Making Sense of the Census

word collage featuring words related to the census

By Meg DePriest, California State Library

What are your favorite data tools or sources? Lately, I’ve been excited about the maps my colleagues are producing. The district boundaries map reveals the astonishing number and varied sizes of the library districts throughout California in a way no spreadsheet can. When I’m not messing about with the Public Libraries Survey (PLS) data, I enjoy diving into Their newsletters are a bright spot in my inbox each week. Oh, and have you read this State of US Public Libraries report? The author used PLS data to demonstrate that public libraries are more popular and more digital than ever before.

Another of my favorite data sources is the U.S. Census Bureau’s Census Academy and their data exploration page. I’m looking forward to fresh data! On March 17th, The U.S. Census Bureau will release the “full suite” of American Community Survey (ACS) data for 2016-2020. Are you ready to dive in and learn about the community your library serves?

You may be wondering–what is the ACS, and how is it different from the U.S. Census data collection that happens once a decade? The ACS is conducted every month, every year; it is sent to a sample of addresses across the country, and participants are asked about topics not covered on the decennial census, including employment, education, jobs, education, homeownership, educational attainment, languages spoken at home, income, health care coverage, internet access, and transportation. The Decennial Census asks a much shorter list of questions, including age, sex, race, Hispanic Origin, and owner/renter status, and it provides an official count of the population of the country.

Sounds great, right? Of course, big data like this can be intimidating. But not to worry! CALL is working with the U.S. Census Bureau to provide learning opportunities tailored for California public libraries to help library staff access and understand the data available. Lia Bolden, a U.S. Census Bureau Data Dissemination Specialist based in California, got us started with Your Community by The Numbers: Accessing Census Data About Your Community, the recording of which you can access in CALL Academy. I hope to see you at one or more of the three more opportunities to dive into the data are scheduled as part of this spring series:

Making Sense of the Census