Just over a year ago the 1940 census of the United States was released, causing much excitement and activity in the genealogical community there. Unlike recent census releases in the UK, it did not arrive fully indexed, but as soon as the census images were made public a massive crowd-sourcing project got underway to create name indexes. This is no mean feat since that census contains over 132 million names. The project was jointly undertaken by FamilySearch and by two commercial companies, findmypast.com and Archives.com with batches being allocated to volunteer transcribers and moderators using FamilySearch indexing software. The enthusiasm of the volunteers exceeded expectations, and the whole project was completed ahead of schedule within a few months. Quite independently of this, two other companies, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com, also compiled their own indexes.
I indexed a few batches myself, because I thought it was a worthwhile project, but also because I have an interest in American records. My own ancestry is all Scottish and Irish so far, but learning about American records is useful to me because I keep finding distant relatives whose families migrated there in the 19th and 20th centuries, and I have an American daughter-in-law. It’s also relevant to the day job, since many Americans have British or Irish roots, and when I am answering their research enquiries on British records it helps to know a little about the kind of records they are used to.
Nationwide or federal censuses have been taken in the USA every ten years since 1790. In Great Britain there has been a census every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941, and in Ireland every ten years from 1821 to 1911. There was no Irish census in 1921 because of the Troubles, but a census was taken in 1926 in both the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. There is a lot more US census to look at, and not just because it is a much bigger country. There are lists of names all the way back to 1790, albeit names of heads of households only before 1850, while in Great Britain no name lists at all were collected centrally until 1841 (although some lists from 1801 to 1831 do survive in local archives). But there is also a great deal of extra census material in the USA, including state censuses, often taken half-way between the federal censuses. There are also ‘Non-population’ returns for some years, recording details about agriculture and manufacturing.