The 1940 census won't be available to the public until 2012? WTF?

What could be behind the fact that the census information from 1940 cannot be accessed by the public for another 3 years? 72 years? That doesn’t seem correct, but I’ve come across it a few times now. One search site runs census information from the 1800’s through 1930 and then stops. Another simply says that the info won’t be available until April of 2012. I know that some of the information is public. But most - the personal specifics - are not. How many people lived in x household, and who were they? Something is weird.

This refers to the individual census record of a person, not the aggregate statistical data.

So you get the information that “there were X people in county Y in 1940” immediately. You have to wait 72 years to learn what religion, income, family status, etc. “person X in county Y” was.

Not so sure why you think that’s weird - that you should wait a LONG time before someone’s intimate details are made public record.

Maybe it’s a matter of where you draw the line, but it seems that even the most predatory of folks would have a difficult time taking advantage of that information 72 years after the fact. I would say that 30 years would even be a lot. It certainly makes it difficult to search my own family records. Impossible, in fact. But I guess you’ve answered the question.

Well, I can be a 19 years old when a decennial census rolls around. I’d only be 49 years old, and in the prime of my career, when census data could be used to personally attack me and/or reveal intimate data about my lifestyle and my self.

I doubt the intent was merely limiting predation - information theft didn’t really exist as a concept when that law was written. However, “keeping your personal life private” probably did exist as a concept.

Ancestry dot com has a database called the “1940 Census substitute”, which is a collection of things like tax records and city directory entries. It’s nowhere near as easy to use or as whole as the census, but I’ve found one set of grandparents and a couple of great grandparents on it.

I’m not sure why 72 years was the magic number, but it’s not likely to change at any forseeable point in the future. I also can’t think it’s just coincidence that the post-Depression/pre- [US entry into] World War II Census becomes available the same year as the Mayans say the world will end (or that a cycle ends or Ryan Seacrest becomes Ascendant or whatever the Mayans said happened in 2012).
Off topic, but speaking of ancestry dot com, it’s impressive some of the things they’ve added recently: the state censuses are much more complete, some county tax records, I even found a couple of high school annuals with my parents (one in which they were teachers and one from 1944 when my father was in high school). They’re gradually adding the agricultural censuses from the mid 19th century, and those things tell you a lot more about how people actually lived than their census form entries.

The great horror of American censuses is of course the 1890 one. It was the most complete and detailed census to that date, had worlds of info on Civil War veterans and economics, was the first massive accumulation of statistical data with electronic computers, and 99% of it was burned in a fire in 1921 without ever having been copied. (The tabulations exist but the original forms that they came from are gone with the wind [or flames].)

Tell me about it. :frowning: All the more frustrating for me because a great majority of my great-great ancestors immigrated in the mid 1880’s, so they don’t show up “on the radar” until the 1900 one.

I can’t imagine what information or “intimate data” a 19 year old would provide to a census taker that would be of use to anyone intent upon personally attacking himi 30 years hence. The last census I looked at had information on occupation, place of birth, whether you could read or write English, and other relatively innocuous stuff. Even if there were more intimate questions asked these days (what would they be? What do you like to masturbate to? Who did you vote for in the last American Idol show?) how could that be used against you in 30 years? I understand the notion of protecting your privacy, but I view the situation as a lot less threatening and dangerous than you do, apparently. However, this isn’t just us knocking it back and forth, so I’ll leave it alone.

Where are these things? They don’t show up in my hints at all.

I think they based the 72 year delay on the average lifespan, so that they data wouldn’t be available until most of the people were dead.

You’re luck in the US. Here in the UK the 1911 census images were only released at the beginning of this year. This is a slight slackening of the rules. It used to be a full 100 years

When was the law put in place? Was it after 1940?

If so, is it possible that conservative forces in Washington did not want the 1940 data available to sociologists, who might compare it with 1930 and reveal too much about the efficacy of the New Deal?

(I have a persistent belief that the GOP has been trying to make Americans forget the social and cultural achievements of the 1930s ever since the end of WW2. Their goal would be to make the '30s historically and politically irrelevant, except as one long deep depression memory which can be used as they see fit.)

A related horror was the fire at St. Louis at the National Personnel Records Center in 1973, which has effectively ended my search for military information on most of my ancestors.

By the time the data is released, it won’t be relevant to anyone, as the world will have ended by then.

All the more reason to release it sooner.

Or the fire at the Norfolk Records Office in England, without which my doctoral dissertation might have been another 100 pages or so longer. Considering what was saved from the NRO, what they had before must have been grand indeed.

Of course, an extra hundred pages may be a blessing or a curse…

Were my grandfather alive, as he was up until a few years ago, it would matter a GREAT DEAL to him if he knew that anybody could find out that he was born with the name Domanski, not Doman, and that he came from a Polish speaking household.

72 years is actually, in terms of privacy, getting too short, IMHO, what with the life expectancy we have now.

ETA - I haven’t asked my dad how he feels about the census telling the world he and his family were sharecroppers when he was born in 1930, but he probably isn’t thrilled about it either.

That’s very likely. The average lifespan in 1940 was 62 years, so setting a 72-year delay seems more than a coincidence.

I was hoping to include 2,000 footnotes. About another 100 pages would have done it…

BTW folks, census data wasn’t made private until 1978. Which shoots a very big raggedy hole in my New Deal conspiracy theory.