Professional Development

Saying Goodbye to the Statistical Abstract (maybe): Roz at ALA MW

Saturday, January 21, 2012 5:28 pm

I’m sure some theme will eventually emerge from this Midwinter meeting (you know I like theme posts) but until that time, I just wanted to do a post on a discussion group I attended today called ‘Life After the Statistical Abstract.’ For those who don’t know, the Statistical Abstract of the United States has been a US government publication for over a century. Published by the Census Bureau it is an aggregation of statistics from a variety of sources both in the government and from private sources like trade groups. It can tell you how many practicing baptists are in the United States or how many bonds were sold last year. Need to know the high school graduation rates for African Americans in Texas or the number of people who die from cancer each year? Go to the Stat Abstract.

Each annual edition has 1400 tables and only about 50 change from year to year which means it is an unparalleled source for data over time in the United States. It is a critical source of statistical data and is on many a librarian and journalists lists of things they would save from a burning building. The value of the Stat Abstract is hard to overstate but the cost of producing it is significant enough that the Census Bureau has canceled it. Actually, they eliminated the entire division that published it and many other sources of data including the City and County Data books and others. The rationale was that all of the data in these sources are available elsewhere.

This development has been met with much fretting, hand wringing, congressperson calling, petition signing and more fretting but alas, it appears that it is gone never to return. UNLESS a private publisher takes on the task and this discussion group I went to today had representatives from several publishers who are considering doing just that. Bernan (a long-time republisher and distributor of governemnt information) and ProQuest are both thinking about it. ProQuest already ingests much of the government data into its statistical packages so in many ways they have the best in-house expertise to do it. That’s the good news, and actually for us it is VERY good news indeed because we will probably be able to afford the print version regardless of where they set the price point. But as the original Stat Abstract was a free resource (if acquired via the GPO depository system) or very inexpensive ($50 if purchased via Bernan) there are many libraries that are worried about where that price point will be.

There was great feedback to the potential publishers about where the value of the Stat Abstract lies: in it’s simplicity, it’s continuity over time of the same information, and the information it provided about where the data originates. No one wants to lose any of those qualities and the publishers seemed to take in all the feedback that was given to them.

So the session was a bit of a group grief counseling session as well as a hopeful one. If no publisher does take up the mantle of the Stat Abstract, we will have all lost something significant. To simply say ‘all of the data that it held is available online’ is to misunderstand the nature of the publication, the nature of the Internet, and the nature of the people who benefit from access to the information it provided.


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