In 2010, Gail Borden Public Library District in Elgin, Illinois, led an effort to raise the local US Census self-reporting rate from 70% in 2000 to 79%. We had much to learn. But the more we found out about how the census count is closely tied to millions of dollars in federal funding for our community, the more we realized that this was one of the most important campaigns the library had ever taken on.
According to Dionne Roberts-Emegha, US Census Bureau community partnership coordinator for the Chicago region, March 12–20 the bureau will mail to most households an invitation to complete the 2020 Census online or by phone, with mailed reminders sent through April. The invitation will include a code to identify the residence and help minimize duplicate responses. Areas that are considered less likely to respond online will receive a paper questionnaire along with the invitation. The online census portal and telephone center will open on March 26, according to Roberts-Emegha.
Our census partnership specialist, Theresa Le, is spot-on when she says that the census is simple, safe, and significant for people in your community. If your library is participating in a census campaign this year, here are some tips.
- Realize how trusted your library staffers are. It is exactly that trust that makes libraries a fundamental component in getting people counted.
- Refer to the American Library Association’s resources on the 2020 Census: The Libraries’ Guide to the 2020 Census, the tip sheet Preparing My Library for the 2020 Census, and How Can Libraries Help Count All Kids in the 2020 Census?
- Use the Response Outreach Area Mapper to help you recruit volunteers. This excellent tool uses data related to poverty, language barriers, lack of broadband access, and frequent residential moves to identify groups that could prove challenging to count.
- Let library visitors know that they can complete the census online using their home addresses even if they have not brought in the invitation to respond that was sent to their residence in March.
- Make sure your volunteers are trained on how to assist people with filling out the census form. Our staffers and volunteers were trained by census personnel in February.
- Your volunteers may assist individuals by typing their responses in the online portal or filling out the paper form, as long as they do not reinterpret or modify the response.
- Even if you do not have a lot of funding, you can make a difference through your staff and computer access. The Census Bureau website offers fact sheets, infographics, photos, videos, and other free resources.
- Test your messaging. We shortened and simplified our print materials after trying them out on a test group. They wound up much more reader friendly.
- Use attention-grabbing graphics. This is especially important when language is a challenge.
- Everyone living in a household must be included on the same form. Make sure your volunteers and users know that if someone is accidentally left off, the form must be filled out again in its entirety.
- Don’t think you need to know everything about the census. When a question gets too complicated, turn it over to Census Bureau personnel, either through a hotline or through your library contact.
The relationships that you make or strengthen during the census count will benefit your library’s efforts for years to come. This was one of our most important takeaways from 2010. Our collaboration with many of our 2010 Census partners has continued with ongoing immigrant services, community literacy, and many other projects over the past decade.
Even though a requirement to include a question on citizenship in the 2020 Census was overturned, we will be still working in a challenging environment. Many people will be suspicious about how the government will use the census data. This makes working on behalf of our community more important than ever.