Census and Other Statistical Resources


Technical Quibbles
Search Strategy
Further Reading


...there is simply nothing so important to a people and its government as how many of them there are, whether their number is growing or declining, how they are distributed as between different ages, sexes, and different social classes and racial and ethnic groups, and again, which way these numbers are moving...

Statistical information is collected, tabulated and disseminated by a wide range of providers, which includes but is not limited to local, state, federal, and foreign governments.   Nongovernment entities such as treaty organizations (for example the United Nations or the European Union), trade associations, and special interest groups can also be collecting and disseminating statistical information.  The availability of statistical information varies greatly from country to country.  The demand for timely statistical information is increasing.

The U.S. Federal Government is one of the most prolific generators of statistical information, with over 100 agencies and organizational units of the Executive Branch involved in some sort of statistical activity.  There are 13 agencies alone whose primary function is collecting and disseminating statistical information.  The most prolific and oldest is the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Census.  Over 98% of all government statistics originate with the Census Bureau.   Besides its own statistical products, the Census Bureau conducts surveys for other federal agencies, and its data in turn is used by state and local governments, commercial venders, etc., to produce their statistical products.  The Bureau offers more than 66,000 publications, many of which can be accessed via its website.  Major statistical series include:

American Community Survey 
Census of Governments 
Census of Population and Housing  
Current Population Reports  
Economic Censuses [2012] [1977-2007]
Statistical Abstract of the United States   [The  Census Bureau in October 2011 with the 2012 edition ceased publishing this title.  Beginning with the 2013 edition, ProQuest took over publication.]


 Technical Quibbles

There is technical difference between ‘data’ and a statistic, although every day speech uses the two terms are used interchangeably.  Data is raw information from which statistics are created.  It is used to create new information and knowledge.  It helps to understand a phenomenon.  Statistics are an interpretation and summary of data.  In the Census and Other Statistical Resources section, the term ‘data’ is used in a general sense, not its technical meaning.  The resources discussed for the most part in each of the sections are statistical in nature.


 Search Strategy

Finding statistical information on a given topic is not always easy.   Decide before you start your research whether you need “data” or a “statistic”.

Then ask yourself the following questions:

What is the subject or topic of interest?

What variables are of interest? Race? Sex? Acreage? Gross National Product?

Who or what is being counted? Individuals? Businesses? Families? Households?

What level of geography is desired? World? Country? State? County? City?

Do you want data for a single location or multiple locations?

What time period to be covered? Current? Historical?

What frequency do you need?  Are you looking for figures for a specific point in time or are you comparing figures over a period of time? 

What are alternative keywords to describe your topic?  For example, using the word 'adolescents' instead of ‘teenager’.

Consider the following points:

Does the statistic or data set exist?  It may not have ever been collected. 

Who might be collecting this information?  Who cares or has a vested interest in the topic? Are they reliable? Authoritative?

How would this information be gathered? Can it be gathered?  Think about the real world; e.g., Is the data private or personal? Is it illegal or hard to count? Would it be too expensive to gather?

Has the statistical information been released yet?  It takes time to collate and organize information.  Often times there is a time lag between collection and availability.

Was the statistical information published? Was it widely distributed?  Data can be found in journal articles, reference books, corporate or agency records, Internet sites, etc. It could be in an office file cabinet and not widely distributed.

Are there access restrictions? Is the data free?  Is it only available to individuals in the company or agency?

Is the statistical information biased?  Numbers can be manipulated, and charts and graphs can be arranged to a give a certain impression.   Always double-check your facts. 

Do you want the statistical information in a tabular or graphic format or data you can manipulate with appropriate software?

How you answer the above will determine what resources you will use and where to look for the desired data. 

It is more difficult to find historical than current figures. Very current figures are likely to be online.  Historical figures, on the other hand, are more likely to be in print resources, particularly if you are looking for detailed statistics.  More raw data is collected than is ever presented in tables.   While these files may be available, they usually require the use of specialized programs such as SPSS or SAS to manipulate.

Finding statistical information on a given topic is not always easy.  You may have to think outside the box to find the information you need.

 Further Reading

The Reference Guide to Data Sources.  Julia Bauder.  Chicago, Illinois:  ALA Editions, 2014.  Also available online.  Information about statistical resources both U.S. and international arranged in broad categories.

Research Guides:  How to Find Data & Statistics. (Michigan State University. MSU Libraries)  Search stragies and key resources to help find data and statistical information. 

Statistics:  Finding Data and Statistics. (University of Chicago. Loyola.)  Overview on how to go about locating data and statistics.