With the help of a national volunteer project involving more than 100,000 people, 1940 census records for California and more than two dozen other states have now been indexed by name and can be searched online for free.
Individual records from the 1940 census were released April 2, the first time such a cache of historic census documents has been made available on the Internet.
The release was an online hit, so much so that the National Archives and Records Administration website was overwhelmed on the first day as millions of family history buffs and others tried to view the records.
Even after that initial flurry, though, people were not able to search the National Archives site using names. Instead, the process took several steps, with researchers having to plug in an address or approximate location to get to the right census enumeration district, and then browse the images of handwritten logs to find the names and addresses they were seeking.
But no longer.
Last week, California became the 29th state to have its 1940 census records fully indexed and searchable by names. New York and Missouri are likely to be completed next, with all states expected to be finished in the next few months, said D. Joshua Taylor, spokesman for the 1940 U.S. Census Community Project.
The national service project, which relied on nearly 6,000 volunteer indexers in California alone, is a joint initiative of the National Archives, several commercial family history sites such as findmypast.com, as well as FamilySearch.org, the genealogy organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Taylor said the partner websites, even those that typically charge for their services, will allow the public to search the 1940 census documents without charge for the foreseeable future. "This will be free at least for the next few years," he said. "It's the community's index."
The sites have helpful features, including one that allows researchers to type in the names of those they're seeking but also to check a box asking the search engine to look for similar names — in case the name was misspelled on the handwritten census log.
Taylor said he has used the new index to find his grandmother in the 1940 census documents, as well as the records of several celebrities who spent time in California, including Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe.
Elizabeth Taylor, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from England, also makes her first appearance in the 1940 census, the spokesman said.