National Archives News

A Decade of Work Culminates in 1950 Census Release on April 1

By Victoria Macchi | National Archives News


WASHINGTON, March 31, 2022 — From paper to magnetic tape to digital images, the 1950 Census records will debut publicly this week following 10 years of work by National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) staff.

The public will be able to access the records, which for the first time will include a name search function on launch day, beginning April 1—a milestone in the 72-year journey of the 17th decennial census.

"I am grateful to the staff of the National Archives for their dedication in preserving and providing access to this important set of records," Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero said. 

Hundreds of agency employees and contractors contributed to the 1950 Census project in the past decade, from digitizing thousands of records to preparing the infrastructure for the first-ever name index. Because of privacy laws, a subgroup of staff with special clearance known as Title 13 were the only people within NARA to work directly with the records, limiting who could handle the microfilm and how the website developers could conduct their research and testing.

Additionally, as the COVID-19 pandemic upended the lives and work of people everywhere beginning in 2020, NARA staff had to create alternate workflows to ensure the census release would happen on time, despite the global health emergency.

"Not long after we launched the 1940 Census website back in 2012, staff at the National Archives began scanning the original microfilm that we received from the Census Bureau for the 1950 Census. And more recently, the pandemic threw everyone a curveball. But our staff persisted and found technical work-arounds in order to complete scanning and to index those scanned 1950 Census records," said Pamela Wright, Chief Innovation Officer of the National Archives.

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During the early days of the pandemic, recalls supervisory archivist Sarah Herman, teams had to be creative to complete the digitization of 6,373 microfilm census rolls by National Archives staff.

“We would come in on alternating days, because each magnetic tape took about two days to run. So you would come in and you would just insert the tape and start the transfer, and then come back two days later to find it finished,” Herman said of the digitization process. “Then we could push that over onto a server that we had had already set up at the National Archives Building that the staff were going to work off of, to review the images to get the metadata so that we could put it eventually online.”

To ensure the most complete records release possible, agency employees also had to troubleshoot census rolls that were unreadable or missing from what was accessioned by NARA. Close collaboration with the U.S. Census Bureau resolved the majority of those issues.

In total, NARA staff scanned:

  • 7,816,000 population schedule pages
  • 9,634 enumeration district maps
  • 60,000 supplemental “Indian Census” pages from Native American reservations

NARA’s census work continues after April 1. The 1950 Census Genealogy Series continues through May.

And as with every census release, the end of one cycle is the start of another: this summer, the agency’s Research Services and Innovation teams are already organizing the first steps of the 1960 Census release, which will be made available to the public in 2032.