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

U.S. federal population censuses are my favorite type of record for doing U.S. genealogy and history research. These FREE tutorials provide extensive details about each federal population census.

U.S. federal population censuses are my favorite type of record for doing U.S. genealogy and history research. This is because they are so rich in biographical information, and not just about one individual, but about entire families—really, about entire neighborhoods. Census records are excellent for tracking your ancestor over a period of time. If I were told that I could only work with one record type for the rest of my life for my U.S. ancestors and family, it would be the U.S. federal population census.

These are often among the very first records that beginning genealogists work with, and yet, regardless of how many decades we do this, even longtime genealogists never stop learning more about using census records.

I teach a graduate level genealogical research methods course that focuses on U.S. research 1850 to the present, and on genealogy librarianship. The following FREE tutorials are required viewing for my graduate students.

FamilySearch & NGS Tutorials

This five-part series of multimedia tutorials are available for FREE in the FamilySearch Learning Center, and are presented by the National Genealogical Society (NGS). The lessons provide extensive details about each federal population census, from the 1930 census, moving back in time to the first federal census in 1790.

Access the FamilySearch Learning Center by clicking on the "Help" link in the top right corner of your screen, and then selecting "Learning Center" from the drop down menu.
FamilySearch tends to frequently change up how to access their fabulous Learning Center. To do so currently, click on the “Help” link in the top right corner of your screen, and then select “Learning Center” from the drop down menu. Their search feature for the Learning Center is horrible though, so I have linked directly to each tutorial below.

The entire series runs about 2-1/2 hours long, and it includes very helpful interactive self-assessment quizzes and learning activities at the end of each tutorial.

These tutorials were developed in Flash, which means you have to enable Adobe Flash Player in your web browser to view them. Don’t worry about figuring that out, your browser will prompt you to do this. Adobe Flash Player does not play nicely with Chorome, so these tutorials are best viewed on Firefox, or even on Internet Explorer (I avoid Explorer).

Lesson 1: The Federal Census—An Historical Overview

This first video provides an overview of the evolution of the federal decennial census: who conducted it, how the information was recorded, how many copies were made and where those were sent, who was counted in each census, what type of new information was asked in each new census, and which parts of the present-day U.S. were counted in each census.

Lesson 2: 20th Century Censuses, 1930-1900

This second lesson introduces the 3 Principles of Census Research (these are important).Note the screenshot I have included below. This strategy is also revisited in each remaining lesson of the series.

The 3 Principles of Census Research. National Genealogical Society.1

Lesson 2 also discusses privacy laws, enumeration districts, key analytical details about these four censuses, and how to cite a census record, specifically noting what census format you used (microfilm, digitized image, etc.). This is another concept that is reinforced in each remaining lesson.

Lesson 3: Federal Population Schedules, 1890-1880

This third lesson discusses the fire that destroyed most of the 1890 federal census, what parts of that collection survived, and strategies for locating census substitutes for that year.

Lesson 4: Federal Population Schedules, 1870-1850

This fourth lesson explains how to extract information about each individual from the census, in written narrative form. This is an invaluable skill that I employ any time I analyze a household in the census, versus just quickly skimming that household.

Lesson 5: Federal Population Schedule, 1840-1790

This final lesson in the series demonstrates the many challenges of working with censuses that do not identify household members by name.

What About the 1940 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.2

The tutorial series briefly mentions the 1940 census, but does not include it in the lessons. So these tutorials must have been created shortly before or after the 1940 census was released on April 2, 2012.

My next post in this new blog series will introduce you to the tutorials that I steer my graduate students towards for learning about (or more about, if you’re a seasoned researcher) the 1940 U.S. population census.


  1. “Lesson 2: 20th Century Censuses, 1930-1900,” video, created 30 April 2014; FamilySearch Help Center ( : accessed 5 June 2017); slide 2 of 18.
  2. The “72-Year Rule”,” U.S. Department of Commerce, United States Census Bureau, History: The “72-Year Rule”, ( : accessed 19 September 2019.

Leave a Comment, Question, or Suggestion

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 thought on “My Favorite Tutorials for Getting Familiar with the U.S. Federal Census”

  1. Nicole Anderson

    Since Flash is no longer supported and thus the tutorials mentioned here are not accessible, what do you recommend for your students in their place? Thanks!

Scroll to Top