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Stat Abs, I Hardly Knew Ye

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.

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Comments

  1. bob says:

    For instance, we could keep fighting in Afghanistan for another four hours with the money we’ll save.

  2. will manley says:

    2. The best way to save Stat Abs would be for the feds to sell e book copies of it to libraries with a 26 use self destruct clause.

  3. Sarah says:

    Somehow I got through Library School without being introduced to Stat Abs…and I took reference classes.

  4. bob says:

    Many libraries receive the statistical abstract through the FDLP. I’m sure a private publisher wouldn’t jack up the cost to the point where most libraries couldn’t afford their version. That has certainly never happened when a public resources ends up privatized.

  5. Annoyed Librarian says:

    bob, your comment about Afghanistan reminds me of the regressive librarian arguments that since any money the government spends on anything COULD be spent on libraries instead, every political issue is a library-related issue.

  6. bob says:

    AL, your comments remind me of the republican argument that any government spending is bad, since anything can be privatized.

    Actually my comment was a fairly unoriginal quip. My larger point (like all those regressive librarians) is that paltry sums of government money are being cut from valuable resources (not just library resources) when our nations massively over sized defense budget is never touched. It’s a point I’ve made in your comments section before.

  7. Logic says:

    Clearly, you have never used the Stat Abstract, or tried to find data. It is a valuable source to where the data is located (which, even with Google, can be very hard to find). It also includes data which is private data. The budget reduction request does not only do away with the Stat Abstract, but with several other items like the City-County Databook, and their electronic versions. It isn’t just that they won’t print it…they will not compile the data.

    One friend (non-librarian) made a quip like: Oh, now the government does not want us to see the data which we paid for and shows what the government is doing.

  8. Fan says:

    You do realize that the statistical absract will no longer be online as well? Without that, we’ll have to take datasets and crunch them ourselves. The Stat Ads makes this government data accessible to non-social scientists.

  9. wondering says:

    Right… so if the data will not even be compiled anymore, how will it be available online, anywhere, even Google? I’m trying (unsuccessfully) not to sound like an alarmist, but if in times of economic stress, the government decides to cut not only access to information, but the information itself, how is this good for our country?

  10. brian says:

    the ad idea sounds good! Statistics too, are in the public domain; we shouldn’t have to do cartwheels to get them. The government does things in strange and mysterious ways; like print the Congressional Record on a daily basis; I’ll bet that publication is a hot one on the average librarian’s list.

  11. Dave Tyckoson says:

    The only reason that Statistical Abstract is free online is because the government makes the effort to compile it as a published resource. If we stop comiling Statistical Abstract, the information will not be available anywhere. Or more precisely, it will be available in odd little corners of the .gov universe under various agencies in various forms in a variety of formats. The advantage of Statistical Abstract as a source is that it pulls together all of this data into one convenient source (or at least one more convenient source — I always hated that they used table numbers instead of page numbers in the print version). By using the abstract, we can find the data that we need or link to the report that the data was extracted from if we need more information.

    Note that Statistical Abstract is one of the government’s best selling books. Both the harback and paperback are listed on the top 25 list from the U.S. Government Bookstore, with the hardback at #3 (just in front of the Federal Budget book) and the paperback at #9 (right after a book on renovating to eliminate lead paint and before the report of the Commission on the Gulf oil spill). See http://bookstore.gpo.gov/bestsellers/index.jsp for the best seller list.

    Statistical Asbtract is simply one of the most important reference sources in teh United States. Librarians need it — as do the people of this nation. It is a core source in getting quality information to the people — something that the government needs to continue, not eliminate.