One Hundred and Eighty Years of Great Statistical Collections from the US Census Bureau: A Retrospective

By Anderson, Mark | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

One Hundred and Eighty Years of Great Statistical Collections from the US Census Bureau: A Retrospective


Anderson, Mark, Reference & User Services Quarterly


Generations of information seekers have relied on the statistical compendia--most notably, the Statistical Abstract of the United States--produced by the Census Bureau and its predecessor agencies. As the federally-funded versions of these information resources become a thing of the past, it is fitting to remember their unique benefit to researchers of all stripes and libraries of every type. In this retrospective, Mark Anderson recalls the launch of these publications, reviews their coming of age, and reminds us why it will be difficult to do without them.--Editor

In early 2011, librarians around the country were dismayed to learn that the Census Bureau budget for FY 2012 made no provision for the Statistical Compendia Branch, the agency which produced not only the renowned and much beloved Statistical Abstract of the United States (SA), but also its major supplements the County and City Data Book (CCDB) and the State and Metropolitan Area Data Book (SMADB). As justification, the Bureau pointed out that as more and more government data is accessible in user-manipulated electronic formats, print is an obsolete medium for most research purposes. No doubt there is some truth to that, but information seekers had come to rely on these unparalleled resources for good reason.

Single-volume collections of condensed social, economic, and demographic data have a long and esteemed history. The role of the census enumerators, who were originally charged by the Constitution with counting the free and slave populations of the various states for the purpose of congressional apportionment, expanded to collect a large amount of demographic and economic information about American families. After only a few census cycles, early demographers, social scientists, public planners, and businessmen saw the need for a summary of the most important data sets from the most recent censuses collected and available in one place.

The first census volume to bear the word "Abstract" in the title was published as a volume of the 1830 decennial census and was titled Abstract of the Fifth Census. This Abstract bore little resemblance to the present SA, and was merely a state-by-state and county-by-county summary of the populations of each, divided into the free and slave segments, and included a calculation of the number of House of Representatives seats each state would receive, based on those counts. According to Article 1, Section 2 of the U. S. Constitution, slaves counted as three fifths of a person.

The real grandparent of today's Statistical Abstract was the brainchild of James Dunwoody Brownson De Bow, director of the 1850 Census. Mr. De Bow lobbied Congress to fund the printing of a single volume of basic demographic, economic, and social statistics that would compare the current year with previous years. He wrote in the introduction to the Statistical View of the United States, "statistics ... constitute the ledger of a nation, in which, like the merchant in his books, the citizen can read, at one view, all of the results of a year or of a period of years, as compared with other periods, and deduce the profit or the loss which has been made in morals, education, wealth and power." Congress agreed, and a House resolution of January 12, 1854 authorized the publication of a hundred thousand copies of a compendium of the Seventh Census, so long as it was printed in royal octavo form and did not exceed 400 pages.

The censuses of 1860, '70, '80, and '90 each contained a compendium which summarized time-series data collected from many diverse agencies. However, the census bureaus that were responsible for the first 12 censuses (1790-1900) were ad hoc operations, each created by an act of Congress, placed under the jurisdiction of the State or the Interior Department, charged with collecting data and publishing the current census, and then dissolved when that work was done. Since census bureaus were not permanent, an annual SA was not possible. …

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