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Head-and-shoulders portrait of Uncle Sam, Census 1940.

Census Search Strategies

Is It In the Census?

When researching census data, it is important to keep in mind that there will always be more than one way to find the information desired from census data reports. Conversely, it is also possible for an answer to be found in more than one type of census data report. In addition, although there is no one prescribed research approach that can be applied to every census search, knowledge of certain standard census methodologies and practices can be helpful to both the novice and seasoned researcher when trying to identify the appropriate census data report to answer a data user need.

In lieu of knowing the exact census data report required to answer a data need, one of the first things to determine is whether the desired topic is treated in the census, i.e., does the topic qualify or can it be translated into a population, housing, or economic census question.

BERA - Business & Economics Research Advisor - A Quarterly Guide to Business & Economics Topics

Spring 2013

Census Connections

A Guide To Locating Selected U.S. Decennial And Economic Census Publications In The Library Of Congress

Table of Contents

Census Reference Publications
      Censuses of Population
            Census Data
            Specific Censuses
            State Censuses
      Economic Censuses
Census Search Strategies
Current Business Reports
Special Censuses
Congressional District Data    New resource
LC Catalog Searches

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If yes, subsequent considerations will involve identifying the appropriate terminology, verifying whether the information is available from complete count or sample data, and determining at what geographic level the data are available and in what format. The following sources provide some assistance.

Although primarily focused on accessing 1990 Census publications, some of them apply to historical census reports a well. Also included are a couple of tips for accessing the Economic Census publications. For assistance in accessing the most recent census data and reports, go to the U.S. Census Bureau's Training Resources Library, a collection of e-tutorials, presentations, webinars and other materials designed to assist data users.

                                           Decennial Census                     Economic Census             
                             Working with Census Publications         Other Library Guides

Decennial Census

The Grace York Archive of Census Aids External Link

An archive of spreadsheets and tutorials for Census information (1790-2000) from the University of Michigan Library. This is an excellent web site for assistance in how to access the 1990 and 2000 Censuses. Although geared for researchers needing Michigan census data, it still covers the overall structure of the Censuses from instructions, complete count and sample data, formats, and maps.
Subjects covered in the Decennial Censuses:

Population and Housing Items on the General Census Schedules 1790-2000
Compiled by Grace York, University of Michigan Library, March 2002
Available in the The Grace York Archive of Census Aids. Go to
Historic Data Spreadsheets tab. External Link

This handy chart tells when a subject was first addressed in the census.

Locating U.S. Government Information: a guide to sources.
LC Call Number: ZA5055.U6 H47 1997 Bus Ref Desk
LC Catalog Record: 96051490

See page 428, Chart 15-1 - "Subjects Covered by the Census of Population and Housing" gives subjects and their earliest dates of coverage in the Census.

Population and Household Economic Topics

Population Profile of the United States

Issues for 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997, and 1999 are available via the HathiTrustExternal Link. The following issues are also available from the U.S. Census Bureau website.
  • 2000 [PDF Format: 1.45 MB/ 74 pp.]
  • 1999 [PDF Format: 2.7 MB/ 80 pp.]
  • 1995 [PDF format: 519 KB / 71 pp.]

Population Projections

Population Estimates

Current Population Reports

Subject Index to Current Population Reports ( P-23 Series) [PDF Format: 723 KB / 57 pp.]

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Economic Census

Subjects Covered in the Economic Censuses:

Uses of Census Data

Economic Census data useful for industry and market research as well as investment and public sector data.

Years When Economic Census Components Were Taken: 1810 - Present
Compiled by Columbia University Libraries. External Link

Another handy chart included as part of their census guide that tells when a component of the economic census was taken.

Boettcher, Jennifer C. and Leonard M. Gaines. Industry research using the economic census: how to find it, how to use it. Greenwood Press, 2004.
LC Call Number: HC101.B594 2004
LC Catalog Record: 2004008607

Patterned after the Michael Lavin's book Business information: how to find it, how to use it (Oryx Press, 1992), it provides information on the history, design and composition of the economic census. It includes handy tables and definitions, and provides sample question boxes designed to assist researchers in how to determine if certain data are to be found in the economic census. There is a chart on page 5 of Part I of this book entitled "Economic Census Coverage by Sector 1840 to 2002" that can be viewed on Google Books External Link.

Lavin, Michael. Business information: how to find it, how to use it. Phoenix, Ariz. : Oryx Press, 1992.
LC Call Number: HF5356.L36 1991
LC Catalog Record: 91028129

On page 323 is Figure 14-D: Translating Demographic Questions Into Census Format. This table gives the question asked and translates it into census language, e.g., question: children per household, census language=household relationship; family composition, currently divorced translates into marital status, ethnic group translates into ancestry.

Sears, Jean L. and Marilyn Moody. Using government publications. Volume 2. Finding statistics and using special techniques. Phoenix, Ariz. : Oryx Press, 1985-1986.
LC Call Number: Z1223,Z7S4 1985
LC Catalog Record: 83043249

A bit dated, but the search strategies are still applicable, particularly for researching decennial and economic census reports as well as other business and industry statistical sources.

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Working with Census Publications

Census data users are presented with many options for locating information from census publications. Lavin (in Business Information, How To Find It, How To Use It,) says that the experience of working with census data is a continuing source of discovery. It is no wonder, then, that researchers usually develop their own research strategies for charting through the Census. Search time can be shortened, however, if there is a familiarity with certain census concepts, methodology, and standard patterns which identify census publications and the type of data they contain.

Area Report Numbers

There is a numbered area report or part number assigned for the United States, American Indian and Alaska Native Areas, Metropolitan Statistical Areas, Urbanized Areas, and each of the States, the District of Columbia and outlying areas of : Puerto Rico, Guam, Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands. These area report numbers remain the same for each geographic area and are used in both the decennial and the economic censuses. The assignment of the part or area numbers to the states for earlier censuses changed as states joined the Union. After Hawaii joined in 1959, as a general rule, the area or part numbers for the state reports have remained consistent since the 1960 Census. When requesting state area reports, the LC Call numbers for the census series should include the area or part number for the desired state. For example, to request the 1990 Census of Population, General Population Characteristics series for North Carolina, the LC Call Number would be HA201 1990d #35, where HA201 1990d represents the LC Call number for the census series and #35 represents the state report number for North Carolina. To expedite their retrieval from the stacks, it would be advisable to also include the state name with the state report number since variant LC labeling has yielded some volumes with just the imprinted state name, others with the state report number only, and still others with both the state name and report number. To identify desired area report numbers, see folder "Locating Census Data: A Few Quick Tips" located at the Business Reference Desk.

Decennial Census Questionnaire - Complete Count vs Sample Data

Data collected for the decennial census comes from questions asked on either the Short form or the Long Form Questionnaire whose data translates into complete count and sample data, respectively, or a combination of both. For a discussion of these two types of questionnaires, go to Questionnaires on the Census site; a link to questionnaires from the other decennial censuses is also provided. For a chart on complete count and sample data, go to the U.S. Census Bureau's 1995 Catalog and Guide; click on Guide for 1995 and select "Special Section" from left menu bar. Scroll down to page 191 to Figure 38 containing the chart. In Michael Lavin's Business Information, How To Find It, How To Use It, there is a comparable chart on page 296 that includes data not asked on the questionnaire form but is derived from available data. On page 323 is a chart on translating questions into census language.

Method of Publication
Printed census data reports follow a distinct pattern in the way they have been issued:

1) Both the decennial and economic censuses reports have usually been published in major categories or series which can be identified by the two- or three-letter designations that make up the report number. For example: 1990 Census of Population (1990CP); 1992 Census of Construction Industries (CC92); 2000 Census Summary Population and Housing Characteristics (PHC). However, as the titles of census series can change from one decennial census year to another, so will the letter designations . Take, for example, the economic census where in 1992 it is called the 1992 Census of Construction Industries; but for the 1997 Economic Census, the same series report is EC97C where EC97 stands for 1997 Economic Census and C stands for construction.

2) All census reports are further identified by a series report number such that in the 1990 Decennial Census Report 1990 CPH-1, CPH = Census of Population and Housing, and 1= the Summary Population and Housing Characteristics Series.

3) There is a distinct Part Number assigned to each State Area Report Number. Continuing with the example given in (2) above, in the Decennial Census Report 1990 CPH-1-10, CPH = Census of Population and Housing, 1 = Summary Population and Housing Characteristics Series, and 10 = the Area Report Number for the District of Columbia. With few exceptions, this part number remains the same throughout all the census series such that the U.S. Summary Volume is also Part Number 1, Alabama is No. 2, etc. ... After Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union, the only "juggling" that takes place is with the outlying areas of U.S. at the end of the number assignment. See the folder "Locating Census Data A Few Quick Tips" for the listing of part numbers for each state from 1940 to 1990.

4) All decennial and economic census reports are updated by current reports issued on a recurring basis, usually monthly, annually, or some less frequently. For a current listing of the latest releases, go to the Census Bureau's web site and select Releases under Newsroom tab on the top of the page.

Arrangement of Data

Several standard sections are found in each census report and serve as finding aids to locating the data contained within each report. For the decennial census:

  • List of Statistical Tables contain all the table title headings contained in each report.
  • The Table Finding Guide provides access to subjects covered in the report, providing geographic area levels covered and the corresponding table number.
  • How To Use This Census Report explains how to find geographic areas and subject matters data and how to use the statistical tables and the table finding guide in the report.
  • Appendices are very useful for identifying definitions, area classifications, procedures, maps, and other product information.
The Economic Census reports have the sections:
  • Introduction to the Economic Census -- which gives an overview of the economic census series, a brief history, and topics covered;
  • Users' Guide For Locating Statistics in This Report by Table Number -- connects subjects covered to specific table numbers. It is comparable to the Table Finding Guide section in the decennial census reports.
  • Users' Guide For Locating Statistics in the... -- identifies the other sub series titles within the major group and what data elements are available.
  • Appendices include general explanations, sample report form and instructions, and geographic levels served.

Within a census series, all table numbers and headings are identical for all census reports and geographic levels within that series. For example, in the report 1990 Census of Population and Housing, Summary Population and Housing Characteristics Series, Table 18: "Labor Force and Disability Characteristics of Persons" for the District of Columbia is the same Table 18 that will be found in the census reports for all the States in that series. In the report 1992 Census of Service Industries, Geographic Area Series, Table 1a: "Summary Statistics For Firms...for the State: 1992" is the same Table 1a for all the economic census reports in that series.

Census Geographical Hierarchy Diagrams

There is a defined hierarchy of census geography for all census data products that are issued and this hierarchy ranges from the U.S. level down to the Census Block. It is important to determine at what geographic level data are available as all census data products are not published for every geographic level.

Data Formats
Census publications are available on computer tapes, online, on CD-ROM (although this medium is not being utilized for future census data products), in printed reports, maps, microfiche, and customized data area available from the U.S. Census Bureau for a fee. The Census Bureau offers many of the decennial and economic census reports data from their web site. The American FactFinder has now become the primary search engine to access the latest census data including maps. No printed reports were issued for the 2002 Economic Census and for the 2007 Economic Census, there will be no more PDF's. Although some printed reports may be published for Census 2010, the expectation is that there will only be a few.

Other Selected General Guides To Census Data
Factfinder For The Nation.
Describes, in a series of 22 topical brochures, the range of Census Bureau materials on a given subject and suggests some of their uses. The titles and numbers in the series are:

  • FF-1 Statistics on Race and Ethnicity
  • CFF-2 Availability of Census Records About Individuals
  • CFF-3 Agricultural Statistics
  • CFF-4 History and Organization
  • CFF-5 Reference Sources
  • CFF-6 Housing Statistics
  • CFF-7 Population Statistics
  • CFF-8 Census Geography--Concepts and Products
  • CFF-9 Construction Statistics
  • CFF-10 Retail Trade Statistics
  • CFF-11 Wholesale Trade Statistics
  • CFF-12 Statistics on Service Industries
  • CFF-13 Transportation, Communications, and Utilities Statistics
  • CFF-14 Foreign Trade Statistics
  • CFF-15 Statistics on Manufactures
  • CFF-16 Statistics on Mineral Industries
  • CFF-17 Statistics on Governments
  • CFF-18 Census Bureau Programs and Products
  • CFF-19 Enterprise Statistics
  • CFF-20 Energy and Related Statistics
  • CFF-21 International Programs
  • CFF-22 Data for Communities

1990 Census of Population and Housing Tabulation and Publication Program.

Describes the census tabulation and publication program for the 50 States and the District of Columbia. It covers questionnaire content and design, dissemination media, data products and how to obtain them, a dictionary of geographic terms, and handy charts on comparable reports between 1990 and 1980 censuses, census geography hierarchy, numbering scheme for state reports, and more. Has a chart "Summary of differences between 1990 and 1980 census data products."

Census '90 Basics. Explains census operations, census content and design, geography, data products including maps. It also identifies key reference materials and how to obtain them. Available online via the HathiTrustExternal Link.

Special Compilations

Census ABC's--Applications in Business and Community. Provides information from the 1990 Census and how various reports can be of value to businesses and community leaders. It also identifies what census data can be linked to specific activities (e.g. considering household composition, age, education, income, occupation data when selecting the best location for a store). This publication is available in the Business Reference Section Vertical File.

Manufacturing Measures-Census Bureau Data For Manufacturing. [PDF Format: 1.2 MB / 27 pp.]

Gives an overview of the Census of Manufactures, Annual Survey of Manufactures, and Current Industrial Reports--three series of census reports that provide valuable information related to the manufacturing industry. It identifies specific reports, suggests several scenarios for researching certain types of information, and has a listing of sources for assistance.

Hatchl, Barbara. Taking Care of Business--A Guide To Census Bureau Data For Small Businesses. [Washington, D.C.] : Bureau of the Census, 1993.
LC Call #: HD2346.U5H39 1993
LC Catalog Record: 94147257

A publication targeted to small businesses which gives an overview of the Census of Retail Trade and Census of Service Industries--two series of census reports that provide information on related census data of importance to small business. Discusses census organization, geography, identifies specific census reports and how they can be of value, and gives listing of sources for assistance and how to obtain information.

Geographic Products

The Census Bureau offers an array of geographic products via the Internet, on CD-ROM, and in print. Maps & Data page provides information on and access to all available geographic data and products.

Digital Map Database TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing System)
This is a joint venture of the Bureau and the U.S. Geological Survey launched for the 1990 Census and contains automated description of the physical and boundary features of the entire United States and its territories and the relationships between the features and the tabulation areas. See also TIGERweb.

Map products on CD-ROM are primarily available in the Library's Geography and Map Division Reading Room , Room B01, Madison Building. They have several commercial software applications for mapping data; staff there should be consulted for assistance in using their products. The Geography and Map Reading Room is also the custodian of several series of the Census Bureau's printed maps. The P.L. 94-171 County Block Maps (1990) are available there (LC Call Number: G3701.E25 year. U51). This shows census blocks, tracts, and numbers, local administrative boundaries, American Indian/Alaska Native areas, roads, railroads, rivers, etc, by county, parish, independent city, etc. It also shows voting district boundaries.

Some printed maps are included in selected census report series and are available from the general collections in the Library. For example, Urbanized Area Outline Maps are included in 1990 CPH-2 series; Congressional District Outline Maps for the 103rd Congress are in 1990 CPH-4. For a complete listing of all report series containing maps, consult the following publications: 1990 Census of Population and Housing Guide, Part A, and the brochure Maps and More --Your Guide To Census Bureau Geography.

Resources for Understanding Census Bureau Geography

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There are excellent census guides available on the Internet that have been prepared by other libraries. They vary in their scope, content, and detail. Many include charts and tables while others provide detail on census history, topics covered, questions asked, and other useful information and resources. Primarily focused on locating census data in their respective library collections, these guides are still very helpful in guiding census researchers to understanding census data methodology, applications, and publication. A few selected census library guides are provided for your information and convenience.

U.S. Resources on the Web - Economic Statistics External Link
Madison Memorial Library
Provides links to economic censuses and other data.
Economic Census Information External Link
Columbia University Libraries
Has a table indicating the years for which various components of the economic censuses were taken, with each link providing information on the census and applicable reference publications.
Census Data For Small Areas External Link
Delaware Library
Focuses on locating census tract data.
Census Information External Link
Portland State University Library
Includes overview of the decennial censuses, agricultural census, economic census, census of governments from their earliest beginnings to the present.
U.S. Census and Demographic Information External Link
A general guide to understanding and finding demographic data produced by the U.S. Census Bureau
The Grace York Archive of Census Aids External Link
An archive of spreadsheets and tutorials for Census information (1790-2000) University of Michigan Library
U.S. Census Publications External Link
A research guide to Census publications at the San Diego State University Libraries

Last Updated: 10/24/2017

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