed most of the 1890 census population schedules).

Then in 1972, just before the National Archives was to release the 1900 Census records, the Bureau of the Census took the position that the 1952 agreement to open records after 72 years was invalid because it conflicted with Title 13, Section 9 of the U.S. Code, which required the safeguarding of census records obtained under a promise of confidentiality. The Bureau of the Census took this to mean that access to census records should be restricted forever.

The 1900 Census records release was therefore delayed until the Department of Justice could decide whether the Federal Records Act took precedence over Title 13. On June 14, 1973, the Attorney General decided the records could be opened, and in late 1973 the National Archives opened the 1900 census records to qualified researchers. 

The records, however, were released with restrictions—access was limited to approved historical, legal, or genealogical researchers; the research had to be conducted at a National Archives facility; and reproductions were prohibited with few exceptions. After input from the research community, in 1977 the National Archives removed all restrictions on the 1900 Census records and allowed the reproduction of entire rolls of census microfilm for any public and research institution.

In the 1970s, the Archives was attempting to ease limitations on public access to some of its holdings, including census records transferred to the National Archives. The Census Bureau, however, supported restricting access to archival census records and, in testimony before Congress, indicated that before the National Archives made census records available to the public, conditions on access should be adopted that were consistent with the principle of informed consent. They argued that population census records were unique among the records permanently preserved in the National Archives because they contain names, addresses, and detailed personal information for all residents of the United States enumerated in each population census, and they were obtained by the federal government under penalty of law for refusal or failure to answer the questions.

In 1978 Congress settled the disagreement between the two agencies when they codified the 1952 agreement between the Archivist and the Director of the Bureau of the Census. The legislation (92 Stat. 915; Public Law 95-416; October 5, 1978) required that the release of any personally identifiable information from records of the Census Bureau should be governed by the October 10, 1952, agreement between the Archivist and the Director of the Bureau of the Census, except for the individual named on the record or their legal heir. Any changes to that agreement must be agreed to by both the Archives and Census Bureau, and published in the Federal Register. 

Since the agreement restricted access to census records for 72 years, it became known as “72-Year Rule,” which still governs the release of census records to this day. This is why the National Archives isn’t releasing the 1950 Census records until April 2022—72 years after the census was taken.

Even though the 1950 Census is still closed, you can research previous censuses held by the National Archives. You can also join the conversation about the 1950 Census on the History Hub.

9 thoughts on “Census Records: The 72-Year Rule

    1. I haven’t yet been able to find much from Grover explaining why 72 exactly but National Archives made the first batch of census records (1790-1870) available in 1942—72 years after the 1870 census. In 1975 a bill was introduced into Congress (HR 10686) proposing that census records be made available 75 year after the census was taken. In the hearings, then-Acting Archivist James O’Neill testified: “Shortly after the National Archives was established and population census schedules transferred to the Archives, the Director of the Bureau of the Census and the Archivist of the United States agreed that early population census records, 1790 to 1870, would be opened to all researchers immediately.The 1870 census records were made available when they were transferred to the Archives in 1942, 72 years after the census was taken. This established the 72-year precedent for restrictions on population census records.”

  1. This is an excellent article explaining why the 72-year-rule was codified after 1972. Why was 72 years selected the in the first place? I have heard some people erroneously claim that 72 years was the life expectancy in 1952 when the rule first emerged. That was not the case. In 1952, the Census Bureau had completed the processing of the 1950 census and wanted no longer wanted to maintain the large volume of PAPER schedules and could not afford to microfilm them. The Archives was willing to accept the Census schedules and microfilm them, but would do so if they were free of restrictions. Hence the pragmatic transfer agreement in 1952, and 72 years became the norm. To continue the history, the National Archives accessioned the paper schedules and did microfilm them. Still, according to procedures at the time, to Archives needed to appraise the paper schedules so they could destroy them otherwise a page-by-page verification was needed. So the appraisal report on the paper schedules was written and is fascinating. It carefully delineates the loss of informational and evidential values when the paper schedules were microfilmed. Despite the loss of values, the report recommended destruction of the paper. As stated, the appraisal report is fascinating. And to belabor a point from my days as an archivist, the media of the records impacts the informational and evidential values of records.

    The reason why the 1790 – 1880 were transferred without restrictions was because no confidentiality legislation covered those Censuses.

    Finally, in 1952, the Archives also acquired custody of the 1900-1940 Censuses, and both the Census Bureau and the National Archives agreed to restrict each of those for 72 years applying the pragmatic agreement made for the 1950 Census.

    I have always suspected that the reason why the 1900 Census became an issue in 1972 was that the issue had not been raised ten years earlier in 1962 for 1890 Census because most of that Census had been been destroyed. I wonder that if it had been, the release of the Census after 72 years would have become routine as it is today. This is just speculation.

  2. Very interesting article. With no evidence whatsoever, I will suggest that the reason a number not divisible by 10 was picked is so that the release of historical materials would not coincide with a census year, Releasing records at the same time the public is being told their responses to a current census is confidential would create a lot of confusion and might affect the response rate.

  3. I have often wondered if there will ever be a move to reduce the 72 year rule. This rule was made decades prior to the information age that we live in today, as most (if not all) of the individual information collected in the census is readily-available online. While there would naturally be some debate over whether this would make citizens more hesitant to provide information in the next Census, it just seems plausible to consider reducing this from 72 years to 50 years (and perhaps further down if/when that change is made). Just thinking about it now, reducing this to 50 years would allow for the immediate release of the 1960 census and the 1970 census, and the 1980 census would be released in the year 2030.

  4. Fifty years should be the new rule… half the people you’re searching for are dead by year 72.

  5. I have been searching through the 1950 Census information. I find nothing in there that I would consider to be confidential. Name, address, age and occupation. All of which is searchable on Google. The other point I would like to make is that 72 years has passed and the information on many of the pages is spelled wrong, hard to read or incomplete. I would think an edit or update would have been done in that 72 year period.

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