Skip to content

The 2020 Census and Public Libraries

The first day of April 2019 marks the Census Day of Action. This means that in exactly one year, the 2020 Census will be underway. In the past week, communities across the United States held events promoting census awareness and participation. The United States Constitution mandates the Census. It collects data about people living in the country.

Some of the census’ many impacts include redistricting and changes to the allocation of resources based on responses. There is an important impact that many people might not know about, which is that the census will affect American public libraries across the country.

2020 is the first year that the census will be administered online. This will make the survey more accessible and easier for respondents to submit.

But it ignores the fact that many people do not have internet access or computers at home.

How will the census affect libraries?

The census provides valuable data about populations and demographics that libraries can use to better know their communities. For instance, the 2010 Census collected information about how many people had internet connections within their homes, people’s income and household size, commute time, and rent prices. These are all pieces of data that inform libraries about the demographics they serve.

However, it isn’t just census results that will affect libraries across the country. Administering the census itself will greatly affect libraries as well.

Libraries have long been community resources that help with documents such as the census and tax forms. But 2020 is the first year that the census will be administered online. This will make the survey more accessible and easier for respondents to submit. But it ignores the fact that many people do not have internet access or computers at home.

In communities across the United States, the library is the only place where people can access the internet and get technical help for free. This is expected to lead to significantly more demand on librarians and staff, to not only inform their patrons about the importance of completing the census, but also to assuage any concerns about disclosure, violation of privacy, or technical difficulty.

Outreach

Only one year remains now before the census. Libraries have a lot to do in order to ready their populations, and themselves. One of these ways is public outreach, which is being championed by the American Library Association. They have been doing extensive work to inform the public and advocate for their communities.

Two examples of outreach are the #CountOnLibraries and #LibrariesTransform campaigns, which are social media initiatives to inform the public about the impact that libraries have on millions of people, the issues surrounding the census, and working toward solutions to those problems. They emphasize the importance of responding to the census and of the census remaining as non-discriminatory and private as possible.

Tweet from ALA twitter.

The ALA is politically active in terms of advocacy and privacy. It challenges ideas such as adding a citizenship question to the census. This question can cause less people to answer the question. This is due to the intrusiveness of the question, and its inherently discriminatory nature. The ALA co-signed a letter petitioning the census to not include this question, along with 170 other human and civil rights organizations. You can read the full letter here.

ALA campaign.

For more information about the census itself, as well as resources about advocacy, visit the ALA’s page about the 2020 Census.

Hard to Count Areas

In addition to libraries being one of the only sources for free internet access, they are also widely accessible nationwide. With data from the previous census, we can know which areas are likely to have low response rates. This data is visualized on the Hard to Count 2020 Map.

There are many reasons why a geographic area may have had a low response rate in previous iterations. Now, libraries are doing what they can to combat those factors. These areas should be a priority, especially for outreach campaigns involving census promotion.

According to the Public Libraries and the 2020 Census Report from Center for Urban Research, Being hard-to-count can lead to unequal political representation and unequal access to vital public and private resources for these groups and their communities. Libraries can help ensure that everyone is counted, especially in hard-to-count areas. This is by providing access to information about the importance of a fair and accurate census count.”

A great feature of the Hard to Count map is that you can see where libraries are in conjunction to these low-response areas. These are the areas in which libraries should focus their outreach efforts and encourage residents to consider using the library computers to take the census. This will help reduce the chances that people will not respond due to lack of internet access or technical literacy in order to complete the digital form.

“Libraries can help ensure that everyone is counted, especially in hard-to-count areas.”

The Center for Urban Research 

The Good News

According to that same Center for Urban Research report, over 99% of the U.S. population lives in census tracts within five miles of a public library. This equates to over 316 million people. That still does not guarantee that everyone has ready access to the library. But it could make a difference in these hard-to-count areas. Libraries or other bodies of local leadership, such as local Complete Count Committees, can champion “Get Out the Count” campaigns to minimize barriers to completing and submitting the census.

The online census will increase library demand and use nationwide. Even if you don’t live in a hard-to-count area or don’t rely on the library for internet access, libraries still need your support. Not everyone knows what resources their public libraries make available, and libraries need their communities to advocate for them.

Local leaders and politicians should also be championing their libraries as a census resource (and so much more). To learn more, or get started in your own community, start with the ALA’s Libraries and the 2020 Census Brief.This article was written for National Library Week as a result of research conducted by the iSchool Public Libraries Initiative (IPLI). For more information about the IPLI, visit the IPLI’s official page.

Sabrina Unrein

Sabrina Unrein

I’m a first-year graduate student of the Master’s of Library and Information Science Program, and a Wilhelm Scholar and research assistant for Professor Jill Hurst-Wahl. A software developer in a former life, I am interested in information and technological literacy in libraries. I am also interested in librarianship and social justice. My hometown is Denver, Colorado.

More Posts