Grumblings persist over demise of Statistical Abstract

By Charles S. Clark

September 2, 2011

Late this month, the 131st edition of the Statistical Abstract of the United States is scheduled for release. It will be the final installment of the paper edition of the fact-packed government annual, a planned casualty of the current budget austerity that stands only a slight chance, sources say, of winning a reprieve when Congress tackles appropriations this fall.

The abstract, the Census Bureau's compendium of some 1,400 neatly aligned data tables on economics, demographics and geography, has been published almost every year since 1878. Since President Obama's budget came out in February, the plan to discontinue it -- offered reluctantly by the Census director and the Commerce Department -- has ruffled feathers among librarians, historians and journalists.

While the data will continue to be gathered and made available in various locations online, critics of the decision to kill the hardbound and paperback editions, which are sold by the Government Printing Office, the National Technical Information Service and some private vendors, say ease of usability will suffer.

According to a fact sheet that Census put out Thursday, what officials called the "difficult" move to defund the bureau's statistical compendia branch, which produces the abstract, will save $2.9 million and eliminate 24 full-time positions at Census. It noted that sales of the abstract have ebbed and flowed in recent years, rising from 2,570 in 2007 to 3,200 in 2008, then falling to 1,856 in 2009 and 1,732 in 2010. On the Census website, the HTML version of the abstract attracted almost 3.5 million hits in 2010.

But as Census Director Robert Groves noted on his blog July 15, eliminating the abstract is part of a larger effort to scale back that is designed to preserve as many of the bureau's core functions as possible. In June, "we announced a decision to close six of our 12 regional offices," he wrote. "We have delayed filling hundreds of vacancies at our Suitland, Md. headquarters, and have taken steps to achieve long-term savings through consolidation of IT resources and innovative business processes. I have tortured readers of this blog by repeated notes about my beliefs that we must become more efficient to survive."

Obama's budget called for an 11 percent cut in Census Bureau funding, which House Republicans increased to 16 percent, Groves noted.

Complaints from fans of the Statistical Abstract have not faded.

"In the next months and years, we will stumble across countless examples of good government coming to grief," Robert Samuelson wrote in an Aug. 29 Washington Post column pleading for the abstract to be saved. "Budget pressures will force cutbacks and cancellations. Many will be desirable and overdue: programs that don't work, have outlived their usefulness or favor the undeserving. But some will represent valuable activities that were reluctantly or foolishly eliminated to meet budget targets."

In May, the American Library Association and the Association of Research Libraries sent letters to the House and Senate appropriations committee asking them to support continued funding for the Statistical Compendia Branch. "ARL and ALA believe that the loss of these important resources, in a time of striving for greater government transparency, is a step backward," they said. "It is a mistake to end usable access to this information without a plan in place to ensure that the public has another way to locate it."

Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, told Government Executive that axing the abstract would be "unfortunate, especially for people interested in history who don't have superb Internet access. Most historians at colleges and universities don't need the book," he said, "but many around the United States don't have that kind of access."

Jessica McGilivray, assistant director of government relations in the ALA's Washington office, said she is "not incredibly hopeful" that the abstract can be saved. Because the decision to eliminate it "came straight from Census to the president's budget, there's not a lot of leeway," she said. "The government information will still be gathered, but it won't be accessible in a usable format. Librarians are trained to access it with some effort, but for the general public, it's a loss."

By Charles S. Clark

September 2, 2011