You may have heard of the release this week of the records from the 1940 census.
You may have been one of those frustrated with the inability at first to get onto the website, which had 37 million hits from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, according to The Associated Press.
But things have calmed down since. The site is generally running much better now.
And if you're at all curious about your family — or about who lived where you live now — it will take some time, but you can find the actual entries online. You can download them and browse at your leisure, too.
So what's the big deal? This release is page upon page of handwritten census records, listing addresses, members of a household and their relationships to one another, their ages, occupations and salaries. They're all posted as digital images of the pages, so you can save one page or an entire "enumeration district."
Even if you know about your family members — we're really only talking about one or two generations before the Baby Boomers — you may well find something you didn't know.
I didn't know that my paternal grandfather, who died when I was 4, was 18 years older than my grandmother, whom he married after his first wife died. I knew he was a foreman at a zinc company in Danville, but I didn't know his salary in 1939 was $1,880 (which equates to about $29,000 in 2010).
Turns out my other grandfather wasn't far behind: My mom's dad was a letter carrier making $1,800. The oldest of my mom's siblings, one of my aunts, was working as a telephone operator in Michigan when she was 19. Her salary for 1939 was reported as $112. The family was in the iron mining country of the Upper Peninsula, and nearby residents are listed as "surface man" or "underground man." (Underground men made better money.)
All this is on one sheet — one image — from the census. Really, only a few lines.
It's easier to find than you might think, but location matters.
If you happen to know the "enumeration district" your family lived in, or where the house you live in now was in 1940, that'll save you a step. That seems unlikely for most of us.
Far easier is downloading the images of maps from the time, which have, generally hand-written, the enumeration districts on them.
How to do it:
From the main page, 1940census.archives.gov , click the orange "Get Started" button. This takes you to the "Getting Started" page. Under "Do You Know Where the Person Lived?" is another orange button that says "Start Your Search." Click that. The next page allows you to choose a state, a county and a city.
It seems at first that not every city is available; in Champaign County, only Champaign, Urbana, Rantoul and Fisher appear in the dropdown list. If you're looking in any of those four towns, choose them from the dropdowns. If not, leave "all" as the choice in the towns.
In either case, just to the right of the list of dropdowns are three more buttons, labeled "maps," "description" and "enumeration district." Click "maps" and in Champaign County, you'll get a county map and individual maps for the four listed towns.
If you click on the county map, you'll find the enumeration districts for everywhere in the county.
This is the tricky part; the labels for the enumeration districts are often hand-written, and it can be unclear where the boundaries are. An enumeration district in Newcomb Township, about 3 or 4 miles north of Mahomet, is "10-52." That appears next to district "10-28" in Condit Township. Champaign has enumeration districts 10-8 to 10-22; Urbana has 10-30 to 10-40. The only way to really figure it out is to pick one of the districts that seems to be in the area you're searching and start paging through the names until you see one you recognize.
The maps are difficult to navigate, because you need to view them in full-screen mode to be able to see the street names. So it will take some scrolling up and down and right and left. Some maps have more than one image. Champaign County, for instance, has four.
Once you find the district, click "close" to take the map off your screen. This takes you back to the location dropdown box and the "maps/descriptions/enumeration districts" choices to the right. Pick "enumeration districts" and you'll get a list that should include the one you've found. This will open a file that is, page-by-page, the census results for that district. They are arranged by street, where the street is known, so an address in town is easier to find. (The street name is in a vertical panel on the left side of each page.)
But even without street addresses — my dad's dad lived on a road that at the time had no name — once you find the enumeration district, finding the family is a matter of reading these handwritten entries, remarkably legible after more than 70 years.