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Who knew? 72-year-old census data proves irresistible

A data dump from the 1940 census reveals life in the Great Depression and the New Deal era -- and draws huge digital crowds that overwhelm servers.

1940 census U.S. National Archives

It was billed as a huge Web event, and the release of the 1940 census lived up to the advance billing. "Extraordinary demand" overwhelmed the service to the point where many services were taken offline for updates.

On Monday, the Census Bureau released the 1940 census for the first time since those records were compiled 72 years ago. The trove includes some 3.8 million images scanned from more than 4,000 rolls of microfilm.

The release was eagerly awaited by scholars hoping to glean more details about what the United States looked like in the waning days of the Great Depression, just prior to its entry into World War II. Scholars, however, were joined by almost 2 million curiosity seekers who racked up more than 22 million hits on the site in just four hours on Monday, a spokeswoman for the U.S. National Archives told the Associated Press.

Once the services are back up and fully functioning, it still will take a bit of skill to navigate the records, which won't immediately be searchable by name. For now, researchers must know what's called the enumeration district where each person lived when the census data was compiled. But if you want to give it a whirl in the meantime, and you're patient enough, the archive will yield up nuggets such as the personal details of "Catcher in the Rye" author J.D. Salinger well before he made his reputation as a novelist.