NARA and the 2010 Census

This guest blog post was written by Paul Wester, head of the Modern Records Programs at NARA.

Portions of the genealogical community are under the impression that the 2010 Decennial Census forms will not be preserved by the NARA. This impression is mistaken.

NARA has not officially received and registered a proposed records retention schedule from the Census Bureau for the 2010 census. (A records retention schedule is required when agencies propose the disposition of Federal records, in any form. Click here to review Frequently Asked Questions about Records Scheduling and Disposition.) However, NARA staff members have been holding preliminary discussions with the Census Bureau about a draft retention schedule for records of the 2010 census.

The 2010 census is planned as an all-electronic census which will affect the format in which permanent records are preserved. The Census Bureau will scan the respondent questionnaires as part of its business process for compiling the census. The draft schedule calls for the permanent retention of the scanned digital images. These scanned images are the 21st century equivalent to the microfilm copies of census forms generated for previous decennial censuses.

In addition, the Census Bureau is also proposing permanent retention for the unedited file containing response data, with linkage information to the scanned images. This means that once the census is opened to the public 72 years from the enumeration date of the 2010 census, genealogists will have two means of searching for their ancestors. They can search the database, which will contain all the data (including names and addresses) from the respondent forms. They can also use the database to locate and retrieve images of the forms themselves.

Once the Census Bureau submits the final schedule and the records have been appraised by NARA, NARA will publish notice of the schedule in the Federal Register, enabling the public to obtain and comment on the schedule. In the meantime, NARA will continue to work closely with the Census Bureau to ensure that the schedule meets the needs of genealogists and other researchers who will make use of information and data from the census.

8 thoughts on “NARA and the 2010 Census

  1. Hopefully ‘permanent retention’ means the bureau plans to copy the data unto new media before the old media goes bad or becomes outdated.

    Digital drives becoming unreadable seems to me to be a more likely occurrence than a fire, and without paper backup, I hope the agency is making the proper plans for that not to happen.

  2. This blog post discusses the preservation of the digital files. Nothing in it addresses the preservation of the PAPER forms, which is what some genealogists (not me) are concerned about.

  3. I think most gernealogists are so used to using the images of census forms found on the Internet database services that the destruction of the actual paper forms will not be a problem. I also have confidence in the training and judgment of NARA’s professional archivists to plan for and safeguard all of the digital records produced by the government.

  4. On behalf of Paul Wester and the Modern Records Programs, I would like to respond to the comments above.

    John – Thank you for your comment. Migration of data is a key component of our preservation strategy for electronic records. We will work with the Census Bureau to make sure that they understand this as well.

    Dell – Keep in mind that no final decisions about the disposition of records has been made. The draft schedule does call for the destruction of the paper forms as has occured in each decennial census since at least 1940. The scanned images serve as the replacement and equivalent of the microfilm copies produced in the past. This was the procedure approved for the 2000 census and it is likely that the 2010 census will follow the same process. You are correct in identifying this as the actual issue that the genealogical community is concerned about. We will continue our efforts to communicate our records management determinations about the 2010 Census to all interested stakeholders in as transparent a manner as possible.

    Bob – Thank you for your comment.

  5. I am not sure why you would want to save the paper forms. These days, properly set web servers have multiple redundancies not to mention the cache information from Google or Yahoo and the like…

    It is actually almost impossible to erase data that is online.

  6. I am concerned about the paper trail for genealogists because I’ve run into two problems in searching my family’s history. The first one was with microfilm… when the newspaper page pertaining to my ancester was filmed the page was accidently folded over so even though the page was there the information was not readable… it was on the part of the page under the folded piece. The second was when a page of the 1925 state census was not scanned to the internet… it went from page 5 to page 7. My family information was on page 6. Without the microfilm a copy of that page would not be available. So paper trails and microfilm are still important items for genealogists and I’d like to know they will be available to us when the time comes. Electronic records are great but there is no guarantee ALL the information will be available in 72 years since software updates are made every second. We all know what the missing 1890 census has done to research.

  7. All geneologists should be aware that no decision has been made to microfilm the 2010 census. From all the reading I have done indications are it is up in the air and funding maybe limited. While great strides have been made in standardization of common formats and in the ability to migrate the cost to migrate records over a 72 year period could become impossible especially considering that in 2020 there will be an even bigger census that will need to be maintained. The issue will continue to multiply as time goes on. While microfilm is still available it would make sense to use it to save on prescious resources that could be used on other digital only object preservation efforts.

  8. Thanks to everyone for keeping the conversation going. Here, on behalf of the Modern Records Programs, are responses to some of the more recent comments.

    NARA and the Census Bureau are taking steps to ensure the preservation of the data and the images of the questionnaires. NARA will conduct an evaluation of a sample of the images to determine that the resolution and other technical details is adequate for archival preservation. Once transferred to NARA, the images will be stored in our Electronic Records Archives.

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