It's rare that massive new sources of genealogical information are released, and certainly rare that such sources are released for free. Every ten years in the United States, however, the census from 72 years earlier is released. In the past it has taken a lot of time to get the census made available to the public, primarily because of the massive cost in digitizing and indexing information on tens of millions of people.
On April 2, 2012, the 1940 US Census will be released to the public. Besides the obvious benefit of having information on the over 130 Million residents of the United States in 1940, there are other reasons to be excited about this release.
For one, it is the first time that the National Archives is releasing the census in digital form. In the past, companies needed to scan millions of pages of microfilm to create their own digital images of the census records. On April 2, 2012, the National Archives is releasing the entire 1940 census in digital form. There will not be an index to those records, which brings us to the second reason this release is exciting: Many genealogy companies and organizations have been planning for this release for years and it will be indexed in record time.
For starters, Stephen Morse on his great One Step website, has created with Joel Weintraub and the help of volunteers, ways of finding the 1940 Enumeration District (ED) of any address in the United States. They even have a quiz that helps you determine what the proper way to figure out the ED for where your family lived in 1940. When the census records are released, searching by ED will be the only way to find records in the census. If you know where your family listed in April 1940 (when the census was taken), then you can find the records for that address using Steve Morse's tools. FOr a very detailed look at how the process will work, see Stephen's article Getting Ready for the 1940 Census: Searching without a Name Index which appeared in the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly this month.
Next, Ancestry.com has announced that they will be making the images and their index to those records (which they will develop on their own) free through at least the end of 2013. It's unknown how long it will take Ancestry.com to index the records, but presumably their index would be available before the end of 2013.
Archives.com, which has been seeking in recent years to compete with Ancestry.com as a lower-cost service, announced that they have partnered with the National Archives to be the official host of the images that will be released on April 2, 2012. The official site the images will be released on has not yet been announced, but Archives.com has posted information on this partnership at archives.com/1940census.
More recently, it has been announced that three different genealogy companies have joined forces to index the 1940 US Census together and thus make the 1940 census searchable for free as well. These are Archives.com, FamilySearch.org and FindMyPast.com. They will be using FamilySearch.org's indexing tool (which I discussed almost exactly a year ago here) to coordinate the indexing project.
One interesting point is that it makes sense that Archives.com is involved since they are hosting the images for the National Archives (and have no public indexing tool of their own), and it makes sense that FamilySearch.org is involved (since they have the indexing tool and have previously proven themselves by indexing the 1930 US Census), but the odd man out seems to be FindMyPast.com. What's interesting is that FindMyPast.com just re-directs to FindMyPast.co.uk, as it is actually a British genealogy site. Is FindMyPast planning to move into the US genealogy market and is the 1940 census their means of doing so? or are they just planning on offering the 1940 census index to their British users as a means of tracking relatives that moved to the US? The use of FindMyPast.com in the press release instead of FindMyPast.co.uk makes this an interesting question.
1940 Census Community Project. You can check out the information on the project now, and if you're interested in helping index the 1940 US Census, you can download FamilySearch.org's indexing tool now and try it out with other projects FamilySearch.org is indexing.
In addition, one of the interesting pages the project has released is what the enumerator was supposed to ask each family when adding them to the census. This gives you a good idea of what to expect when the 1940 US Census is released.
So there you go, we're 105 days away from the release of the 1940 US Census images. Now you know how you'll be able to find your family (if they were living in the US on April 1, 1940) when the census is released.