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The 1940 U.S. Census poster.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The day genealogists and family history enthusiasts have been counting down for months is finally here.

Closed by law for 72 years, the 1940 U.S. federal census records, which capture countless untold stories of those who lived through the Great Depression and fought in World War II, were released to the public Monday.

“Many of us living today know someone in the 1940 U.S. census, but we may not know much more than their name or the town in which they lived,” said David S. Ferriero, a U.S. archivist. “The 1940 census will unlock some of these mysteries for us.”

In connection with the release of 1940 census, a joint initiative between the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Archives.com, FamilySearch.org, findmypast.com, as well as other prominent genealogy organizations, is being announced. These organizations are joining forces in a national service project to create a free, high quality, searchable database of the 1940 census records.

This digital database will be developed through the indexing efforts of online volunteers across the United States. When complete, possibly by the end of 2012, the index and images will be available online for free through the sponsoring organizations’ websites, exciting news for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others who have a passion for genealogy and family history work.

“For those with ancestors in the U.S. in 1940, having the index and images freely available will enable them to quickly and easily locate them,” said Paul Nauta, FamilySearch public affairs manager (FamilySearch is a genealogical organization operated by the LDS Church).

The 1930 census was released in 2002. Every 10 years another census becomes public.

The 1790 census gave names of household head and township they were living in. Each census that followed gradually recorded more information. Several new census questions appeared for the first time in 1940, including where people lived five years prior to the census; highest education level achieved; and detailed income and occupation. The records contain 3.8 million images and feature a depth of detail that paints a more complete portrait than was previously available. More than 132 million people were living in the 48 Continental United States in 1940, with more than 20 million of those people still living today. Census experts say 87 percent of Americans will find a direct link to someone in the 1940 census.

“The 1940 census provides a link to previous generations because you will be able to find parents, siblings, children and often times grandparents in a single household, and if not in a household, then elsewhere in the census,” Nauta said. “As beginners to genealogical research, most of us will readily know or recall from our personal memories family members who were alive. The 1940 census can provide needed context about parents, grandparents or great grandparents that can help us get to the next generation of ancestors.”

Dan Lynch, a spokesman for the 1940 U.S. census community project, said there are many parallels that existed between life in 1940 and 2012, including international conflict, the political intrigue of an election year, and efforts to rebuild a down economy.

“Our goal is that through the work of online volunteers across the nation, a fully digitized and searchable database of records can help strengthen connections between Americans, their families and an important time in our collective history while bringing renewed understanding of the resolute courage past generations had in restoring America,” Lynch said.

For those ready to dig into the 1940 census records, the National Archives offered these and other tips for preparing to search.

Make a list of people you want to find with a focus on your family.

Get addresses by looking in city directories from 1940.

Identify census enumeration districts.

Keep an open, alert mind – you might be surprised by what you find.

Those interested in assisting the indexing effort can find more information and sign up to be a volunteer at the1940census.com. Those who use Twitter are encouraged to post messages using hashtag #1940Census.

“They helped rebuild a nation. Their work ethic and values have been unparalleled since … They gave us the legacy many of us so richly enjoy today,” Nauta said. “To find them in the 1940 census; to see their names etched perpetually on a historic document … is a fitting tribute. To help index the census as a volunteer is an opportunity to pay back, in a small sense, for what they have given us by the lives they lived.”

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