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New Chapter Unfolds in O.C. for Genealogists

Census: National Archives will unseal the 1930 headcount today. Researchers are eager at Laguna Niguel archives.

April 01, 2002|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most days, researchers camped out in Laguna Niguel's National Archives reference room chitchat about the past as they untangle the threads of family history.

In recent weeks, though, the talk has been about the future--today, to be precise, when archivists believe the unsealing of 72-year-old census will set off a mad scramble of genealogists hungry for what one called "the first fresh meat" in a decade.

Today's release lifts a veil drawn by an agreement between the Bureau of the Census and the National Archives that keeps census data private for a lifetime--72 years. The census is taken every 10 years and the last records--from 1920--were released a decade ago. Personal details from the 2000 census won't be available to researchers until 2072.

The Laguna Niguel archives, one of 14 repositories in the United States and the only one in Southern California, will open as usual at 8:45 this morning. But at least five other regional centers planned to open at 12:01 a.m. in a "midnight madness" rush to satiate genealogists.

"I plan to be asleep," said Constance Potter, an archivist at the National Archives headquarters outside Washington, D.C., who is involved in overseeing the national release.

Interest in genealogy has grown explosively in recent years, giving rise to Web sites like Ancestry.com and leading to parades of researchers through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' family history centers. The libraries, as part of the Mormon faith, maintain massive files on deceased ancestors. But it will be months before the 1930 records are available anywhere but the National Archives, experts said.

Although old census records are treasure-troves for genealogists and historians, the 1930 census is particularly intriguing. Conducted six months after the 1929 stock-market crash, the census offers snapshots of family life on the eve of massive national upheaval--the Great Depression and the mass migration of displaced farmers from the Great Plains states to California.

The 1930 census reflected the spread of mass media by asking if families owned radios.

"It was a very new medium," said Dave Pemberton, a U.S. Census historian, who described radios as the cutting-edge technology of the 1920s--much like personal computers in the '90s. An industry survey reported 60,000 radios sold in 1922, he said. Eight years later, the 1930 census counted 12 million radios among a population of 123 million people in the 48 states.

"And in the early days of radio, the number of sets didn't necessarily indicate the number of people being reached," Pemberton said. "People would come from several houses around and drop in on you if you happened to be the owner of a radio."

Although many genealogists look to census records for details about ancestors' lives, older researchers will be able to look back at their youth. People born before April 1, 1930, can find themselves enumerated as members of their family households.

Roxie Ogilvie, 71, of Riverside won't be listed in the 1930 census, but she has plenty to look up among an extended network of relatives from her native Michigan, and other Midwest states. "There are probably only 10 families I'm really interested in," Ogilvie said last week amid the whir of microfilm reading machines in the archives' reference room. "I'd like to see some details of people I know who are still alive."

Researchers Are Excited About Access to Data

Anticipation of the 1930 release has made National Archives officials popular speakers at genealogy clubs and libraries.

Paul Wormser, director of archival operations in Laguna Niguel, said that in the last year, archivists conducted 35 workshops for libraries and genealogy groups across Southern California. "They're quite excited--it's a major event in that the census is one of the bedrocks upon which most genealogists do their research," Wormser said. "We're expecting a lot of people [today]."

Reservations are not needed, but picture IDs are required to enter the building, Wormser said.

"It'll be wild," said Pat Weeks of Dana Point, a retired speech pathologist and part-time archives volunteer who plans to show up today, normally a day off, "just to see the fun."

About 13,000 researchers visited the Laguna Niguel archives last year, making it the third-busiest of the 13 regional centers after Boston, with 14,900 researchers, and Seattle, with 16,200. The National Archives in Washington, D.C., drew 51,500. The only other archive in California, at San Bruno in the Bay Area, drew 9,400 researchers.

The pace of visitors to the Laguna Niguel facility, midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, has picked up in recent weeks as genealogists conducted pre-search to the research.

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