It’s our number one question on the blog, to our member services agents, on Facebook, everywhere: Why can’t I search by name in my ancestor’s state in the 1940 census yet?
Seems like we should have an easy answer for it, and we do – because it takes time. But that answer resonates about as well as “because I said so” did when you were a kid. So we feel there’s a better (but longer) answer that explains more.
It goes like this: making family history records searchable online is one of those anomalous endeavors today that still requires people, not machines, to get things done. You need eyes on a page, fingers on a keyboard, brains to review and check everything and someone to push the final button and say “okay.”
During the first five days that we had the 1940 census, we placed all 3.8 million census pages, a.k.a. census images, online, allowing people to browse through enumeration districts to find family members. It’s the old-fashioned way of researching, much like using microfilm and it’s not ideal. But we wanted to ensure you had access to the records as quickly as possible, all while we were working on the ideal situation – a fully indexed, name-searchable 1940 U.S. Census.
So while those images were being loaded online, they were also being delivered to Ancestry.com indexers, who immediately dove in and started transcribing the words and names and marks and codes on each page.
For numbers people, consider this: each one of those 3.8 million images or pages can hold up to 40 people. Each of those 40 people can have more than 30 boxes of information associated with him/her. Two lucky people on each page will also have extra information included about them totaling another 15 boxes of information. While not every box will be transcribed, or as we call it “keyed,” most will.
Information on the 1940 census is handwritten, somewhat freeform, in the individual census taker’s own unique script. Unfortunately, that cursive can’t effectively be processed by machine. So each page is handed to a person who manually types in details. Some fields are more complex than others: names vary, birthplaces aren’t limited to just 50 states and sometimes what’s written is in desperate need of deciphering.
After all of the information on a census page is keyed, it goes through a series of quality assurance (QA), reviews and spot checks. Errors on the page kick that page back through the keying process; in other words someone takes another pass through that page and the process starts all over again.
Combined, these processes create an index of the information on that page, a searchable database of specific information plucked out of the historical record. Once this index passes its QA tests, additional steps are taken to ensure that the database works correctly within the Ancestry.com environment – this includes its connectivity to and coordination with our search engine and other historical records and integration into our family tree Hints system, so we can notify you when we find your family member in this new collection, too. Before pushing the index and images live on the Ancestry.com site, names must be linked to appropriate census images and the whole system is tested once again. Once these final tests are passed, the index goes live, allowing you to search by name.
Now, all of this detail begs another question: why isn’t that thoroughly indexed, checked, scanned, reviewed and OK-d page immediately placed online solo?
This one is a little tougher to answer.
Our decision was and still is to launch each state index from the 1940 census at the time the state’s index is 100 percent complete. It was a tough decision to make but one we feel confident about (trust us, the decision was arrived at after plenty of spirited debate). In the end, we opted to launch state-by-state indexes rather than indexes for smaller areas because of two key factors:
- Partial indexes may be difficult to use and frustrating. Say, for example, the District of Columbia has a searchable index consisting of only 8 percent of DC’s population. You search it and don’t find your relative. Does that mean he or she wasn’t living there? If that 8 percent covers portions of various enumeration districts in no particular order, even covering just small parts of a street, the challenge is even greater for a researcher. Until the whole state is finished, there’s virtually no way of knowing if your relative’s home has been indexed yet.
- Full state indexes actually speed up the process of getting the entire 1940 U.S. Census online. Taking a grouped approach allows us to deliver a name-searchable 1940 index to you more quickly than if we launched single indexed pages at a time. Each state you’ll search through in the interim will be complete – not partial. When it’s all said and done, you’ll be able to search by name in every U.S. census sooner rather than later at Ancestry.com, from 1940 all the way back to 1790. Follow your family back decade by decade. Guaranteed amazing.
The waiting, however, is the hardest part. At this point in the process, we’re transcribing, indexing, checking and processing every state that hasn’t been fully indexed yet as well as all U.S. territories included in the 1940 census. We’re also reviewing and fixing images that we received from the National Archives and finalizing our new interactive image viewer technology so that over the next few months, you’ll be able to see all of those answers from 1940 clearly, the way the census should be read.
So here’s our promise to you. We anticipate our next indexed location to be ready very soon. After that, we’ll deliver another state; then we’ll start launching state indexes a few at a time. Unfortunately, we can’t say which state will be ready first or next or even pin a date on when a specific state – including the one you really want to search – will be fully indexed.
We can tell you that each one will be worth the wait.