Census Records Come to the National Archives

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

Before the creation of the National Archives, the original census records were maintained by the federal departments that had jurisdiction over censuses throughout history—first the State Department, then the Department of Interior, and later the Census Bureau within the Department of Commerce.

After a 1921 fire in the Commerce Department building destroyed much of the 1890 Census records, the Census Bureau took steps to increase the safety of its records. In 1930, the bureau announced construction of a fireproof vault in their temporary building along the National Mall to house the census schedules until the Commerce Building construction was completed. By the decade’s end, the bureau had also begun an extensive microfilming program to produce copies of the original records.

When the National Archives was established, one of its first tasks was to survey federal records and work with agencies to transfer any files deemed permanently valuable to the new National Archives Building in Washington, DC. National Archives Deputy Examiner Arthur Leavitt was assigned the Commerce Department, which included the Census Bureau.

Deputy examiners conducted the preliminary surveys using a form that included agency/bureau, the location of the records, relevant points of contact, the volume of records, any impediments to working in the depository, any menaces to the records, the percentage of records that should be transferred to the National Archives, and when the transfer should occur.

Leavitt surveyed the myriad Census Bureau files, and on June 26–27, 1935, he surveyed the population schedules housed on the sixth floor of the recently constructed Department of Commerce Building in Washington, DC. Given the condition in which some examiners found federal records, the Census Bureau had done a fairly good job storing and preserving their files, especially with the high amount of use the schedules received. This was in large part due to Census Bureau staff member Mary Oursler, who had been overseeing the census population schedules since 1909.

Leavitt noted some hazards associated with how the records were kept, and he advocated that the volumes be transferred to the National Archives as soon as possible. Before Leavitt could complete the Census Bureau survey, however, he was promoted to a new position as chief of the Commerce Department Archives. Deputy Examiner Herman Kahn was tasked with completing the survey.

Kahn discussed his experiences with the Census Bureau in his oral history (page 9–10). At the time, some federal agencies were hesitant to transfer their papers and argued their records were unique and special and could only be accessed by experts in their agency. The Census Bureau was no exception. One of the bureau’s main concerns was maintaining the confidentiality of the records since the 1880 Census.

Ultimately, the Census Bureau began to transfer its records to the National Archives in 1942. That year, the National Archives received the original bound population schedules of the 1790–1870 censuses as well as several other types of Census Bureau records deemed permanently valuable such as non-population schedules, indexes of marshals and census districts, and administrative files. 

Sandra Irwin examines a volume of returns for the 1860 population census, 1968. (National Archives Identifier 23855367)

Subsequent transfers included the original bound volumes for the 1880 and 1890 censuses, although the National Archives has the 1880 Census only on microfilm. In 1956 the National Archives gave the original manuscripts of the 1880 population schedules to various state archives, libraries, historical societies, and other institutions.

The 1900–1970 censuses exist only on microfilm—after the Census Bureau made microfilm copies, they often destroyed the originals. Because of the massive volume of material, microfilm was seen as a way of preserving information while at the same time saving storage space, and making the records easier to transport.

From the 1980 Census on, the records are electronic. The Census Bureau transferred the 1980 and 1990 census data files to the National Archives on magnetic tape cartridges, and the 2000 and 2010 censuses are scanned images. 

For the upcoming release of the 1950 Census, the National Archives will make the digitized microfilm available online for research starting at midnight on April 1, 2022.

Even though the 1950 Census isn’t available until April 1, you can research previous censuses held by the National Archives. You can also join the conversation about the 1950 Census on the History Hub.

2 thoughts on “Census Records Come to the National Archives

  1. Thank you for sharing the stories of decennial census records and the National Archives. For the electronic records, NARA’s Electronic Records Division holds both summary statistic data files and public use microdata sample files for the 1970 through 2010 Census. For decennial census data documenting individual respondents and subject to the 72-year rule under Title 13, the Division preserves detail microdata files for the 1970 and later censuses (no respondents identified, for statistical purposes), questionnaire images (are these the “graphic files” referenced above?) and Individual Census Record Files from the 2000 and 2010 censuses. In addition, individual response data from the American Community Survey program starting with 2005 are routinely transferred to NARA’s Electronic Records Division. These sensitive records are preserved in NARA’s digital repository with limited access controls and routinely monitored and migrated to ensure their preservation and accessibility when they become eligible for release.

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