Paperwork used by census takers during the 2000 count. (Los Angeles Times)
William Howard Taft Charter High School

2020 Census and what libraries are doing to help

The United States decennial census officially began on April 1 and was be the first to be conducted primarily online. As such, libraries will be playing an essential role in the success of enumeration. Not only will they be providing internet to those who are unable to fill out the form at home, but they will also be a source of information for anyone with questions or concerns.

In an interview with the Library Journal, Gavin Baker, assistant director of Government Relations at the American Library Association Washington Office and the co-lead on ALA’s 2020 Census Task Force, mentioned people will come in with all kinds of questions, from asking if the forms they received in the mail are legitimate to simply not knowing how to go about the online process themselves.

While there wasn’t a large number of people coming into libraries with questions in 2019, Cecilia Tovar, the principal librarian for the Branch and Public Services Division at the Santa Monica Public Library was expecting more of an influx throughout the beginning of this year leading up to the census.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2013 six regional offices were closed across the country, leaving six open and staffed offices and 248 area offices — almost half as many as in 2010. As a result, there are concerns regarding how the reduced census workforce could affect the accuracy of enumeration in communities that are rural, low-income or minority, which have historically been proven hard to count or underrepresented. 

When it comes to these hard to count populations, the census “doesn’t miss everybody equally,” said Baker in his interview with the Library Journal.

Another group most likely to be undercounted is children as the 2010 census missed more than two million children under the age of five, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Because census numbers provide information for Head Start programs, children’s health insurance and free or reduced-price school lunches, this information is crucial.

Many of these populations also have limited internet access, which can unintentionally bar people from participation. The good news? They can still fill out their forms at a local library.

“For communities that are traditionally hard-to-count, libraries can advocate for completing the census,” Tovar said.

According to a study by the City University of New York Graduate Center’s Center for Urban Research, almost 99% of these communities are within five miles of a library, and in each of the nation’s 100 largest cities, all hard-to-count neighborhoods are within one mile. 

Libraries can take on a variety of responsibilities when it comes to the census.

Complete Count Committees are groups organized specifically to create awareness around the census through “locally-based, targeted outreach efforts,” and both libraries and library workers are encouraged to serve as partners, according to census.gov.

“Anytime that a government process or any process moves online it has an impact… on public libraries but also other libraries that provide public access as well,” Larra Clark, deputy director of Public Policy and Advocacy of the American Library Association, said in a webinar conducted by the Association of College and Research Libraries on Nov. 15.

ALA has been working with the Census Bureau and with Congress to make sure that the libraries will get the resources that they need from the Census Bureau and their roles throughout the time of enumeration will be seen. The Census Bureau, as a result, has been visiting various library conferences, setting up booths with census representatives who have brochures, promotional materials and offering information about how people can apply for census jobs.

“There are job applications to apply to work for the census online, as is the training (to do so). All of these are areas that could have impacts for library computers and public access,” Clark said in the webinar.

Just as Clark mentions, public libraries, like the Santa Monica Public Library, are “doing fantastic work with complete count committees in partnering with Census Bureau officials with local elected officials and community organizations.”

According to Tovar, her library formed those committees to spread awareness throughout the community regarding the importance of the census.

“We are also going to make sure our library staff is well prepared to help the community in answering questions and providing free online access,” Tovar said.

The 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, which was released in May. The 18-page guide outlines how libraries can get involved before and during the census process, and provides a vast array of information for libraries, such as detailing what hard-to-count populations may look like, highlighting potential areas of misinformation, and providing answers to frequently asked questions.

In 2018, a group of California librarians responded to the Leadership Challenge issued by the California Library Association and the California State Library, which called for rising library leaders statewide to develop solutions to issues in their communities. In response, the toolkit, Census and Sensibility: Preparing Your Library for the 2020 Census, was issued in May.

After explaining why libraries need to play a role in the census process and providing resources, it also provides information on how the library can be an active participant, including suggestions on programming, a preparedness checklist, sample flyers and information on where staff can find additional training.

Due to the fact that people seem less trusting of how their information will be used in this soon-approaching census, Tovar hopes to see an increase of participants from 2010, given that libraries are a trusted source for communities to look towards.

“Librarians are a resource and often they not only provide information but also connect the community with books, programs, and services for further learning,” Tovar said. “Not only they will have immediate help, but they could also discover other resources that might be an interest to them.”