The wait is almost over
The long-awaited 1950 U.S. Census records will be publicly available on April 1, 2022, after being kept confidential for 72 years. For genealogists, family historians, researchers, and others who are curious about the people counted in the census, the day cannot come soon enough. Any census can add value to genealogy and family history research, but the 1950 U.S. Census will be especially useful since it includes extra details such as names, age, gender, race, birthplace, education levels, occupation, and income for each of the 151,325,798 persons enumerated.
The cloud, artificial intelligence, and you
As useful as these census records are, it is important to note that only images and a draft index will be released on the first day with many corrections and revisions to follow. According to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website, they have “digitized and will provide free online access to the 1950 Census population schedules for U.S. states and territories, enumeration district maps, and enumeration district descriptions” (National Archives 2022). Unlike the 1940 U.S. Census released a decade ago, the National Archives will concurrently release a census index, but it may not be 100% accurate due to limitations in optical character recognition (OCR) software. This means researchers may need to manually search and sift through online images to find the correct ones they want.
The head start begins with the National Archives releasing census records immediately to the web so users can begin their searches on April 1. Then, Ancestry plans to “create an initial automated index using machine learning algorithms and AI [artificial intelligence] handwriting recognition technology” (Wright 2022). This preliminary index of more than 150 million names will then be corrected and verified by volunteers on Ancestry, FamilySearch, and other websites – a process that will take several months. If you want to help and volunteer your time, click here for more information.
How to find someone in the census without the index
But, what if you do not want to – or cannot – wait until the final index is available? The following is one strategy to find someone in the 1950 U.S. Census until the final index is available.
- Know where the person lived on or around April 1, 1950. If you remember the person’s address jump to step 4. If not, go to step 2.
- If you do not know where the person lived, look through old phone books or city directories. Ancestry has indexed and digitized city directories that you can use in your research, but they vary by year. While Ancestry requires a subscription at home, Ancestrylibrary.com is free on any Denver Public Library computer and on personal computers, smartphones, and tablets connected to the library’s Wi-Fi. If you need help finding a name in a Colorado telephone book or directory, visit Central Library in person to consult the physical telephone book and city directory collection in the Western History and Genealogy Department (see below for operating hours).
- If a 1950 phone book or city directory is not available or the person is unlisted, search a few years before or after. If you still cannot find them, talk to your oldest surviving relatives for clues and information. Other strategies include searching private records, such as old letters and correspondence (i.e. Christmas cards), school and college records, or vital records such as birth, marriage, and death certificates that sometimes list addresses. Public records may take more time and money to search and it is best to request them sooner rather than later. Addresses may have been recorded in wills and probate records, arrest and police records, court documents, county assessor and tax records, county clerk or county recorder archives logging real estate transactions and home purchases, voter registration records, and applications for Social Security numbers or benefits. Old newspaper archives may also be helpful – the Library of Congress Chronicling America and the Colorado Historical Newspaper Collection are good starting places. If your family lived outside of Colorado in 1950, start by searching the state and the keywords “newspaper archives” to see if any libraries, colleges, universities, or state archives have digitized old newspapers.
- When you have an address, the next step is to find it in the correct 1950 enumeration maps that the National Archives has digitized for Denver and other cities, states, and territories. The website stevemorse.org was helpful for figuring out the enumeration districts when the 1940 U.S. Census was released and can be used to narrow down the exact district for a 1950 address.
- On or after April 1, you can log on to websites hosting census images, such as the National Archives (free), Ancestry (subscription required) or FamilySearch (free registration required) to begin searching. Be prepared to possibly go through dozens, if not hundreds, of images until you find the person you are looking for. After you find the image, you can print the file or save it to a USB drive.
Customers interested in volunteering with Ancestry or FamilySearch to index records can click here to learn more. Librarians can help customers get started on Ancestry or FamilySearch at any branch in the Denver Public Library system on both library and personal devices. For more complex questions and to consult telephone books and city directories in person, customers can meet with archivists or special collection librarians in the temporary Western History and Genealogy reading room on the first floor of Central Library, located at 10 W. 14th Avenue in Denver. The reading room is open from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm on Sundays through Thursdays. Table space is limited and note that 4:30 pm is the cutoff time to request materials be pulled by shelvers. Parking around Central Library is free on Sundays.
Why do we have to wait 72 years?
Finally, if you are wondering why census records are kept confidential for 72 years, this NPR article explains some of the reasons. While nobody really knows, the “policy — called the ‘72-Year Rule’ — was enshrined into law in 1978 and has become part of the current promise of confidentiality the bureau relies on to persuade households to get counted” (Wang 2022). For an interesting podcast on the history of different censuses around the world, click here to listen to “The census: A snapshot of life” from the BBC.
To learn more
- BBC Forum - The census: A snapshot of life
- National Archives webpage about 1950 Census Records
- National Archives enumeration district and related maps
- NPR: The U.S. census's 72-year confidentiality rule has a strange history
- U.S. Census Bureau webpage on 1950 Census Records
- Youtube: The Big Count: 17th Decennial Census Training Film (1950 Census)
National Archives. 2022. "1950 Census records." National Archives. February 9. https://www.archives.gov/research/census/1950.
Wang, Hansi Lo. 2022. "The U.S. census's 72-year confidentiality rule has a strange history." NPR. February 4. https://www.npr.org/2022/02/04/1074566938/census-data-72-year-rule-priv….
Wright, Jason. 2022. " How indexing the 1950 census will be different." FamilySearch. January 27. https://www.familysearch.org/en/blog/indexing-1950-census?cid=em-rt-124….
Thanks for all this great info Nicolás!!
I’ve had a lot of fun collecting my ancestor’s census pages.
It’s been interesting to look at a map & see the route the census taker took. Humor at misspellings of how names were heard & then written down. And marvel at some of that elegant penmanship.
For me, the census generations are getting closer. In 1950, my father was 11, which means I might get to see myself on the next release.
This set was a little sad for me. I’ve known some of those then pre-teens & the end of their story - that they did not survive Covid.
Genealogy is bittersweet that way.