This week, Mel Henry sat in front of a computer screen and for the first time, saw his handwritten name on a census record from 1940. He was 8 years old.
He also found names of neighbors, a babysitter and relatives in his childhood hometown of Burlington, Iowa.
Henry, 80, teaches a weekly genealogy class at the Active Life senior center. Next week he’ll be showing off the new website of census records, which became available for the first time on Monday.
Henry is one of more than 21 million people alive in the U.S. and Puerto Rico who were counted in the 16th federal decennial census, which documents the decade of the 1930s transformed by the Great Depression and black migration from the rural South.
A name index is not available at this time to search, but still thousands of researchers like Mel Henry are expected to go on a genealogical hunt this week through the digitized records for details on 132 million people. Access to the records, which are actual photographs of the handwritten census, are free and open to anyone on the Internet.
Using the website is not difficult, although searching for people living in cities with a street number will find it easier than those searching for families in rural areas.
The first step is finding a enumeration district, but the website has maps and descriptions to help do that. With the enumeration district, you’ll go directly to a photographed section of census records in that area. It may take some time to scroll through the pages.
Some groups, such as the ACLU, have expressed concern over the release of the census records. However, fears that the data could be used to harm anyone living today, such as through identity theft, were alleviated when the archives said no birth dates or Social Security numbers would be in the records.
The 1940 census can be found at 1940census.archives.gov. Mel Henry will be demonstrating the website at a class beginning at 9:30 a.m. Monday at the Active Life senior center. The center is open to Troup County residents who are 55 years old and older.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.