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ALA Preps Libraries for the 2020 Census
by
Posted On May 21, 2019
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, since 1790, the U.S. has conducted a decennial census counting the population in order to ascertain how “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers …” (Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution).

At the time of the first census, the U.S. population numbered 3,929,214 across 13 states, three districts (Maine, Kentucky, and Vermont), and one territory (Tennessee). It occurred “more than a year after the inauguration of President Washington and shortly before the second session of the first Congress ended. Congress assigned responsibility for the 1790 census to the marshals of the U.S. judicial districts under an act which, with minor modifications and extensions, governed census taking through 1840. The law required that every household be visited, that completed census schedules be posted in ‘two of the most public places within [each jurisdiction], there to remain for the inspection of all concerned …’ and that ‘the aggregate amount of each description of persons’ for every district be transmitted to the president.”

U.S. marshals were tasked with asking only six questions relating to the numbers of the following:

  • Free White males of 16 years and upward (to assess the country’s industrial and military potential)
  • Free White males under 16 years
  • Free White females
  • All other free persons
  • Slaves

The U.S. population now hovers around 327.2 million. Census data is still collected every 10 years, but it is primarily done via mail. If a mailed form is not returned, then a census worker will visit the property to attempt a count. Counting the homeless presents a unique challenge, so census workers investigate numbers of individuals at shelters or living on the streets. Rural communities also present a problem and are often visited by census workers to obtain a count.

Libraries’ Role in the Census

Today, collecting an accurate census is even more important than it was in the nation’s early years. The numbers are used to not only to determine representation in Congress and draw the districts for federal, state, and local offices, but also to ascertain the apportionment of the Electoral College. Even more so, the census remains critical for the allocation of billions of dollars of federal funding to both states and localities, including the important grants to states under the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA).

For the first time in the history of the census, starting in March 2020, the Census Bureau will urge users to submit answers online. Each household will receive a unique code to access the census online as well as the printed form. If a household does not have internet access, there are two alternative approaches: the printed form and the local library, where public terminals are available for internet access. In the past, libraries have served as key contact points for individuals seeking help with filling out the printed form. Now they may also need to provide terminals where users may access the online questionnaire.

ALA is already preparing for the questions and potential for heavy usage of local libraries’ public terminals. As noted by Larra Clark, deputy director of policy for the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) and the Public Library Association (PLA), “ALA members and staff are developing resources and education to support the library field, coordinating directly with the Census Bureau and other stakeholders to raise awareness of library roles and needs, and advancing policymaking that will support libraries we serve in achieving a fair, accurate, and inclusive count in 2020.”

A Census Guide for Libraries

On May 15, 2019, ALA released its “Libraries’ Guide to the 2020 Census,” described as “a new resource to prepare libraries for the decennial count of every person living in the United States.” A collaboration with The Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law and ALA’s 2020 Census Library Outreach and Education Task Force, the guide includes the following:

  • basic information about the census process;
  • highlights of new components in the 2020 Census, such as the online response option;
  • frequently asked questions;
  • a timeline of key Census dates;
  • contact information and links to additional resources.

The guide addresses ways libraries can support the collection of accurate and thorough census data and how as community hubs, they are uniquely positioned to help their constituencies work through the census process. Basic steps outlined in the initial section represent and explain critical benchmarks in the census process and provide the timelines for each deliverable. The steps include updating the address list, soliciting responses, and following up.

Questions that will be asked in the census are also described in the guide, particularly if the question has changed significantly since the last census. For instance, for the first time in census history, individuals may use the form to indicate a same-sex relationship with a member of their household.

A proposed—but controversial—question requested for the 2020 Census by the Secretary of Commerce would ask whether or not an individual is a citizen. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in June 2019 on whether this question should be included in the census.

Throughout the guide, tips and other factoids are listed. For example:

  • Young children (ages 0–5) are considered hard-to-count. In particular, young Black and Hispanic children were overlooked at roughly twice the rate as young, non-Hispanic White children in the 2010 Census.
  • The online 2020 Census questionnaire will be available in 13 languages (Arabic, Chinese [Simplified], English, French, Haitian Creole, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese).
  • 99% of hard-to-count census tracts have a public library located within five miles.

This is just the beginning. Libraries will remain front and center throughout the entire census collection process. For additional information on the census and to subscribe to the census newsletter, see ALA’s 2020 Census webpage.


Corilee Christou is president of C2 Consulting, a firm that specializes in leveraging and licensing digital content of all types to traditional and internet-based companies using new and innovative business models.

Email Corilee Christou

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