Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Mining the Census

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Mining the Census

Article excerpt

There is a free data mine available to anyone with an internet connection. It provides ever-increasing cartloads of demographic, economic, and social statistics about the American people. And the deeper a searcher digs into this mine, the more gems she finds. The mine is the U.S. Census Bureau.

The amount of data collected and provided by the Census Bureau is astonishing. And the Census' amazing online database is freely available. There's no invoice to pay, no registration to fill out, and no username and password required. Simply log on to The databases explored in this article are all available within the Data Tools and Apps section under the Data button on the website's main menu (see Figure 1). A librarian can become, after exploring and discovering the Census, a serious data sleuth.

Census Data for Librarians

Librarians who familiarize themselves with the Census Bureau have immediate research advantages. Census data gives librarians the opportunity to do the following:

* Know their communities

* Improve collection management

* Improve library programming

* Answer reference questions

* Enhance grant proposals

Librarians are taught to know their communities. The Census provides the hard demographics for them to really know their communities. These hard facts can improve library engagement and collection management. How many people in the community speak Spanish? Perhaps if one-fifth of the town speaks Spanish, the library should have more than a few shelves of Spanish materials. How many in the community are younger than 5? How about older than 65? Should the library consider more senior programs? Or more toddler programs?

An obvious application of Census data involves answering research and reference queries. It provides reference tools for multiple fields, including economics, business, sociology, anthropology, and history. The Census Bureau has been collecting American population statistics since 1790. By the way, the U.S. population in 1790 was 3,929,214. These convenient and authoritative figures come from the Census Bureau, not Wikipedia.

Additionally, librarians can use Census data for grant writing. If a library needs new computers, the fact that 22.7% of the community lives below the poverty level is an incredibly relevant figure to point out in the proposal. Or if the library needs more large-print books, the fact that 27.5% of the folks in town are older than 65 clearly drives the point home.

Census Data for Patrons

Librarians can also use data to assist patrons. The Census provides relevant data for the following tasks and users:

* School projects and homework

* College research papers

* Professional reports

* Business owners

* Homeowners

* Working people

* Grant proposals

Census data is a reference gold mine, the ultimate database for social studies and social science topics. Librarians can show patrons how to use this incredible resource, teaching classes at the library or giving presentations in classrooms. Census applications can render large amounts of data into colorful maps and graphs, transforming an otherwise dry talk about data into an interesting presentation. Many Census applications allow users to easily visualize massive amounts of data. Users can compare data from various places too. Census figures can help grade schoolers with homework or provide hard numbers for a Ph.D. dissertation.

Census data also goes beyond the classroom. Contractors, businesses, municipal governments, engineers, and others can tap into powerful datasets. The Census might provide answers to critical questions. Do I want to accept a job in this town? People can view a city or county's median household earnings or the average commute time to work. Can I afford to move to this location? A person can see what the average value of a home is in a specific location. Is this town a good place to start a business? …

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