10 August 2012

Ancestry.com's new image viewer enhances the 1940 census

With the release of the 1940 U.S. Federal Census, Ancestry.com highlights its new interactive image viewer to subscribers and non-subscribers alike. Since the 1940 index and images are freely accessible at Ancestry.com, everyone can check out how technology really improves how we view old documents. Still in its beta release, the viewer covers the basics—click-and-drag, rotate, flip, contrast, magnify, pan, share, save—and takes a giant leap forward with new features.

How It Works

The 1940 census search page looks much like any other search on Ancestry.com. For this example, I searched for Clarence Almon Torrey, born 1869 in Iowa, died 1962 in Massachusetts. A well-respected genealogist of the Jacobus school, he spent decades creating what would become the seminal New England Marriages Prior to 1700. After clicking his entry on the results page, something special happens. His row on the 1940 census is highlighted in yellow, and his family group (head of household Etta Quilty and lodger Anna Huntley) appears in green.

At the top of the screen it says “1940 United States Federal Census for Clarence A Torrey” (our highlighted name). Below that, “Massachusetts > Suffolk > Boston > 15-605 > Page 24 of 40,” followed by triangles to page up or down. At the top of the census page, you see Torrey is in ward 17, block 17. But if you click on the green tab on the far right, you’ll see more details for the ED number that do not appear on the actual page: “BOSTON CITY WARD 17 (TRACT X-5C - PART), ST. MATTHEW´S CONVENT.” Below that, the overlay adds source information and a blurb about the 1940 census. Although it includes the series number (T627), data on this screen does not include the specific roll number. You need to return to the previous screen for the rest of the citation: “Roll T627_1676; Page 12B; Enumeration District 15-605.”

Index Tab

On the bottom of the screen, click on the green Index tab. Here you’ll find a partial transcription of each row, including line number, house number, street name, surname, given name, relation to head of household, gender, race, age, estimated birth year, marital status, birthplace, residence in 1935 (city, state), live on farm, and citizenship. All of these fields are editable except estimated birth year and 1935 residence. That means you can make changes to the actual index, give a reason (transcription error, incorrect in image, nickname, name change, variation, maiden name), and “explain or source your alternate (optional).”

Since I didn’t find any problems with Torrey’s entry, let’s use my uncle’s family as an example for the 1940 census. Since no correct hits appeared on the results screen, I tried searching by first name and place only, with the addition of parents and siblings to narrow the results. As expected, his uncommon surname was misspelled and I fixed it in the index overlay with a notation that it was a transcription error. (I could read the census taker’s handwriting better than the indexer did because I am very familiar with this specific family.) In the index, his mother’s name was listed as “Lilly.” Perhaps that’s a D and the census taker really wrote “Tildy”? I don’t know, but I used the editing feature to say her name was really Matilda. Later, Ancestry.com will review the alternate data users provide, and if the arbiter agrees, you’ll see both the original and alternate spellings in the index. You’ll also get a nice email from Ancestry.com saying thank you, your changes have been added to the index.

I wish all online genealogy databases had this user-edit feature. Providing alternate information improves the index and helps others with their research. After all, an indexer is transcribing sometimes hard-to-read handwritten records while users, with years of research studying that same family, have extra insight.

Rows and Columns

As you pan to the right of the census page, on the left-hand side appears an overlay of the indexed names for each row. That way you never lose sight of Torrey’s row (still highlighted in yellow) and you have a list of his neighbors.

At the top of the census page, there’s a drop-down overlay for the column headings. Even better, as you select an individual data field in a row, it is outlined in orange and above that, you’ll see a balloon of either the transcribed data or a tip for what type of information should appear in the field. For example, for line number 67, column 7, “Name: Clarence A Torrey” pops up in an orange-outlined balloon. Column 28 is blank, though the balloon tip tells me “Occupation” should be written there. Column 32, “Income,” is blank as well, but “yes” is written under “Other Income” for column 33. If you want to find out more about question 33, pan to the top of the census page and click on that field. Up pops another balloon with the details: “Did this person receive income of $50 or more from sources other than money wages or salary? (Yes or No.)” This feature also works well with the information at the bottom of the census page.


Overall, I am pleased with Ancestry.com’s interactive viewer. If you have volunteered for FamilySearch Indexing projects, you’ll find Ancestry.com’s interactive viewer is somewhat similar to what indexers see while doing data entry. But Ancestry.com’s viewer is the next step; without the indexing, there could be no interactivity.

Learn more from Ancestry.com about the interactive viewer. Since it's still in beta, you can send comments to help improve features in the viewer.

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