The 1940 Census & the Name Index

Last Monday, the National Archives opened the doors to the 1940 Census. For the first time, instead of being available on microfilm, the archive includes digital images of the 2.8 million census pages. With a few clicks, you can find a snapshot of your family’s life in April, 1940.

It’s an easy task if you know where your family members lived then. That’s because census data is collected by geographic area, divided into enumeration districts. At the archive, you can search by state, county, city and street name. But even if a general area is all you know, you can view a county map that shows the enumeration district numbers.

In Huron County, Michigan, the Winsor district’s enumeration district is 32-45. Open that set of images in the archive and you can browse the 36 pages of hand-written census records. Here are my great-grandparents, Dan and Mary Swartzendruber, and their 20-year old son Lloyd, my grandpa:

It’s pretty amazing to see their names there and imagine Daniel coming to the door to answer a few questions on a day in April.

This page was pretty easy to find, but it’s a whole different thing if your family lived in a city. You could end up looking through dozens of enumeration districts and hundreds of pages. That’s because there’s no index that lets you search by name as well as location. To build the index will take a lot of volunteers a lot of hours, to put it mildly.

The work is already underway at Three large genealogical companies are hosting a mirror of the archive and providing indexing software to help volunteers type up information from every page. When this work is complete, “[t]he free index of the census records and corresponding images will be available to the public for perpetuity.”

The reason this isn’t a great deal, and the real reason I think we need a national digital public library, is that these genealogical companies will own this name index. Or rather, owns the license to the index. This is made plain enough in the indexing software’s license agreement:

Ownership of Your Work: Although you are working as a volunteer, without monetary compensation, you acknowledge and agree that your work in creating indexes of Images or otherwise performing related tasks using the Client or the FamilySearch Indexing Web site (such indexes and related work together called your “Work Product”) shall be deemed a work made for hire under U.S. copyright law, and that your Work Product will therefore be entirely owned by FamilySearch.

I contacted The 1940 Census project, asking if this license covered the name index and if so, would it really be free “for perpetuity.” has advised that the license to the 1940 index being created by volunteers belongs to FamilySearch as the license owner. The index is sublicensed to other 1940 community project sponsoring parties. Those we have sublicensed the index to can provide it for free or may charge for the access at some future point.

So, yes, it is licensed, and yes they intend it to be free. But they could charge for it in the future or restrict the ways in which people can use the index, if they choose to. Without placing the index under a license like Creative Commons, there’s no guarantee that the index will remain free. And although “free” may mean you won’t have to pay to run a search, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be free to use the index in any way you like: copying part of the index to share information about your family, for example.

We need a name index that’s free for the public to use, remix, and share as they choose. Am I crazy, or does this sound like a job for libraries?

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