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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > January/February 2016

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Vol. 36 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2016

Mining the Census
by Jeffrey Meyer

These hard facts can improve library engagement and collection management.

A Free Data Mine

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.

Figure 1: Census data tools and apps
Figure 1: Census data tools and apps

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? A prospective businessman can identify the percentage of the population with a college degree and compare those numbers with those of other locales. Does the city need another bus? Engineers and municipal officers can compare local usage of automobiles and public transit. In addition, charities and nonprofits may find relevant data to include in a grant proposal.

Now, let’s log on to and explore the wide data sea.

The Population Clock

The Population Clock provides a real-time measure of global population figures. A running tachometer displays both U.S. and world population (see Figure 2). The U.S. figures are broken down further. The Population Clock notes, at the time of this writing, that there is a birth in the country every 8 seconds, a death every 13 seconds, and an immigration every 32 seconds. The net result is that one person is added to the American population every 12 seconds.

Figure 2: Population Counters

Figure 2: Population counters

The Population Clock also lists national demographic features of the U.S. population. Graphs compare population figures by region, gender, and age. For instance, users can quickly find that in 2014, 37.6% of Americans lived in the South, whereas 17.6% of Americans lived in the Northeast. An interesting illustration shows the breakdown of the American population by age and gender (see Figure 3). The Baby Boomer bulge is evident, as are subsequent bulges. There were more 53-year-olds in 2013 than 10-year-olds. Additional tables allow users to easily see the most populous and highest-density states, counties, and cities.

Figure 3: Demographics Figure 4: Population demographics categories

Figure 3: Demographics

Figure 4: Population demographics categories


The Population Clock also lists important demographic information for international populations. It shows the 10 most populous nations in the world. Clicking on The World button allows users to select any country to explore international population statistics. For instance, a query for Belgium lists its demographics. Belgium has 11.3 million people and 1.8 children for every woman. It imports $20.9 billion dollars’ worth of goods into the U.S. Projected populations for Belgium are shown through 2050, as is a breakdown of gender and age demographics. The Population Clock provides instant national population figures for the U.S. and other nations.

American FactFinder

American FactFinder goes a step further than The Population Clock. Instead of national figures, a researcher can narrow his search to a specific location within the U.S., extracting highly defined information about a single community. This is a good place to start if a patron needs information about a certain place.

Searchers may enter a state, county, city, town, or ZIP code into a search bar to retrieve information. It is helpful to enter the descriptors “county” or “city” along with the state in order to specify the search. For instance, say a searcher wants to find demographic information about the city of Frederick, Md. It is advantageous to search for “Frederick city, Maryland” instead of “Frederick, Maryland,” because the Census has records for both “Frederick city, Maryland” and “Frederick County, Maryland.” Including the word “Maryland” also frees the search from any confusion with “Frederick County, Virginia.”

American FactFinder provides a wide range of data on a specific location, including statistics for age, industry, housing, poverty, income, ethnicity, and even the number of resident veterans. Let’s find out about Pittsburgh, Pa. The query is for “Pittsburgh city, Pennsylvania.” The searcher is treated to a user-friendly interface, where all one must do is click on the desired button to retrieve that information (see Figure 4). The Population button shows that Pittsburgh’s population, as of the 2010 Census, is 305,704. With the click of a button, we can easily find other statistical information, such as median household income (see Figure 5) and the percentage of people living below the poverty line (see Figure 6). The Census also provides extensive tables that break these figures down even more.

Figure 5: Pittsburgh population median income
Figure 5: Pittsburgh population median income
Figure 6: Pittsburgh population poverty percentage

Figure 6: Pittsburgh population poverty percentage

Figure 7: Quick Facts beta

Figure 7: Quick Facts beta

Figure 8: Philadelphia population table
Figure 8: Philadelphia population table

Quick Facts

Quick Facts provides even greater interactivity than American FactFinder. The menu (see Figure 7) allows the user to not only search for statistical information, but to also chart and map it. Simply by entering place names in the search box, a user can quickly compare demographics between multiple locations. For instance, a person can compare Philadelphia to the city of Pittsburgh, to the state of Pennsylvania, or to any other location in the U.S. (see Figure 8). We can see that Philadelphia’s 2014 population (1,560,297) is about five times larger than Pittsburgh’s 2014 population (305,412). Locales can easily be added or subtracted from the query.

In addition to finding raw population figures, users can select a number of datasets from the Select a Fact drop-down menu on the Quick Facts menu bar. The available topics to view include detailed statistics regarding age, gender, race, housing, economics, income, health, and education. For instance, we can compare the rates of college graduates among Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, the state of Pennsylvania, and the U.S. as a whole. Within the Select a Fact menu, we find an Education heading with the following viewing option: Bachelor’s degree or higher, percent of persons age 25 years+, 2009-2013. Data tables then display college graduate rates for our different locales (see Figure 9). These numbers—set in a default Table view—can be changed to a Chart view by simply clicking on the Chart button on the Quick Facts menu (see Figure 10). In Chart view, we can see that Pittsburgh has a higher percentage of college graduates as compared to Philadelphia, the state of Pennsylvania, and the U.S. as a whole.

Figure 9: Select a fact for comparison

Figure 9: Select a fact for comparison

Figure 10: Chart view comparison

Figure 10: Chart view comparison

Quick Facts also has the ability to map data. For instance, if we wanted to compare the median value of houses over a geographic region, we can select the Map button from the Quick Facts menu. A person can then zoom the map in or out to adjust the on-screen region. Figure 11 shows southwestern Pennsylvania, and the shaded dots represent different median values for housing units. Mousing over a specific point gives the actual figure. In this case, Butler city, Pennsylvania, has a median housing unit value of $85,900. Quick Facts provides a user with tables, charts, and maps to obtain precise and helpful demographic information.

Figure 11: Data mapping

Figure 11: Data mapping

Figure 12: Data visualization

Figure 12: Data visualization

Interactive Population Map

The Interactive Population Map provides a seamless interface for those looking to visualize data geographically. Researchers can map various demographic figures at different geographic scales, revealing population, ethnicity, age, and other information. This tool is perfect for depicting complicated data in a digestible and tangible visual format. Librarians may find it fun and useful to explore this helpful map tool.

Figure 13: Pop-up tables

Figure 13: Pop-up tables

A patron interested in housing data within Pennsylvania may first position the map over the state. She may then click on the Household tab above the map. She can also adjust the geographic scale to view data at a specific level, such as the county, county subdivision, or Census tract level. She decides to view the information by county (see Figure 12). When she clicks on Allegheny County, a menu pops up, revealing the household information for that county (see Figure 13). The Interactive Population Map can be used to visualize many different datasets for any region in the country.

Wrapping Up

The U.S Census provides librarians and their patrons with powerful resources that are fun to explore, helpful to use, and free. The Population Clock, American FactFinder, Quick Facts, and the Interactive Population Map provide a nearly inexhaustible amount of demographic, sociological, economic, and business data.

Don’t Google it—Census it!

Jeffrey Meyer ( is the director of the Mount Pleasant Public Library in Iowa. He gained an appreciation for detailed statistics after working in archaeology laboratories.