Library listservs were a-buzzing last week with news of the possible 2012 demise of the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Even the ALA Councilors are fretting and wondering what action to take. Presumably, the Council will pass a resolution calling for the continuation of the Statistical Abstract, which will then assure its death.
And after all, it could be much worse. Some fools have been predicting the end of the world in 2012, either because of an interpretation of a Mayan calendar they’ve never seen or because of a really bad John Cusack movie they have seen. It turns out the Mayan calendar didn’t predict the end of the world, just the end of Stat Abs.
Among librarians, though, this is akin to the end of the world, because for them Stat Abs is better than flat abs, which is why librarians don’t tend to look like pop stars and film actors.
Unlike some of the brouhaha that erupts in libraryland, I feel some of the pain here, if only for nostalgia’s sake. Back in the day, pre-Internet, when I was a wee little reference librarian, it seemed I could tackle just about every question with either the Statistical Abstract or the World Almanac at my side. Ahh, those were not the days.
It’s a useful reference tool and it will be missed for its handiness as much as anything else., but, as I discovered in the Census Bureau’s budget estimate to Congress where news of the Stat Abs discontinuation is found, it’s an expensive reference tool. Note on page 6, “Terminate Statistical Abstract – a decrease of $2.9 million (-24 FTE).” Wow. $2.9 million to compile a book of statistics that can be found elsewhere with a little more effort.
Given that the entire run of the Statistical Abstracts are now free online, going back to the first one in 1878, it’s great for anyone needing statistics, but still pretty darn expensive. A lot of other things could be done with $2.9 million. Nevertheless, there are ways to save it.
For one thing, the government could start putting ads on the Statistical Abstracts website. I bet that site gets thousands of visits a day at least, and the Census Bureau could charge quite a bit for some well placed advertising. Maybe they could use Google Adsense.
Also, the government charges around $40 for the print copy. Instead of asking Congress to cut the funding for it, instead they could ask Congress to pass a law requiring every library in the country to buy a print copy.
Based on the numbers of libraries given here, if every public library branch and every academic library bought at least one copy at $40, it would make $819,920. Unfortunately that’s not enough to recoup costs, and charging libraries $150 for something free online just wouldn’t be fair.
So they’d have to make every school library purchase a copy as well. That alone would bring in $3,967,200, bringing the total to $4,787,120, which should more than cover the costs of compilation, production, and distribution, plus a nice Christmas party at the end of the year.
Now they wouldn’t even need federal funding. The unit of the Census Bureau responsible for this could split off from the government and become an American quango, riding high on the Stat Ab tax paid by libraries all over the country.
And then there’s the more likely scenario, which is that if there’s really a market for this, some enterprising publisher like Lexis-Nexis or West will take over the enterprise, figure out how to reduce the cost of compiling by 65%, license the electronic version to libraries and continue to charge $40 for a print version. I hear that’s been done with reference books before.