A massive effort to digitize the 1940 U.S. Census was supposed to take more than six months, if not longer.
Thanks to more than 165,000 online volunteers, the project — the indexing of 132 million names from 3.8 million images — was completed in three-and-a-half months, nearly three months ahead of schedule.
"We were hoping for November, but if it was done by the end of the year, we were going to be thrilled. It was going to be the largest, fastest project we had done," said Paul Nauta, public affairs manager for FamilySearch.org.
As a result, the 1940 U.S. Census is now completely searchable online at familysearch.org, as well as the National Archives and Records Administration, archives.com, findmypast.com, ProQuest and numerous genealogical societies.
The project started in April after the National Archives released the digital images. The indexing began a few days later, after the images were divided by state. The record contains valuable historical perspectives on the effects of the Great Depression, economic concerns, and the educational and employment achievements of the U.S. population just before World War II.
Nauta said 200,000 volunteers signed up to help with the project and 165,000 actually completed at least one page of the census.
"The magnitude of this volunteer transcription effort is really unprecedented,” said Michael Judson, who helped coordinate the volunteer effort on behalf of FamilySearch. “Millions of records were indexed every week from April to August. On one record-setting day, more than 46,000 volunteers processed more than 10 million records.”
Nauta said "a conglomeration of things" contributed to the accelerated completion of the huge undertaking.
First, it was a highly patriotic cause with which most people could relate.
Second, the census was a historic collection that would benefit millions and millions of people for decades to come.
Third, the fact that about 20-25 percent of Americans today were alive in 1940 added intrigue to studying the census. Many individuals made meaningful family connections, Nauta said.
"People were excited to find their parents and grandparents in the pages, so the sooner it was done, the sooner they could do that," Nauta said.
Fourth, technology and crowd sourcing enabled the process to move quickly.
"People, through technology, can spread the word and gather together quickly to accomplish a common interest," Nauta said. "This was one on a national scale, where people could share the word and communicate through social networks, and rally friends, neighbors and family, to this common cause, which has great value academically and genealogically to so many people."
Fifth, media attention on the project created significant awareness and helped generate volunteers.
"The media support was great," Nauta said. "Locally, nationally, through personal stories and electronic platforms, the story was covered from so many angles and the word got out. It wasn't all advertising."
For Nauta, who assisted in organizing the project, it was thrilling to see so many people come together for the cause.
"One of the things that touched me during this process was how many people, for the first time, discovered this as a way to provide community service," he said. "There were working professionals, senior citizens and people with disabilities. They made comments on blogs and Facebook pages of how fulfilling it was to be a part of something so historically significant, and what an easy, yet meaningful way to provide service to the community."
With the 1940 U.S. Census done, more than 40 percent of the volunteers have started on FamilySearch's next monster-size indexing project, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization, which launched in August.
"Volunteers will be indexing all of the ship passenger lists coming to the US, and state naturalization applications," Nauta said. "It's a bigger project by far, over one billion names."
To find out more about this new initiative, visit familysearch.org/immigration.
For more information on FamilySearch indexing or how to become a volunteer, visit indexing.familysearch.org.
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