1940 census shows why we need a national digital public library

The US National Archives made history yesterday by putting the entire 1940 census online.  Previously, census data was only released on microfilm.  This is the first time that a decennial US census has ever been made available online.

The historic event was greeted with such enthusiasm that it brought the website hosting the 1940 census to its knees.  The census is available at http://1940census.archives.gov and is provided through a partnership with a private company, Archives.com.  The website received so much traffic on the first day that you could barely complete a search and it would take forever for results to come back.

Archives.com issued a statement saying “We expected a flood and we got a tsunami” in regards to the launch of the site.  The site received over 37 million page views within just a few hours of launching.

The website provides access to digitized records with details on 132 million people.  Genealogists and researchers that previously resorted to obituaries and public records now have access to a treasure trove of information.

The 1940 census was taken right before the US entered World War II and after a decade of the Great Depression so it provides a snapshot of the US at a very unique time in history.  The census also had unusual questions like occupation, income, and whether people had a social security number.  The answers to these questions give an incredible amount of detail into the lives of US citizens in 1940.

It’s no surprise that there was huge demand for the 1940 census as soon as it launched.  The initial traffic slowed the site to a crawl.  There is currently a message on the homepage of the site saying “Thank you for your patience as we continue to address issues with the 1940 census web site.”.

The issues with the launch might have been avoided if we had a National Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).  Such a library would be dedicated to hosting digital collections and would have the resources and expertise to handle the huge amount of traffic that the census received.

Being able to handle the huge amount of traffic would be just one of the benefits of a DPLA.  We would have a single repository for all digital collections and would have standards for storing digitized data.  The DPLA would be able to leverage huge economies of scale in acquiring servers, bandwidth, and software.

The US National Archives partnered with a private company to get the 1940 census online.  Wouldn’t it be better if our cultural heritage and our history was instead entrusted to a national digital public library?