2020 Census Offers Opportunities for Library Involvement

The 2020 United States Census officially launches on April 1 of next year. Because it will be the first conducted primarily online, and the number of regional and area census offices has halved since 2010, libraries stand to play a major role in helping assure an equitable and accurate count. But even before households receive their invitation to participate next spring, there are many opportunities for libraries to get involved—and a strong need for them to do so.

ALA census graphic of U.S. map made out of people

The 2020 United States Census officially launches on April 1 of next year. Because it will be the first conducted primarily online, and the number of regional and area census offices has halved since 2010, libraries stand to play a major role in helping assure an equitable and accurate count. In addition to providing internet access to those unable to fill out the form at home, libraries will serve as a source of information—staff will be called on to answer questions ranging from basic how tos to queries about privacy and where people’s data will go.

It’s not too soon for libraries to begin preparing for increased demands on their personnel and technology resources, said Gavin Baker, Assistant Director of Government Relations at the American Library Association (ALA) Washington Office and the co-lead on ALA’s 2020 Census Task Force. 

“Libraries have been involved with the census in the past, but in this case, it's going to come to libraries whether we ask for it or not,” Baker told LJ. “We know whenever a government form or service goes online that people come to libraries and say, ‘Can I get online to do this? I've got to fill out this form, and I don't have a computer at home,’ or, ‘I'm not so comfortable with computers’…. Or just to bring their questions about it. ‘I got this in the mail. Is it real? Do I actually have to do this, or is this some kind of scam?’”

But even before households receive their invitation to participate next spring, there are many opportunities for libraries to get involved—and a strong need for them to do so. The decennial census determines everything from federal representation and funding to the distribution of free school lunches, and libraries are well positioned to build public awareness around these facts, and the importance that everyone participate. (The census affects libraries in turn, as its data will determine the allocation of federal grants to states.)



The Census Bureau has opened and staffed six regional offices and 248 area offices across the country—roughly half as many as in the 2010 census. Many are concerned about how the reduced census workforce could affect accurate counts in communities that are historically hard to count or underrepresented, including rural, low-income, and minority communities.

Many of these populations also have limited internet access, presenting a barrier to participation. Libraries are already embedded these communities; according to a study by the City University of New York Graduate Center’s Center for Urban Research, almost 99 percent of them (as represented by census tracts) are within five miles of a library, and almost three-quarters are within one mile. People in group housing, who are experiencing homelessness, or who are transitory (in campgrounds, RV parks, circuses or carnivals, racetracks, or hotels) are traditionally hard to count, but all can access a library.

Libraries are thus ideal community partners, with the potential to serve on Complete Count Committees (CCCs), host job fairs to help people get hired as census takers, and provide census outreach activities. Building local awareness about the importance of the census is critical, and an important arena for libraries. CCCs are groups organized specifically to boost this work at the tribal, state, or local level. They partner with community organizations to promote the census through locally based, targeted outreach efforts. Libraries and library workers at the state and municipal level are encouraged to serve as CCC partners.

“We've been trying to make sure that the idea gets out there that the library is a resource for the census preparations that communities are making, and encourage communities to invite the library to participate,” Baker told LJ.

The Montana State Library began focusing its census efforts in 2016, gathering critical geographic information system (GIS) data on its rural populations. Among other things, an accurate population count in the state could add a second congressional representative, noted State Librarian Jennie Stapp at the panel “Ensuring Everyone Counts (and is Counted) in the 2020 Census” at the 2019 ALA Annual Convention in Washington, DC. Although there has been little census-directed funding available in the state to support these efforts, this year it has been growing steadily. Stapp, who sits on Montana’s state CCC and serves on ALA’s 2020 Census Library Outreach and Education Task Force, hopes to build the infrastructure for subcommittees that will include Census-Designated Places—areas too small to count as municipalities—and tribal lands.

When it comes to hard to count populations, the census “doesn't miss everybody equally,” said Baker. One group that is most likely to be undercounted is children; the 2010 census missed more than two million children under the age of five—ten percent of the nation’s youngest. Because census numbers provide information for Head Start programs, children’s health insurance, and free or reduced price school lunches, this information is critical.

Educating households is key, added Florencia Gutierrez, a senior policy associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving the well-being of American children. Parents and caregivers often are not aware that babies need to be counted, or grandchildren, or children staying with them temporarily.

Libraries have a vital opportunity to provide education and outreach to family members who come for story time or programs, or on an individual basis. For messaging ideas, Gutierrez suggests visiting countallkids.org, and noted that Simply Put Media has published a counting book for kids about the census, We Count.



Along with potential access barriers, the census’s online component also brings new levels of concern about privacy and the possible abuse of data.

Although President Trump ultimately backed down in early July on efforts to add a new citizenship question to the census after the Supreme Court ruled that the administration had no justification to do so, the months-long conflict ramped up fear in immigrant communities across the country, who worried that such a question could be used to track down people who had crossed the borders illegally, or who were still awaiting immigration hearings.

These communities are precisely the ones whose members need to participate, noted U.S. Census Bureau Assistant Director for Communications, Operations and Management Burton Reist at the ALA session. The drawn-out process around the citizenship question resulted in a high degree of negative public relations that the Census Bureau will need to counter through creative messaging going forward, he said, and as trusted community partners, libraries are in a strong position to help.

People are also worried about whether the information they will be submitting electronically is secure, and how it might be used. However, library technology is already set up with security in mind, said Baker. In addition, Reist explained, the Census Bureau is partnering with experts from Microsoft and Google to help strengthen its own IT and cybersecurity measures.

As for the nature of the information the census asks for, “The questions…are actually much less personal than a lot of the things that we all fill out all day long,” Baker told LJ. “If you come to the library to fill out an application for unemployment benefits or for health, you're going to be putting in much more sensitive information than the basic questions that are on the census.”

“I think the scale of it is what has attracted people's attention—the fact that all of us, at the same time, are going to be filling out this same form,” Baker added. “But [the census] doesn't ask for your Social Security number or your mother's maiden name or your bank account.”

And if a respondent is sent a form that requesting that information? It’s probably fake, said Reist. A census form will ask for your age and date of birth, but will never ask for a social security number or financial information. There are scam census forms—including, in one case Stapp encountered, forms that demanded a $15 payment to file. As with other types of misinformation, libraries can help users sort out fakes from the real thing—and educate them in advance.

Libraries can also help boost community members’ data literacy, helping them discover the many uses for census data, as well as where to find it—whether they want it for business, community organizations, local government, or personal use and storytelling. The Library of Virginia, for example, mounted an exhibit on the history of slavery in the state told through census data.

“That's something we've seen in a number of libraries,” said Baker, “and maybe [something] more of them will do as we get closer to 2020, to talk about the ways that census data is used both for today’s planning—where to open a new location of a business, or where to build a school or a road—but also historically, in terms of genealogy and family history. Census records are the history of America, our communities, and our families.”



ALA’s 2020 Census Library Outreach and Education Task Force partnered with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality to produce the Libraries’ Guide to the 2020 Census, released in May. The 18-page guide outlines how libraries can get involved before and throughout the census process, with a timeline of key activities during the first half of 2020. It outlines what hard-to-count populations may look like, highlights potential areas of misinformation, offers answers to frequently asked questions, and provides a wealth of information and resources for libraries. (A two-page fact sheet is also available.)

ALA task force members will be presenting at the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) annual conference in early September, as well as ALA Midwinter 2020, held in Philadelphia in January, and the Public Library Association (PLA) conference in Nashville in February.

“We're making the rounds to get out and talk to folks to get them prepared,” Baker told LJ. “On the advocacy side, we have been working with the Census Bureau and with Congress to make sure that the roles that libraries are playing will be visible, that libraries will get the resources that they need from the Census Bureau.”

The Census Bureau, in turn, has been visiting various library conferences, setting up booths with brochures and promotional materials as well as information about how libraries can help people apply for census jobs. Census Bureau representatives will also participate in any census-themed programming a library wants to present.

“Another thing that we've tried to do throughout this effort is to keep state libraries and state library associations, and our ALA chapters in all of the states, looped into the effort,” Baker told LJ. “So even if [an] individual library can't devote a lot to getting ready for this or putting on programming, in many cases there will be some kind of outreach or resources coming from the state library and/or from the state library association to help get the word out and organize activities.”

In 2018, a task force of California librarians responded to the Leadership Challenge issued jointly by the California Library Association and the California State Library, which invited rising library leaders statewide to develop solutions to issues in their communities. Erik Berman, Alameda County Library; Katie DeKorte, Sacramento Public Library; Cheryl Gilera, LA County Library; Alvaro Quezada, University of Southern California Norris Medical Library; Joanna Ritchie, Santa Clarita Public Library; and Liz Vagani, San Diego County Library teamed up to create a resource that would help library staff take leadership roles in the execution of the census.

The toolkit, Census and Sensibility: Preparing Your Library for the 2020 Census, was issued in May. In addition to explaining why the library needs to play a role in the census process and providing extensive resources, it provides actionable information on how the library can be an active participant, including programming suggestions and ways to gain administrative and staff buy-in, a preparedness checklist, sample flyers, and information on where staff can find additional training.

The California State Library is supporting the project, and has created a landing portal for census-related activities. Group members will present about the census and toolkit at the State Library’s annual conference in Pasadena, and at the Pacific Library Partnership’s Future of Libraries event in San Francisco, both in October.

On the other side of the country, in July Jonathan Bowles of New York’s Center for an Urban Future (CUF) published an editorial citing the barriers to participation in a digital census for a city where 14 percent of residents live in households without a computer and 23 percent lack a broadband connection at home. Bowles called on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had already allocated $40 million of the city budget toward census efforts, to earmark a portion of that for libraries.

On August 1, de Blasio announced that the city would invest $1.4 million in the city’s three public library systems—Brooklyn Public Library, New York Public Library, and Queens Public Library—to help them in their census efforts. The funding will support technology expansion, training and translations for front-line staff, operational support for extended hours in priority neighborhoods, library-specific marketing in dozens of languages, and additional civic engagement staff for outreach, with priority given to the approximately 90 branches that serve historically undercounted communities.

“Hundreds of billion dollars and fair political representation are at stake in the upcoming 2020 Census,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams in a statement. “We won’t ensure a complete and accurate count without a robust outreach strategy…. I applaud Mayor de Blasio and [NYC Census 2020 Director Julie] Menin on this forward-thinking move to enlist libraries in the fight to make all New Yorkers count.”

The takeaway from all efforts is that census participation is a civic necessity, and the library—with a long history of outreach and advocacy—is well positioned to get that message across to all its constituents.

The census is “an opportunity to make sure that your community gets the funding and resources that it needs, and that includes direct funding for libraries through federal LSTA [Library Services and Technology Act] funds, and in many cases through state funds that go to local libraries,” said Baker. “But not just libraries—if you care about schools, parks, roads in your community…it's an opportunity to make sure that you get what you're owed.”

Or as Arlington County, VA, Assistant County Manager of Communications and Public Engagement Bryna Helfer succinctly put it at the ALA session, “Besides voting, the second most important right you have in this country is to be counted.”

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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