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1940 Census Project logoI am an avid amateur genealogist – not surprising for someone who loves puzzles. I began exploring my family’s history at the age of eleven, using information gathered from relatives. Later on I sought out primary sources and uncovered new information. Over the past fifteen years, Internet access has caused genealogy to explode as a hobby; we can now easily connect with like-minded folks and pool what we know about the family tree.

We also have access to a wealth of online databases. One of the largest sources is Ancestry.com, a commercial enterprise. The LDS (Mormon) Church provides a free service called FamilySearch.org, which features databases created by volunteers. FamilySearch is an excellent example of crowdsourcing – lots of people contributing bits of work to a large project.

On Monday, the United States will release the digital record of the 1940 Census, but we won’t immediately be able to find our lost relatives. First someone will have to index the data. Enter the 1940 U.S. Census Community Project – an initiative shared by a number of genealogy organizations. Here’s how you can become part of the project:

  1. Download and install the free software,
  2. Register as an indexing volunteer, and
  3. Download a batch of images to transcribe.

Every scholar uses online databases – to find journal articles, if for no other reason. However, I would bet that few of us have been involved in a data entry project. The 1940 Census Project is a great opportunity to take part in creating a database to which most of us can literally “relate.” In the process, students may gain useful, generalizable knowledge about data entry and data gathering. For example:

  • Transcribing handwriting is not an exact science,
  • Entering lots of data can become very boring,
  • Data are not always entered consistently,
  • Census takers make errors entering data,
  • Family members who provide data don’t always know the answers, and
  • Not everyone tells the truth to census takers.

This could be a great optional extra credit project for a course. Indexing will begin shortly after the census images are released on April 2, 2012.

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