Public Libraries and the 2020 Census

Erica Melko, OCLC Communications Coordinator/Editor, Membership and Research /
Count on Libraries logo - PLA

Federal funding for public libraries will be determined by the 2020 U.S. Census results, with ALA reporting that “more than $1 billion in federal funding for libraries will be allocated to states based on the 2020 Census.” In addition to federal funding, the decennial Census data will inform congressional representation, resources allocated for community services, emergency disaster response strategies, and more.

Ensuring a full and fair count of your community is essential.

The 2020 Census will face new challenges, however, in equitable counting. As the first census to be conducted primarily online and with a considerable reduction in local census offices, libraries can help reduce barriers to full census participation:

“Because it will be the first conducted primarily online, and the number of regional and area census offices has halved since 2010, libraries stand to play a major role in helping assure an equitable and accurate count. In addition to providing internet access to those unable to fill out the form at home, libraries will serve as a source of information—staff will be called on to answer questions ranging from basic how tos to queries about privacy and where people’s data will go.” -Lisa Peet, News Editor for Library Journal

As trusted, central community institutions, public libraries are well positioned to inform their communities about the importance of the 2020 Census, answer questions, provide access to resources, and reach hard-to-count persons to ensure a fair and equitable census count.

Equity

Reaching hard-to-count populations

Equity in a census—ensuring that all persons are counted—is always a challenge, and reduced resources and the new online component to census-taking could create greater barriers to reaching hard-to-count communities. Hard-to-count communities are persons that are more likely to be overlooked or unaccounted for in the census, which “can lead to unequal political representation and unequal access to vital public and private resources for these groups and their communities.”

As trusted central community institutions located in communities of all sizes and areas of the country, libraries are crucial resources for reaching hard-to-count populations. The Center for Urban Research notes that within hard-to-count communities, for example, nearly “99% of these neighborhoods (as represented by census tracts) are within 5 miles of a library, and almost three-quarters are within 1 mile of a library.”

The U.S. Census Bureau identifies the following populations as hard-to-count:

  • Young children
  • Highly mobile persons
  • Racial and ethnic minorities
  • Non-English Speakers
  • Persons experiencing homelessness
  • Undocumented immigrants
  • Persons who distrust the government
  • LGBTQ persons
  • Persons with mental or physical disabilities
  • Persons who do not live in traditional housing

Digital Divide

A new challenge for achieving a full count is likely to be the digital divide. In their report on the 2020 Census, ALA notes that more than 24 million Americans do not have high-speed internet at home. Rural communities, low-income households, and mobile persons are among those that could be at risk for being undercounted due to limited digital access. Libraries can bridge the digital divide and support a fair and equitable count by connecting people to high-speed internet access for the 2020 Census.

Libraries' Guide to the 2020 Census

Read ALA's guide for librarians about the 2020 Census.

Information and Misinformation

Libraries are a trusted and reliable informational resource for their communities and therefore have a role in keeping the public well informed about misinformation, disinformation, and scams that could discourage census participation. To assist in this task, the U.S. Census Bureau has provided a list of answers to commonly asked questions and misconceptions for patron support. Additionally, the U.S. Census Bureau asks that scams and additional disinformation be reported to rumors@census.gov to safeguard against fraud.

ALA notes the following corrections to some common misinformation:

  • The 2020 Census will not ask respondents about their citizenship
  • Filling out the census form is important and safe
  • Census responses are confidential. U.S. law provides strong confidentiality protections and safeguards for census responses
  • The Census Bureau will never ask for a bank, credit card, or Social Security number, and will never ask for a payment or donation. You can take steps if you learn of fraudulent activity related to the Census.

Partnering

Public libraries can partner with local officials, community leaders, and Complete Count Committees, to name a few, to ensure a full and accurate count in the 2020 Census. Find more resources for how libraries can partner in their community below:

More Resources and Toolkits

Check with your state libraries for additional state-specific resources. For example, California State Library and Indiana State Library have produced toolkits and additional resources for libraries in their state.

Additional resources for you:

To follow Census library news on social media, follow the hashtag #CountOnLibraries or subscribe to the ALA Census newsletter.