Winter 2000, Vol. 32, No. 4
Myths and Realities About the 1960 Census
By Margaret O. Adams and Thomas E. Brown
"The United States is in danger of losing its memory," declared the 1985 Report
of the Committee on the Records of Government.1
It asserted that "governments— federal, state, and local— already have
lost control of paper records" and then considered the outlook for the preservation
of public records given that "governments are rapidly shifting to electronic
recordkeeping." Overall, the Report effectively called attention to the
potential dangers of loss of historically valuable records. Unfortunately, however,
in order to raise the volume of the valuable alarm it was ringing, the Report
repeated what was by then already an apocryphal story:
By the mid 1970s, when computer tapes for the 1960 census came to the attention
of archivists, there remained only two machines capable of reading them. One
was already in the Smithsonian. The other was in Japan!2
From time to time, staff at the National Archives and Records
Administration (NARA) receive inquiries about this claim and respond to
each that the story is untrue. But the story lives on.
Ten years after the 1985 report, the Draft Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information,
commissioned by the Commission on Preservation and Access and the
Research Libraries Group (CPA/RLG), included a related tale. The
section on "The Limits of Digital Technology" stated:
Numerous examples illustrate the danger of losing the significant cultural memories
that information in digital form may represent. The 1960 Census, for example,
was written on tapes for the Univac I, a machine that has been obsolete for
more than two decades. Its obsolescence caused much of the census data to be
Slightly further into the report, it says, "Countless anecdotes about the loss
of satellite imagery or census data as a result of error or neglect feed our
general anxiety about the future of the cultural record we are accumulating
in digital form."4 Following a review of the draft,
Margaret Adams wrote to the task force:
The allusions in the report to the loss of 1960 Census data, while not exactly
a repetition of the apocryphal story about there being two computers in the
world that can read the 1960 Census tapes . . . are still misleading. It is
my understanding that no 1960 Census data that were scheduled to be preserved
as having long-term value were lost because of technological obsolescence, per
se. The losses of valuable data . . . that have occurred throughout the 20th
century and in contexts in which technology has been used to collect, create,
and use information objects, have by and large been because there was no expectation,
on any level, that these information objects should be preserved, nor any plan
to assure that they were.5
One of the co-chairs of the CPA/RLG Task Force then asked for clarification.6
The documentation related to the electronic records of the 1960 census resided
in unpublished correspondence, memorandums, and records schedules on file at NARA.
All of that material is open for public inspection, but because it is unpublished,
it is easily accessible only to those in the Washington, D.C., area. Therefore
two NARA staff decided to use this request as an opportunity to describe what
happened to data from the 1960 census. The final report of the CPA/RLG Task Force
used parts of that essay and makes a digital copy available.7
A revised version of this narrative follows.
Historical Narrative: Data from the 1960 Census
By 1961 staff at the National Archives knew that the Bureau of the Census had
used a computer for tabulating the 1960 census and that summary tape files from
this activity were a basic product of the census. They also knew that the bureau
microfilmed the transcribed census schedules and were preserving the microfilm.
A transcript of an April 1961 trainee's report at the National Archives and
Records Service (NARS) provided the results of a NARS study of current practices
of federal agency users of electronic data-processing equipment in connection
with the records disposition problems that arose from those new operations.
It mentioned that the bureau planned to retain 1960 summary tape files (i.e.,
microaggregation files) for, among other reasons, "statistical comparison with
the 1970 Census, but presumably, like the punch cards for earlier censuses,
[these tapes] will lose their usefulness in time."8
That commentary reflects a general practice at the time in many agencies of
the federal government as well as the prevailing attitude at the National Archives.
In 1939 an advisory committee at the National Archives had determined that in
the case of punch card records, federal agencies (rather than archivists) could
determine whether the records had historical value and should be preserved.
Following this decision, few agencies retained any punch card records for historical
purposes. The Bureau of the Census disposed of basic microdata records on punch
cards once derivative data were produced.9
An internal 1963 Bureau of the Census technical memorandum listed
tape files produced in connection with the 1960 census of population
and housing that the bureau was retaining in "permanent data storage."
It did not list any files with basic microdata records from the entire
census, which seems consistent with the above assessment. It is also
not surprising, given what NARS staff had learned when they interviewed
Bureau of the Census personnel for the study mentioned above. The
bureau's records officer mentioned that he considered both punch cards
and magnetic tapes to be "non-record," but he also described tape files
that the bureau was retaining because of potential need for them for
The discussion of any loss of 1960 census data must therefore focus
on the tape files reported in 1963 to have been in "permanent data
storage." In 1975 another internal Bureau of the Census technical
memorandum indicated that the bureau had retained data files from the
1960 census on 7,297 tapes "readable" with UNIVAC II-A tape drives,
1,678 "readable" with UNIVAC III-A tape drives, and 146 tapes
"readable" with then contemporary industry-compatible tape drives.
In the 1970s NARS had inaugurated a "Targeted Agency" program that
attempted to assist selected agencies with permanently valuable
electronic records to bring them under records management control. With
the help of NARS archivists in the Targeted Agency program, the bureau
in August 1975 outlined a plan to provide for the "adequate retention
of the 1960 data." The Census Bureau would retain 132 of the
industry-compatible tapes and would copy the tape files on 1,273 of the
III-A tapes onto industry-compatible tapes. NARS staff informally
agreed to the plan.
At issue were the data on the 7,297 II-A tapes. All of the stories
about loss of 1960 census data have to do with the 1960 derivative data
that the bureau stored on tapes readable only by UNIVAC II-A tape
drives. During 1975 and 1976, a member of the NARS Machine Readable
Archives Division reviewed the microaggregation or derivative files
that the Bureau of the Census had preserved from the 1960 census on the
II-A tapes. Her review identified seven series as having long-term
value to compensate for the lack of the basic microdata records from
the complete census. The seven series resided on 642 of the II-A tapes.
But by this time, the Univac II-A tape drives were obsolete, and thus
migrating these tapes to industry-compatible tapes presented a major
engineering challenge. Despite the challenge, the census staff
By 1979 the Census Bureau reported that they had
successfully completed copying 640 of the 642 II-A tapes onto 178
industry-compatible tapes. Two of the II-A tapes could not be found.
The missing tapes held 7,488 records, or about .5 percent of the
approximately 1.5 million records on all II-A tapes that had been
identified as having long-term value. On the 640 tapes that were
located, only 1,575 records (or less than .2 percent of the total
number of valuable records on II-A tapes) could not be copied because
of deterioration. Hence a small volume of records from the 1960 census
was lost. This occurred because of inadequate inventory control and
because of the physical deterioration of a minuscule number of records,
not technological obsolescence.
Most of the data extant from the 1960 census, even in the
microaggregations, are restricted from public disclosure for
seventy-two years (or until 2032) by Title 13, U.S. Code. During fiscal
year 2000, the Census Bureau transferred to the National Archives Title
13-covered microaggregations from the 1960 census. They will be
preserved, verified, and accessioned into the National Archives, to be
released to the public beginning in 2032. In fiscal year 1987, the
bureau transferred and NARA accessioned the 1960 public use microdata
In case readers are wondering, none of the documentary material used
for this narrative mentions anything about computers at the Smithsonian
Institution or in Japan.
This article is based upon an earlier version that originally appeared in the
Association of Public Data User's APDU Newsletter 22 (September 1997):
Margaret O. Adams is reference program manager, Electronic and Special Media Records Services, National Archives and Records Administration.
Thomas E. Brown is manager of archival services, Electronic and Special
Media Records Services, National Archives and Records Administration
1. Committee on the Records of Government, Report
(March 1985). The committee was sponsored by the American Council of
Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, and the Council
on Library Resources. Anna K. Nelson was the committee staff director.
Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation,
the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Council on Library Resources.
2. Report, p. 9.
3. "Preserving Digital Information," Draft Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information,
Version 1.0, Aug. 24, 1995, p. 2. The task force was commissioned by
the Commission on Preservation and Access (CPA) and the Research
Libraries Group (RLG).
4. "Preserving Digital Information," p. 4.
5. Email from Margaret Adams to John Garrett and Donald Waters, Nov. 2, 1995.
6. Email from Don Waters to Margaret Adams, Mar. 31, 1996.
Margaret O. Adams and Thomas E. Brown, "Historical Narrative on Data
from the 1960 Census," unpubl. report, Apr. 3, 1996, Center for
Electronic Records, National Archives and Records Administration. http://www.oclc.org:5046/oclc/research/links/archtf/census_1960.html.
Richard A. Jacobs, "Transcript of Training Lecture No. 56 on Records
Disposition and Magnetic Tape," p. 5, National Archives and Records
Service, April 1961. The other sources used for this narrative include
correspondence between the chief of the administrative services
division at the Bureau of the Census and the director of the [then]
Machine Readable Archives Division at the National Archives during the
1970s and related memorandums.
9. An expanded discussion of this topic is in
Margaret O. Adams, "Punch Card Records: Precursors of Electronic Records," American
Archivist 58 (Spring 1995): 182–201.
Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views
of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.