The U.S. Census and Who Counts

One of the major go-to resources for conducting genealogical research is the census. It’s often the best place for beginning genealogists to start. Depending on the year of the census, a researcher can find information on their ancestor’s birth place and year, immigration year and status, age at first marriage, birth place of ancestor’s parents, occupation and much more. In honor of this invaluable resource and the upcoming 2020 census, we hosted an event on Wednesday, January 22nd, with curators from the UC Berkeley Library’s Census Exhibit, Ann Glusker and Jesse Silva, who spoke about the importance of the census and its historical context.

Jesse Silva and Ann Glusker speaking about the UC Berkeley Library’s Census exhibit at Sutro Library’s first event of 2020.

The Basics

A decennial population count is required by the Constitution (Article 1, Section 2). The main purpose for the census is to determine the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives. It is also used to distribute federal funds to local communities.

The census began in 1790 and has occurred ever since. Back then, marshals rode around on horseback to record: names of head of house; free white males of 16 years and upward; free white males under 16 years; free white females; all other free persons; and slaves. The upcoming 2020 Census will be conducted almost entirely online. Respondents are given the option to complete the form in paper, over the phone or on the census site.

Snippet from the 1790 Census. Why was the age cut-off for males 16? Answer: This was the age they could join the military
One page from the 2020 Census questionnaire. Some major differences include more ways to express relation to head of house (Person 1) and race. Snapshot from


While aggregate data and statistics are available from 1790-2010, individual census records (known as census schedules) which are valuable to genealogists are released after 72 years from the date of the census due to privacy laws. From 1790 – 1940 the census schedules are available on microfilm at the National Archives and its branches or online through sites like You can access all of these at the Sutro Library. Unfortunately, there is one census that is no longer available: most of the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire in 1921. If your ancestor isn’t one of the lucky ones found on the few surviving fragments, then you’re left turning to supplementary resources from this time period like voter rolls. Genealogists and other researchers anxiously await the release of the 1950 census in two years! The first digital census was in 2000 which means we won’t get to see the first computerized census again until it’s released in 2072! This also means you still need to hone in on your ability to read handwriting.

Long Form and American Community Survey

By 1940, the census began to ask a select population (1 in 6 respondents) additional questions. This paper form was longer than the actual census form which earned it its name “long form.” Some questions on this form included: income, education, where respondent lived 5 years ago, ancestry, etc. The year 2000, was the last decennial census for which the long form was used. The decision was made that the long form questions needed to be answered more frequently than every ten years.  As of 2005, the American Community Survey has gathered information that was previously asked on the long form every year from a sample of the population. Not every part of U.S. is included in their survey, however; American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and US Virgin Islands are excluded from ACS. Aggregate data from the ACS can be accessed via the census site or through proprietary sources like Social Explorer. Similar to previous censuses, the individual responses will be released in 72 years.

Race and Ethnicity

The representation of race/ethnicity in the official census has changed over the decades and are products of the time in which they were created. Some of the terms still used can be seen as anachronistic and insensitive, e.g. Black, African American or Negro. The reason the latter term is still used is because it was found that older members of this community preferred to refer to themselves in this way over the former terms. Prior to 1960, race was subjective and the census taker chose the race for the respondent based on what they saw. For instance, if a person of color had lighter skin, then it was common for them to be mistakenly described as white. In 1970, the population began to fill out the entire form by themselves, but even then, the options for race were limited. For example, respondents were only able to choose one race until the 2000 census.

The following categories are currently used according to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB): White; Black or African American; American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. This definition on race has not changed since the 1990s. Hispanic/Latino is considered an ethnicity not a race by the OMB as they believe that Hispanics/Latinos can be of any race.

UC Berkeley Library Census Exhibit case on Race and Civil Rights.

Exhibit: Power and the People – The U.S. Census and Who Counts

Other topics covered in the UC Berkeley Library Census exhibit include gender and sexual orientation, immigration, poverty and income, and controversies.

Exhibit case on Japanese Americans and World War II. In 2007, it was discovered that the Census Bureau aided military by giving individual as well as aggregate data in the Japanese internment process.

The exhibit will be up for another month until March 1, 2020. It is located in the Doe Library on the UC Berkeley campus. For more information, please visit: and check out this article written by Berkeley Library News. The next event in relation to this exhibit will be a panel featuring renowned experts on race/ethnicity and the census: Cristina Mora, Michael Omi, Taeku Lee and Tina Sacks. The event is on March 19, 2020 at 5pm in the Morrison Library (which is located inside the Doe Library). For more information on the UC Berkeley Library’s exhibit events, visit here.

Special thank you to Ann Glusker and Jesse Silva for coming to Sutro Library and doing such an amazing and engaging talk.

Today’s blog post was written by Sutro Library’s Genealogy Librarian, Dvorah Lewis.

Other Resources

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.