Public Access to Census Records at 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.

Article I of the U.S. Constitution provides that an enumeration be taken every 10 years, with the first federal population census taken in 1790. While the original intent of the census was to determine the number of representatives each state has in Congress, today these records serve as vital research tools for sociologists, demographers, historians, political scientists, statisticians, and genealogists.

The National Archives received its first accession of records from the Census Bureau in 1942—census population schedules from 1790 to 1870. That year the National Archives displayed a selection of the records in its exhibition hall in Washington, DC, and received about 6,000 research requests for census records. 

In 1952 the Director of the Bureau of the Census and the Archivist of the United States made an agreement to put in place a 72-year period of closure for population census records transferred to the National Archives. When 72 years had elapsed, the National Archives could make census records available to those with a legitimate research interest. This was defined by the researcher’s reputation as a professional researcher or genealogist, the researcher’s connection with an established institution of learning or research, the researcher’s connection with the person or family in the records, and the time elapsed since the appearance of possibly detrimental information, considered in conjunction with the legitimacy of public or scholarly interest.

Per the agreement, the 1880 census records were opened in 1952, and the 1890 records were opened in 1962 to those who met the qualifications. Due to a disagreement between the Census Bureau and the National Archives, the 1900 Census was delayed, but it was opened in 1973 to those with a legitimate research interest. 

In part because of the Roots phenomenon in the 1970s, the microfilm reading rooms in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, and in regional archives facilities around the country were seeing the largest influx of researchers in the agency’s history. Of particular interest were genealogy records, including census records, which were all on microfilm. By 1977, the National Archives was getting 7,000 inquiries a week, and requests for microfilm rose to 10,000 rolls a month, more than double normal demand.

After a genealogist complained that he couldn’t access census microfilm rolls at his local library, in 1977 the National Archives removed the access restrictions and allowed the reproduction of entire rolls of census microfilm for any public and research institution.

On April 15, 1982, the National Archives opened the 1910 Census to researchers at the National Archives in Washington, DC, and for sale through the National Archives’ Publications Sales Branch. Archivist of the United States Robert Warner, his wife, and mother-in-law Helen Bullock (née Helen Estelle Rogers) opened the census in the Washington, DC, microfilm reading room. Warner’s mother-in-law found her six-year-old self listed in the census.

The 1910 Census was reproduced on 1,784 rolls of microfilm that were made available at the regional archives branches later that year. The census estimated the U.S. population to be at 92,228,496 persons, which was a 21 percent increase over the 76,212,168 persons enumerated during the 1900 Census.

Censuses had usually been taken in the spring, but the 1920 Census was moved to winter because the Department of Agriculture argued that the information about harvests would be fresh in farmers’ minds, and that more people would be at home in January than in April. The 1920 Census results showed a major population shift from rural to urban areas, and fearing the loss of political power to the cities, Congress decided not to reapportion following that census. 

Because the 1920 Census was taken earlier in the year, the National Archives was able to open the records on March 2, 1992. The records were made available in the microfilm reading rooms in Washington, DC, and the 12 regional archives across the country and through various microfilm sales and rental programs. For the opening, researchers lined up around the block at several facilities, and the number of microfilm researchers in Washington, DC, jumped from 1,338 in the last week of February to almost 2,000 in the first week of March 1992.

In the regional archives, researcher visits rose by 250 percent. Some of the regional archives took reservations, which were booked months in advance, and many even opened at midnight the night of the release. The regional archives in Seattle, one of the facilities that took reservations, was booked through June 1992.

On April 1, 2002, NARA opened the 1930 Census, and again researchers were standing in long lines waiting to access the records. Like in 1992, several facilities, including those in Kansas City, Fort Worth, Waltham (MA), and Seattle, opened at midnight. 

The duplication process was years in the making. Each of the 2,667 rolls of microfilm—about 100 feet long—was duplicated and proofed by National Archives staff. Copies were made for researchers at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, and at the 13 regional archives facilities, for the microfilm loan program, and for other purposes.

Unlike the 1900 and 1920 censuses, which were all indexed on the Soundex system, the 1930 Census was indexed for only 12 southern states. To aid with the research, National Archives staff created a number of finding aids and related publications. Also, for the first time ever, the National Archives created a special census website with information on how to view, rent, or buy the microfilm, and included numerous background materials on the census compiled by National Archives staff.

The National Archives’ most recent census release occurred on April 2, 2012. In a ceremony in the William G. McGowan Theater in Washington, DC, Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero declared the 1940 Census officially open. This was the first-ever online census release. The release comprised the digitized version of the entire census, including more than 3.8 million images of schedules, maps, and enumeration district descriptions.

In celebration of the release, the National Archives held events all over the country and produced a series of short documentary videos on its YouTube channel.

Behind-the-scenes look at the 1940 Census, including all the work National Archives staff put into its release.

Preparations for the 1950 Census release are currently taking place. National Archives staff working with the records must have special clearance because their work requires them to see portions of the closed census records. Additional staff have been working behind-the-scenes in countless other ways to ensure a timely release on April 1, 2022.

Even though the 1950 Census isn’t open 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.

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