Oct 8, 2021

The Increasing Importance of 20th Century Records

October 8, 2021

Most of us who began our genealogy decades ago spend less time on 20th century research than we do on earlier periods. After all, for many of us, the mid-20th century and forward is part of our own memories. Why should we spend time researching it? I got a wake up call about 20th century research a few days ago that has made me re-evaluate its importance.


This week I attended part of the Colorado Council of Genealogical Societies biennial seminar. The keynote speaker was Josh Taylor, and, as usual, he gave a fantastic talk. The Council’s conference was aimed at local genealogical societies, and Josh talked about ways that those societies could remain relevant in today’s world.


One of my favorite parts of his talk dealt with what kind of help newer genealogists would most likely be looking for from local societies. He mentioned that many genealogists who are starting today could easily have grandparents and great grandparents born in the period after World War II. Beginners are taught to begin with themselves and then move backwards from there. Lots of us ignore ourselves and maybe even our parents, but most do spend time looking at grandparents and great grandparents. For younger folks that means researching from about World War II forward.


For someone of my generation, that sounds almost unbelievable. My own grandparents were born between 1874 and 1889. My great grandparents were born between 1845 and 1867. When I began my genealogical journey, I was looking for records from around the time of the Civil War and forward. My biggest excitement was when the 1850 census was indexed since it meant that I could potentially find some of my great grandparents with their birth families. In some cases, this led to identifying another generation.

Back then, whatever 20th century research I did  was mostly simple. My parents and even some of my grandparents were still alive. A person-to-person talk was all it took. Most of us pretty much ignored records for the mid and later 20th century, if they were even available. Time marches on, though, and now those mid-20th century in-person sources are gone. Records from that era are increasingly important.


For today’s new genealogists, 1950 will probably be the census that excites them. Many of them will find grandparents, or at least parents, in that census and will be able to use those entries to confirm even earlier generations. Since the 1950 census comes out in April of next year, now is the time to be learning about it. My understanding is that the census will not be immediately indexed upon release. That means all of us should brush up on our seldom-used-anymore skills in finding folks on the census using enumeration districts and other clues. This is especially important if we help younger genealogists who may never have looked at an unindexed census and for whom the census may provide vital family information.


Other 20th century records are going to be of increasing interest to new genealogists as well. The 20th century had more than its share of military conflicts, and newer genealogists will be particularly interested in WWII, Korean and Viet Nam era records. Records such as voter registration lists, directories and telephone books will help figure out where ancestors were at a specific time.


Newspapers have long been of interest to genealogists. Everyone knows about obits, of course, but digitization has meant that many other newspaper articles are also available now. These are especially important for 20th century research since so many other contemporary records are closed because of privacy issues.


As Josh suggested in his talk, genealogical societies and those of us who help newer, younger genealogists begin their family history journey need to spend more time teaching them about 20th century records. Even those of us who are no longer young genealogists can benefit from increased awareness of 20th century records since figuring out how we are related to DNA matches often requires descendancy research into the 20th century.


Societies such as LCGS need to consider the needs of their newer, younger members when they’re planning for the future. That will include more emphasis on 20th century records.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large