Libraries Are Preparing for the 2020 Census. With Plenty at Stake, There’s Still Work To Be Done.

An accurate count in this year's controversial census is critical to securing library funding and keeping school and health programs going. Use these resources to create teachable moments with students and host a census count at your library. 


April 1, 2020: Library patrons sit at computers or hold smartphones, filling out census questionnaires. Some are homeless. Others, non-native English speakers. There are senior citizens who find the Internet intimidating and frazzled parents whose toddlers can’t sit still.

In this scenario, the library offers solutions to these patrons who might have faced challenges to completing the federal census form: Preschoolers can sit on the floor in a circle, attention focused on a children’s librarian reading from a picture book; representatives from the Census Bureau are there to answer questions; pizza is being served. At the end, everyone leaves with a sticker that reads, “I Count.”

This is just one possible version of a Count-a-Thon, one of the ways librarians have suggested to help Americans fill out their decennial census surveys accurately and without confusion or fear.

The census is nearly as old as the United States itself. In 1787, Congress mandated the decennial count to apportion seats in the House of Representatives and, in turn, the Electoral College. Under federal law, every 10 years, each adult in the nation is required to accurately complete the census form so everyone can be counted—just once and in the right place.

The 2020 count has been surrounded by more uncertainty and confusion than any census in recent history. Prolonged debates over whether to include a question about citizenship grabbed headlines earlier this year.

While the Supreme Court decided that the census will not ask people about their citizenship status, some worry that responding to the survey may put them at risk. Others may still be confused about the importance of filling it out at all. If people don’t respond, it will lead to an inaccurate count, which impacts vital funding. The census data helps the government distribute more than $675 billion in taxpayer dollars to fund roads, hospitals, schools, and libraries.

Young children are at risk of being undercounted. That can lead to inadequate funding for education, including Title I schools, special education, Head Start, nutrition assistance such as school lunch programs or WIC (Women, Infants and Children), and health services such as Medicaid and state-run children’s health insurance.

The nonpartisan coalition Count All Kids estimates that more than one million children under five are at risk of being overlooked by the 2020 census. According to its studies, in 2010, four out of five children were not counted, because their families did not mark them down on their census questionnaires. Other families with young children did not return the forms at all.

Money is allotted to states according to population, using the most recent population data collected by the census. Public libraries receive federal funding under the Grants to States program of the Library Services and Technology Act. In 2019, more than $160 million was distributed to state library administrative agencies.

California rising to the challenge

With federal budget cuts, many of the efforts to ensure a complete count in 2020 will fall to states and local governments. California was the first state to create a Complete Count Committee—part of a federal program to create census awareness—allocating $187 million to statewide efforts to help ensure that every resident is included.

Ensuring a full and accurate count of the Golden State is no small task. The population includes many hard-to-count demographics, and the Los Angeles area is regarded as the most difficult region in the nation to count. The challenges in L.A. include many demographic groups who don’t trust government and many non-native English speakers. The city’s density of housing and high numbers of renters make it especially challenging for census workers to locate every dwelling and resident.

In the eastern part of Los Angeles County, the Pasadena Public Library (PPL) is already gearing up to reach patrons. It is exploring the idea of kiosks where patrons could complete their census questionnaires.

“It’s a great opportunity to be involved in a very high-profile initiative that’s going on in the country,” says PPL director Michelle Perera, president of the California Library Association and a member of the Complete Count Committee for L.A. County. “If libraries can play a major role, it benefits our profile as active members in our community.”

It’s not just a matter of having a library nearby. Hard-to-count communities like Los Angeles often have plenty of libraries. “There is a public library within five miles of 99 percent of our hard-to-count communities, and 73 percent of areas with low response rates have a library within one mile,” according to a Census Bureau spokesperson.

Libraries must use their resources to make the biggest impact. They can use existing programs and infrastructure to reach different segments of the population, including non-English speakers. “In the hard-to-count areas, a significant portion will be Spanish speakers,” Perera says. “We need to make sure we are not just outreaching in English with only English speakers.”

PPL plans to publicize the census in Armenian, Chinese, French, and Spanish. Online census questionnaires will be available in 13 languages: Arabic, Chinese (simplified Mandarin), English, French, Haitian Creole, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, and Tagalog. The Census Bureau will provide help by phone in nearly 60 more languages.

PPL has plans to help get those young kids counted, too. This fall, the library will host community hubs for families with preschool-age children and offer services such as flu shots, dental screenings, and access to fresh vegetables. It will also provide parents with information about the 2020 census. The library is coordinating with local school districts.

Even libraries that don’t have such extensive engagement with families can incorporate census education into their programming. The California Library Association has produced a toolkit called “Census and Sensibility,” which suggests activities such as a family storytime highlighting the census and its importance. Teen programs could include a mock census, book club discussions focused on the importance of being counted, or opportunities for volunteers to create publicity materials or videos.


Encouraging a “strong network”

In addition to people’s concerns about answering the questions, an equally important—and unprecedented—aspect of next year’s census is that it will be the first time that the vast majority of people will fill out their questionnaires online.

With cutbacks to federal funding and about half as many Census Bureau field offices across the nation, libraries and schools could play a bigger role than ever in raising awareness about the count and getting people access to computers or Wi-Fi to complete their surveys. According to the Census Bureau, 25 percent of homes in the nation do not have a computer connected to the Internet.

“Folks who lack Internet access turn to the library for critical needs,” explains Larra Clark, deputy director of the Public Library Association and American Library Association Public Policy and Advocacy office. “We want to make sure libraries are addressed.”

During the 2010 census, public libraries hosted 6,000 questionnaire assistance centers, something ALA is urging the federal government to fund for 2020.

“We led a joint letter with many census advocacy organizations,” says Clark. “We have not seen how many centers are planned and don’t know how available they will be.”

As of press time, Congress had not allocated any funds in the 2020 budget for such sites. Because of the increased reliance on the Internet and the uncertainty of federal funding, if libraries and schools are to once again serve as community hubs for the census, they may need to do more of the planning themselves. Census Bureau representatives have spoken at training seminars at the ALA annual and midwinter conferences, the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color, and other regional conventions.

Clark says libraries already have a strong infrastructure that can be used for this purpose. The question is how.

“Can they have a library for express use? Can they dedicate a laptop or tablet? Bookmobile? The good news is we really have a strong network in place. The question is, do we need to adjust?” she asks.

While big cities may face certain challenges, libraries in rural areas have to consider a different set of obstacles. The state of Montana has a vast rural geography that includes seven Indian reservations, which are among the hardest-to-count areas. Montana also ranks consistently last or second to last in broadband access.

“That’s going to pose a real challenge in some of the rural areas, either because of geography or lack of infrastructure,” says Jennie Stapp, Montana State Librarian. Since she took that position in 2012, one of her top goals has been improving Internet access. The state’s 117 public libraries all have broadband of varying speed. Many of the computers are aging, and some branches have just one machine.

Stapp, who sits on her state’s Complete Count Committee, says Montana has dedicated only $150,000 (one-tenth what California has budgeted) to statewide efforts to publicize and facilitate the 2020 count.

“We’re pretty hamstrung with regards to resources to promote it,” says Stapp. “That’s why we’re relying on local champions like local librarians.”

With the state’s shoestring budget, libraries might get involved in the census by hosting events where people can bring their own devices and fill out the online forms with the help of librarians or volunteers trained to address concerns about the questionnaire or its security.


Lessons from a test run

Some libraries in Rhode Island have already experienced a preview of 2020. An undertaking as massive as counting each and every person in the United States doesn’t take place without some practice.

In April 2018, the Census Bureau conducted a test run for 2020 in Providence County—a community of 600,000, which includes 21 library systems. The federal government did not provide funding for library involvement in the trial.

“We stepped into that role to make sure people were informed about what was going on,” says Karen Mellor, director of the Rhode Island Office of Library and Information Services, who also sits on the ALA Census Task Force and Rhode Island Complete Count Committee—an advisory board made of local government officials and leaders from area businesses and nonprofits.

If Rhode Island’s dry run is any indication, the most important thing libraries can provide is information.

“One interesting thing we found in the test run with nine-branch Providence Community Library—they had dedicated tablets or computers for people to take the census, and they found that those weren’t used very much,” says Mellor.

Census kiosks were tested at some post offices in Rhode Island, where they were also not heavily used. A Census Bureau spokesperson says that the agency is still planning for a similar model, using Mobile Questionnaire Assistance Centers, which will deploy trained staff to hard-to-count locations across the country as needed during spring and summer of 2020.

Ultimately, the most important role that public and school libraries play may be getting word out about the importance of the census. In Rhode Island’s test run, only 52 percent of residents completed their questionnaires. During the postmortem, some of the suggestions involved small things libraries could do to remind patrons about the census and its importance, such as putting messages on checkout slips, displaying signs in libraries, or working with the Census Bureau to share messages on their social media streams.

ALA’s “Libraries’ Guide to the 2020 Census” has resources and ideas for library involvement in their community. In many states, local nonprofits may have grants available for libraries to partner with the census; librarians can also join state or regional Complete Count Committees to give input on planning.

“Libraries serve everyone,” says Clark. “And we believe that everyone counts.”

Grace Hwang Lynch is a Bay Area–based freelance writer.



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