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The 1940 election

Apr 18 2011

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how structured census data for genealogy, not history, and how that limits what historians can do with it. Last week, I got an interesting e-mail from IPUMS, at the Minnesota population center on just that topic:

We have an extraordinary opportunity to partner with a leading genealogical firm to produce a microdata collection that will encompass the entire 1940 census of population of over 130 million cases. It is not feasible to digitize every variable that was collected in the 1940 census. We are therefore seeking your help to prioritize variables for inclusion in the 1940 census database.

I’d assume that partner is itself, but maybe there are other ‘leading genealogical firms’ out there that type in every census entry. This isn’t really my beat.

Given things I’ve said earlier about historians needing to be more involved in databases, though, let me link to their survey. If you think you might do research about the 30s/40s, you should fill it out. (Today is the last day–sorry for the short notice, and I assume they don’t mind the link being circulated off their list-serv.) The 1940 census is full of employment information on the tail end of the great depression, captures a population at a unique moment in mobility, etc. Could be a tremendously valuable resource. I won’t tell you what to vote for, of course. But if this leads to a fully downloadable set of the 1940 census with restrictions on commercial use but not much else, that would be remarkable.

On the other hand, I do wonder a bit whether this isn’t another example of piecemeal private-public collaboration on digitization that might keep us from realizing the full potential of this data. Wendell Willkie’s revenge, you might say. But the people at IPUMS do good work (their microdata samples from 1930 and before are, I think, an underused resource by US historians who prefer to take statistics from secondary sources instead) so it’s safe to say that this is what we’re going to get (at least until someone perfects 19th handwriting OCR), it will be very useful, and it’s great that they’re making an effort to reach out to users.