My Favorite Tutorials for Getting Familiar with the 1940 U.S. Federal Census

My favorite tutorials for getting familiar with the 1940 U.S. federal census.

This is the long overdue second part in a blog series I started last year highlighting my favorite tutorials and tools for learning more about the U.S. federal population census for genealogical and historical research.

As mentioned previously, I teach a graduate level genealogical research methods course that focuses on U.S. research from 1850 to the present, and on genealogy librarianship. The learning materials I discuss in this blog series are utilized in my course lessons that pertain to the U.S. federal census.

About the 1940 U.S. Population Census

The 1940 U.S. population census is the most current one available to the public, due to the “72 Year Rule” enacted by the U.S. government in 1978 in an attempt to protect the privacy of individuals named on the census who might still be living.1

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released the 1940 census to the public on April 2, 2012. They will release the 1950 census in 2022.

Ancestry Academy Tutorials

Lesson 1: An “Introduction to the 1940 Census”

This short 2-1/2 minute video from Ancestry Academy discusses some of the unique features in the 1940 population census, which was the first federal population census to identify the specific member of the household who spoke with the census taker. It also includes examples and strategies for locating and analyzing your ancestors in this census.

I require that my graduate students watch this video lesson, after first reviewing the FamilySearch and National Genealogical Society tutorials about the previous censuses.

Lesson 2: “You Found What in the 1940 Census?”

This longer video (about 1-hour and 15 minutes) from Ancestry Academy goes much more in depth about analyzing the data in the 1940 population census, and what that might tell you about your ancestors. It also discusses strategies for finding, documenting, and telling the stories of those ancestors.

While I would like to make this video required viewing for my students, we only have one week to cover the U.S. federal census in our very fast paced 10-week course. So although the shorter intro video is required, I include this longer one as optional suggested viewing.

About Ancestry Academy

Ancestry Academy provides a library full of self-paced genealogy video courses that can be watched at your convenience. Recognized experts teach on topics (most 45 minutes to 1-1/2 hours long) covering different record sets, repositories, strategies, ethnic and cultural groups, geographic regions, etc. Short 5-minute-or-less courses highlight just a single skill.

Access to Ancestry Academy requires an account–even just a FREE account.

To get to Ancestry Academy, log in to your account. Then from the main site-wide navigation menu, click on the “Extras” link, and then the “Ancestry Academy” link.

Background Information About the 1940 Census

Understanding Historical Context

I convey to my students throughout the semester the importance of understanding the historical context behind why certain records were created. This is a part of information literacy and using our critical thinking skills. I want them to think about why the federal government asked each set of questions on each decennial population census: why were new questions introduced, and why were previous ones omitted?

In this 1-minute video, my colleague David Rencher, the Chief Genealogy Officer for FamilySearch and now also director of the Family History Library, makes the case for understanding historical context by explaining what the 1940 census tells us about internal migration during this time period.

Making the 1940 Census Accessible to the Public

A large part of our work as librarians is to preserve collections and make those accessible for researchers. Since the students in my graduate course are all future librarians or archivists, I also require that they watch this short 3-minute video from NARA that explains a bit about how they the made this particular census ready for the public in 2012.

The 1940 census was the first U.S. population census released by NARA in digital format instead of microfilm. I want my students to think about what new challenges and opportunities that presented to our colleagues at NARA, as well as to the researchers anxiously waiting to explore the records.


  1. The “72-Year Rule”,” U.S. Department of Commerce, United States Census Bureau, History: The “72-Year Rule”, ( : accessed 19 September 2019.

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