Libraries and the Census in the Time of COVID-19

Libraries have a vital role to play in the census—especially this year, as the process moved primarily online, increasing the potential for undercounts of those on the wrong side of the digital divide. Historically, libraries have assisted the U.S. Census Bureau in helping people apply for field operations jobs, promoting the census, providing informational materials, educating patrons about census misinformation, and assisting patrons in the library with filling out response forms. However, much has changed with the spread of COVID-19 and the closure of thousands of libraries.

ALA sign: Because Librarians Believe that Everyone CountsOnce every decade, everyone living in the United States is counted. Even during a pandemic.

The U.S. Census data is used to determine more than $675 billion in federal funding, which includes libraries as well as public housing, healthcare, transportation, education, and many more essential services. It is also used to redraw congressional and state legislative districts, and to determine the number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives.

Even in a normal census year, there are concerns about not counting everyone. “Hard-to-count” populations that may end up underrepresented include people of color, young children, rural residents, low-income residents, foreign-born residents, frequent movers, displaced persons, LGBTQ+ folks, people with disabilities, multi-generational families living in the same household, people experiencing homelessness, and people whose first language is not English. The consequences of such an undercount can be steep. In 2010, the Minnesota neighborhood of North Minneapolis (an area with a high number of low-income residents and a substantial immigrant population) lost two city council seats as a result of an undercount.

Libraries have a vital role to play in the census—especially this year, as the process moved primarily online, increasing the potential for undercounts of those on the wrong side of the digital divide. Historically, libraries have assisted the U.S. Census Bureau in helping people apply for field operations jobs, promoting the census, providing informational materials, educating patrons about census misinformation, and assisting patrons in the library with filling out response forms. The American Library Association (ALA), in conjunction with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, produced a guide to the 2020 Census and Libraries in January 2020.

However, much has changed with the spread of COVID-19 and the closure of thousands of libraries.

As of March 28, the Census Bureau had twice delayed field operations, most recently until April 15, and further delays may be likely. Most other deadlines have been delayed or extended, including the self-response phase and non-response follow up (extended to August 14); counting people experiencing homelessness in outdoor locations, which all takes place on one day (originally scheduled for April 1, now May 1); counting of residents in nursing homes, group homes, prisons, and student housing (delayed until April 18–June 18); and more. The most up-to-date schedules can be found on the U.S. Census Bureau’s website.

The ways libraries can participate are evolving too.

“Everything is changing day to day,” deputy director of the ALA Office for Information Technology, Larra Clark, said in an interview with Library Journal.

Libraries had been preparing for the census for months, organizing educational programming and events, recruiting field organizers for the Census Bureau, and training staff to answer census-related reference questions.

Since most libraries have closed to the public, in-person programming and events are off the table. However, many libraries are still operating email, webchat, and phone reference services. One such library is the Hennepin County Library (HCL) in Minnesota. HCL had provided mandatory Questionnaire Assistance Center (QAC) training for all library staff prior to the pandemic. Because of library closures, not all staff were able to complete it; however, Ali Turner, system services division manager at HCL, reports that the library system is making sure that all Ask Us (HCL’s virtual and phone reference service) staff have received QAC training and are able to help patrons navigate the census from home.

 

REMOTE PROMOTION

In late March, the Public Library Association (PLA) conducted a national survey about public libraries’ response to COVID-19, including how it is impacting their census efforts. Respondents cited keeping the Wi-Fi on and boosting the signal as a means of assisting with the self-response phase of the census. As reported by Clark in the American Libraries online edition, lending Wi-Fi hotspots and social media boosts can also aid in the census. Placing posters in library windows advertising free Wi-Fi and the census website, creating pop-up ads promoting the census when users login to the library’s Wi-Fi, shifting census material displays to be viewable through the windows, and utilizing traditional media such as radio show interviews are just some creative ways that libraries have been promoting the census remotely. Other examples include:

Town hall style information sharing: For example, Prince George’s County Memorial Library System in Maryland hosted a Virtual Census Day Town Hall on April 1 via Zoom.

Virtual programming: The Vernon Area Public Library (VAPL) in Lincolnshire, IL is streaming a virtual story time on Facebook Live at 10 a.m. CT, Monday through Saturday, and is using this as a way to communicate census information to families. Catherine Savage, head of communications at VAPL, told LJ that the library had “grand plans” for census programming, but “all that was scuttled as we spen[t] the last few weeks responding to the developing public health crisis.” Instead, Savage said, “Since our Streaming Storytime is now a primary way of reaching our patrons—and since children under age five are both the audience for that program and a Hard to Count population—we decided to take the opportunity to call attention to the 2020 Census.” On April 1, Census Day, VAPL’s Streaming Storytime featured a song created by the Census Bureau called “Everyone Counts.” The archived VAPL story time video can be found here.

Emails and Newsletters: Many libraries send out regular emails and newsletters. Georgia’s Cobb County library system has a subscriber list of 40,000 and sent out a special edition on April 1 that included links to the 2020 Census and census-related news. The Madison Public Library system in Madison, WI also plans to remind subscribers of the 2020 Census in every newsletter update, and additionally has added census information to staff email signatures.

Physical Materials: Even with most libraries closed to the public, some libraries have continued to provide physical materials. Clark told LJ that some libraries are providing census materials in curbside pickups, for example. At the Belen Public Library in Belen, NM, the library book drop sports Census reminder magnets. The books on the free book cart outside the library all have 2020 Census bookmarks as well. Belen has also partnered with the local fire department, the city’s open point of contact, to provide a free laptop that is set up with census information and links to the Census Bureau’s website. Each visitor can take an “I Count” sticker on their way out.

If your library has developed a new way to promote the census in light of COVID-19, please share them in the comments.

 

FIGHTING FAKE CENSUS NEWS

Another major concern for library staff is combating census misinformation. Denise Davis, a librarian at the Morton-James Public Library (MJPL) in Nebraska City, NE, told LJ that due to a substantial increase in the local Latinx population since 2010, MJPL had been particularly focused on preparing Spanish language materials prior to COVID-19. Of particular concern was combating the rumor that the 2020 Census asks if respondents are U.S. citizens (it does not). With the library closed, Davis is bringing the Spanish materials she had gathered, including postcards produced by the Census Bureau and the Census Bureau’s phone number for assistance in Spanish, to local Latino markets.

Organizations like ALA and the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) encourage library staff to continue to combat misinformation virtually. ULC Director of Communications Curtis Rogers told LJ that library staff can “continue to help patrons identify census misinformation through messaging on their websites, social channels, e-newsletters, podcasts, and other digital channels. If libraries are currently able to provide patron assistance through chat or call-in numbers, those can be great options for helping remotely.” Rogers also emphasized the importance of providing such messaging in multiple languages. In addition, Clark suggested to LJ that library staff report any new rumors and misinformation they receive to the Census Bureau’s Fighting Census Rumors page, which is continuously updated.

Even during a global pandemic and mass library closure, libraries are still working hard to make sure that everyone is counted. “Because of the physical distancing measures in place, it is more important than ever that [we] encourage patrons to respond [to the census],” said Savage, “We may be providing that encouragement over Facebook Live or chat instead of in person across a service desk, but the advice is the same: get counted. And if you need help, reach out to your library. We are still here for you.” Clark feels the same way. “It really seems clear to me that the 2020 census is front of mind for libraries, even during this public health crisis,” Clark told LJ. And she is confident that physical resources, materials, and programming that had been prepared for the census prior to the pandemic are “ready and waiting to be deployed when libraries can open again safely.”

Until then, you can respond to the 2020 Census here.

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