The National Archives and Records Administration posted millions of records from the 1950 census online at 12:01 a.m. Friday, revealing for the first time a trove of data on people’s lives — from income to ancestry to education and more — that had been kept secret under federal law for 72 years.
The release of such historical census data, which occurs once every decade (the 1940 census was made public in 2012) is a major event for historians and genealogists, but even nonprofessionals may want to peek at the records for details about the lives of relatives and others. The National Archives has made that easy: This website provides a link to a free database of census information that is searchable by names and addresses.
Because the handwritten forms from that census have been read and transcribed using artificial intelligence, spellings may be incorrect. The National Archives reported on Friday afternoon that visitors to the census site already had filed 150,000 suggested corrections to misspelled or garbled information using a transcription tool on the website.
Nevertheless, public reaction to the new website has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Pamela Wright, the agency’s chief innovation officer, said in a written statement. “The vast majority of people are reporting how thrilled they are to easily find the information they’re searching for,” she said.
There are ways to make the search go more smoothly. The Census Bureau offers an FAQ and tips on this web page.
For common surnames, such as Johnson, it may help to focus on an unusual first name if one exists. Also, a search will turn up variants of a surname — say, Smits instead of Smith — casting a broad net to account for the possibility of wrong spellings. The Archives suggests that searchers check every record a search produces, even if the name is off a bit. The records should become more accurate as website users submit corrections.
If that doesn’t work, it is possible to browse individual enumeration districts, the small geographic areas by which census-taking was organized. A list of enumeration districts is available in the National Archives Catalog, but finding the proper one requires at least a general idea of where someone lived.
It’s also worth remembering that some people may not have been counted at their primary residence — inmates in prisons, or college and university students in dormitories, for example — and that some people were not counted at all. For instance, the Census Bureau worked with the Pentagon to get information on military personnel and their families stationed overseas, but most of that data was not retained.
If all else fails, the National Archives says, it may be time to look for clues elsewhere. Libraries and other archives may have old telephone directories and city directories, for example. The Archives recommends this article, an adaptation of search tips for the 1940 census that was published in a genealogical journal in 2011.
Historians and other researchers can download the entire data set by visiting the Registry of Open Data maintained by Amazon Web Services.
Other major genealogical organizations like Ancestry.com and Family Search are expected to offer the same data soon, and those two plan to perform their own transcription and error-checking of names and addresses, eventually producing what they say will be a highly accurate list. While Family Search is a free service, many others require users to subscribe or sign up for a free trial before gaining access to census records and other data.