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Senator Feinstein’s canned responses to Statistical Abstract disappointing and disheartening

I’ve heard that librarians are beginning to receive canned responses to letters to Senator Feinstein and they have not been good. Feinstein’s response to concerns about the shutting down of the Census Bureau’s Statistical Compendia Branch and killing of the Statistical Abstract have been thus:

Dear Mr. ________________:

Thank you for writing me to express your support for the U.S. Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States. I appreciate hearing from you and apologize for the delay in my response.

As you may know, the Statistical Abstract is data on the social, political, and economic organization of the Nation released by the Census Bureau. The Census Bureau publishes the information as well as making it available online for the public.

In February 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau released its tentative fiscal year 2012 budget breakdown, which includes a provision to terminate the Statistical Abstract. I understand your concerns with the Census Bureau’s proposal. According to the Census Bureau, in order to fund higher priority programs within the agency, it is recommending that certain programs be terminated or have their budgets reduced. You might be interested to know that much of the information available in the Statistical Abstract is available at university and library resources, particularly the Federal Depository Library.

Please know that I recognize your concerns and appreciate the information you have provided about what this cut could mean. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I will be sure to keep your thoughts in mind during the 2012 fiscal year appropriations process. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to share your concerns directly with the Census Bureau at: 1-800-923-8282.

Again, thank you for writing. If you have any additional questions or comments, please feel free to contact my Washington, D.C. office at (202) 224-3841. Best regards.

Sincerely yours,

Dianne Feinstein
United States Senator

Particularly disheartening is that she references libraries, ignoring the fact that it is LIBRARIANS who are writing to her! We KNOW that much — but not all! — of the data are out there and in our stacks. But we also KNOW that the Statistical Abstract, because it is the aggregation of many data sources and data points across the .gov domain and beyond, is one of the most useful tools that librarians have to serve the public. The Statistical Abstract is the defacto Google for .gov statistical information. THAT’S why we’re so concerned that the Statistical Compendia Branch is being cut. Feinstein’s statement misses the point completely.

Thanks to a tip from Kevin McClure, a librarian at Chicago-Kent College of Law, I contacted Jean Mullin, section chief at the Statistical Abstract. Ms. Mullin’s quick and helpful response confirmed the amount of copyrighted material in the Statistical Abstract. She noted:

“100 of the Abstract’s private sector sources contribute roughly 179 tables to the book, meaning that almost 13 percent of what’s published in the book is copyrighted. All but a few of those tables are approved for the on-line and CD-ROM versions. There are also several tables in the Abstract, which are special tabulations produced by government agencies for the Abstract and can not be found anywhere else on-line. If one were to reproduce them, they would have to send a request to that agency for the data.”

Kevin, in this thread on govdoc-l and working off the same information Ms Mullin gave him, extrapolated the information and stated:

“… I think assurances that we can rely on other data sources are even more off the mark than they sound at first. The Preface to Stat Abstract says that both government and private sources contribute to its mix of data. I checked on what that would mean if we lost the publication, and found out that about 100 of those private sources, which contribute to 179 tables in the book, require copyright permission, meaning that almost 13 percent of the tables in the book are copyrighted. All but a few of those tables are approved for the online and CD-ROM versions.

So the suggestion in Sen. Feinstein’s response that we could reassemble much of the data in Stat Abstract with things in our SuDocs stacks and online, on top of being daft and irrelevant in so many irritating ways, also fails to account for that large chunk of data that will no longer be publicly accessible by any means. The resource is literally irreplaceable, because no one outside the Statistical Compendia Branch is capable of collecting it all without re establishing all those arrangements — that is, without doing what the Statistical Compendia Branch already does, and does so much better and more efficiently than anyone else could. I think that is a point worth emphasizing as we continue to talk to our representatives about preserving the Statistical Compendia Branch.”

I hope that readers will use this information as added context in their responses (really just shrugs of their shoulders 😐 ) to their Senators and Representatives.

As Paul Krugman recently wrote, “Killing the publication for the sake of a tiny saving would be a truly gratuitous step toward a dumbed-down country. And believe me, that’s not something we need more of.” Google will not and cannot help the public and librarians access that copyrighted data. Without the Statistical Abstract, NONE of that data will be available to the public and the finding by citizens of .gov statistics will be unnecessarily obfuscated beyond reason.

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