Rush For 1940 Census Data Jams Archives' Website

Robert Siegel talks with Susan Cooper, head of publicity for the National Archives, about Monday's system crash as the result of people trying to access their own family's history from the 1940 Census data as it was released.

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Curiosity about census numbers from 72 years ago crashed the website of the National Archives today. Within the first three hours the data from the 1940 census was available online, 22-and-a-half-million hits were registered, congesting that digital pathway to the past.

This is the first time that the National Archives have put data online directly and the response proved too much for the system. Needless to say, for National Archives' head of publicity Susan Cooper, this has not been a great day. Susan, how would you describe it?

SUSAN COOPER: Well, I guess you could say that we are really a victim of our own success. We advertised the opening of the 1940 census so widely that we had many, many more people logging on first thing in the morning than we had anticipated.

SIEGEL: Genealogists often claim that theirs is the biggest hobby in America. It's very hard to find hard data to support that, but this would come pretty close if there are that many millions of people who are trying to get in.

COOPER: Yes. I think you're right.

SIEGEL: Listen, this can only get worse. In 2020, when the 1950 census comes out - or 2022 - and 2032 when the 1960 census comes out, so what are you going to do?

COOPER: Well, we're going to be better prepared. I can guarantee you that. This is our first online release of census material and we released 16 terabytes of census material and this is, by far, the largest release of digital material that the National Archives has ever had.

SIEGEL: What was your past record?

COOPER: We released 250 megabytes of Nixon grand jury transcripts, and so there's a huge leap from 250 megabytes to 16 terabytes.

SIEGEL: I'll say. And there are people who are interested in far more Americans than just Richard Nixon out there, who were...

COOPER: That's exactly right.

SIEGEL: I gather that you're trying to get this up and running as soon as possible and what actually are the Archives doing to try to make it accessible?

COOPER: We're adding more servers and, to sort of ease the traffic lane and as our tech people say, we're also increasing the speed limit so that we anticipate that we're going to be able to solve the logjam and we'll be able to get a lot more people onto our website. They'll be able to find their families a lot more quickly than they can right now.

SIEGEL: And at least by tomorrow, say?

COOPER: I would say by tomorrow, we ought to have the problem - if not solved, at least on our way to really solving it.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you very much, Susan.

COOPER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Susan Cooper of the National Archives. Today is the first day that the 1940 census data is accessible and it's all online from the Archives and also from other sites that charge money for that access. This was the first census, we believe, to actually have processed all that information on punch cards, as we were reminded in the 1940s film from the Census Bureau.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thousands of operators will sort and tabulate the millions of cards almost entirely with machines, mechanical marvels of accuracy and speed, and so will be written the official record of the 1940 America.


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