Massive Demand for 1940 U.S. Census Data Crashes Website
April 2nd, 2012
It promises to be a treasure trove of information – detailed family data from the 1940 census, released today for the first time.
There's just one problem: That long-buried treasure is now proving difficult -- if not impossible -- to open. Interest has been so high, the National Archives' website has essentially crashed.
"We are having a server problem," said Susan Cooper, director of public and media communications at the National Archives. "Because there is such a huge volume, they're having a hard time keeping up."
Cooper told ABC News that the website had 22.5 million hits in the first three hours of operation today and 37 million hits by this afternoon -- far more than anyone had anticipated.
"We knew we would have high traffic volume, and we thought we were prepared for it," she said, 'but I think we've been very surprised by actually how popular it is."
The general outlines of the 1940 U.S. Census have been publically released before, but actual data from each household is kept private for 72 years.
Today's release offers a snapshot of the lives of the famous, as well as the ordinary. The 1940 census data, for example, indicates that then-actor Ronald Reagan was paying $135 a month for the Los Angeles apartment he shared with his wife, actress Jane Wyman. It also reveals how much some of Hollywood's biggest stars were paying their live-in help.
When the National Archives released the detailed data from the 1920 and 1930 census reports, it was on microfilm. Accessing it meant making a trip to the library and fishing through the films.
This is the first time the data, 3.8 million digital images, has been released online. "Now, theoretically, you can now stay at home and search from your own computer," said Cooper, "so it makes it much more accessible; and therefore more popular."
Cooper says they're working to add more capacity, to allow the millions looking for family pay-dirt to get onto the site.
Currently, even if you do manage to click through the search feature, if you are looking for a particular person, you need to already know how to locate them. The special archives website, requires a specific address or zip code in order to narrow down a search to the specific enumeration district where the person lived.
Enumeration districts were the several city blocks assigned to the enumerators – the government workers dispatched to go knocking on door after door to conduct the surveys for that year's census.
The National Archives is working with volunteers to try to index the data base by name, so that only a name would be necessary to start a search. But that feature will likely take another six to nine months before it becomes available.
The archivists, who prepared millions of pages documenting the America of the 1940 for online release, pulled information on some particularly notable figures included in this census -- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and then-actor, future President Ronald Reagan.
Roosevelt's occupation was listed as President of the U.S.A. According to the census sheet, he lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with his wife, personal secretary, cousin, governess and four servants.
At the time of the 1940 Census, Ronald Reagan was pursuing his burgeoning acting career and was just married to his first wife, Jane Wyman, a co-star from the movie "Brother Rat." The year he married Wyman, Reagan was living in an apartment in the hills of Hollywood.
In the spring of 1939, the couple moved to a different apartment in Los Angeles proper, according to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
The detailed census data indicates that Reagan and his wife lived alone at 1326B Londonderry View Drive in Los Angeles. They both reported incomes of greater than $5,000 a year, and lived in a $200,000 home.
Living two doors away from Reagan was Sydney Rusinow, a famous bridge player who married actress Viola Richard, a Laurel and Hardy co-star. There is a technique named after the bridge player, the "Rusinow lead."