Disappearing Information

Let me be up front: I’m not a gov docs expert, but I do get irked when tax money that was used to collect Census info isn’t being used to make (or maintain) that information in an easily accessible manner to the public. It reminds me of last year’s debacle with the Statistical Abstract of the United States.

I’m talking about last week’s web conference on the recently re-designed American FactFinder from the U.S. Census Bureau. Basically, the issue boils down to this: American FactFinder will only contain data from the two most recent decennial U.S. censuses (currently 2000 and 2010). So once 2020 data is available, we can say “bye bye” to 2000, because then it will hold 2010 and 2020. This doesn’t make sense. You can find out more on this topic by looking at the GOVDOC-L discussion list archives from this month.

Researching trends with our populace over time is common among both social scientists and humanities scholars. You can’t tell me that a system can only “hold” data from two censuses. What compounds the problem is that the Census data is no longer released in a tangible format. So once it’s gone from the Census Bureau website, then it’s pretty much gone for good–at least as far as the general public is concerned. Now, the U.S. Census Bureau did say you could FTP to the older Census information, but that doesn’t boil down to easy access.

Our tax dollars go to support the collection of this information. We deserve to have this information (current and historical) displayed publicly, online, and in an easy-to-use format. Librarians have stood aside as the “gatekeepers” to information. Now we emphasize “access.” But we’re losing that now, too.

Save the Statistical Abstract!

There is no other single statistical source as useful as the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Published since 1878, it is the “go to” source for statistics on “the social, political, and economic organization of the United States.”

When I get a statistical question at the reference desk, I’m always amazed at how many times the information can be answered from just this one source. Why then, is the Census Bureau cutting it?

Last Friday, I started seeing tweets about this. Sure enough, the U.S. Census Bureau budget estimates for FY 2012 [pdf, p. 82] recommend elimination of the Statistical Abstract program:

The availability elsewhere of much of the information in the Statistical Abstract has led the Department and Census Bureau to the difficult decision to terminate the program.

The availability “elsewhere” of the information? Hey, Census Bureau: where might that be? It’s surely not in one convenient location! I do love the online version of the Statistical Abstract, but what about people on the other side of the digital divide? In fact, a quick look at the 2011 Statistical Abstract shows that still 31% of Americans have no Internet access in their homes! [Table 1155]. This source is vitally important to libraries. PS: The “information age” is supposed to make finding information easier, not harder!

The elimination of the Statistical Abstract program saves $2.9 million and 24 FTE positions: a drop in the bucket when compared to the whole budget. More information on this and other statistical sources being eliminated is available on the University of Michigan Population Studies Center blog. Check out the GOVDOC-L discussion list for more info, too.

This is what it comes down to for me: the Census Bureau collects information about us. Therefore, we, the people, deserve free and unfettered access to this information. Please contact your representative and senators and urge them to keep funding the Statistical Abstract program. Contact the Census Bureau to tell them we still need these resources!

“Helping you make informed decisions” is the slogan of the Census Bureau. With the elimination of the Statistical Abstract, the Census Bureau is abandoning its own mission.