Public Libraries and the 2020 Census

Posted October 23, 2018


  • Public libraries across the United States are planning to play an active role in the 2020 Census, both as sources of information about the importance of participating in the decennial census count, and as local community resources for people who would like to be counted but who may not have adequate internet access, for example.
  • The 2020 Census will be the first online census, but some parts of the country have poor internet access, raising the concern that it will be harder for households in these areas to be counted. But virtually all public libraries have public access computer terminals and free wi-fi, and can leverage this access for households that do not otherwise have easy access to the internet.
  • Public libraries are ubiquitous. Close to 100% of the U.S. population lives within 5 miles of at least 1 of almost 17,000 library branches located nationwide, and 73% of the population lives within 1 mile.
  • Communities that are considered hard-to-count for census purposes and areas that have relatively poor internet access also have libraries nearby. Almost 99% of these neighborhoods (as represented by census tracts) are within 5 miles of a library, and almost three-quarters are within 1 mile of a library.
  • In large cities, a greater share of neighborhoods with poor internet access than in general nationwide are close to public libraries: 86% of these tracts are within 1 mile of a public library, compared with three-quarters of these tracts near libraries nationwide. And in each of the nation’s 100 largest cities, all hard-to-count neighborhoods are located within 1 mile of a public library.
  • Public libraries are therefore literally well-positioned to have a major impact on census participation. View public library locations on the CUNY Graduate Center's Census 2020 Hard to Count map.


Public libraries will likely play an essential role in helping to ensure a fair and accurate 2020 census. Not only are public libraries important information sources for local communities across the country, but virtually all public libraries provide public internet access computers as well as public wi-fi.

Internet access is critical because for the first time the decennial census in 2020 will be available online, and the Census Bureau will be urging most households to submit their replies to the census questionnaire via a secure website.1 Public library computers can provide a convenient opportunity to submit 2020 census information for households that do not otherwise have easy access to the internet.

The nation’s more than 16,700 public library locations also can provide helpful information to local communities about the value of being counted in the census. Certain communities and population groups—referred to as “hard-to-count”—are at higher risk of not being fully counted in the decennial census. Some of these groups have been historically underrepresented in the decennial census for decades; some may experience new or increased vulnerability due to major changes in census methodology; and some may be reluctant to respond due to concerns about data confidentiality. Being hard-to-count can lead to unequal political representation and unequal access to vital public and private resources for these groups and their communities. Libraries can help ensure that everyone is counted, especially in hard-to-count areas, by providing access to information about the importance of a fair and accurate census count.

In order to understand if public libraries are in close proximity to communities with poor internet access and/or near areas that are considered hard to count, the Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center / CUNY used its geographic information system (GIS) software and data to analyze the spatial patterns of library locations and census tracts across the country. (See the “Data Sources & Methodology” section below.)

Library Locations Where Internet Access is Poor

Overall, we found that libraries are located relatively close to almost everyone in the United States. There are 16,747 local public library branches across the country.2 More than 316 million people – just over 99% of the U.S. population3 – live in census tracts located within 5 miles of these public libraries. Almost three-quarters of the population – almost 233 million people (73.1%) – live in tracts within 1 mile of a public library. Table 1 below presents these findings.


  All Within 5 miles of a library Within 1 mile of a library
  Number Percent Number Percent Number Percent
Tracts 72,418 100% 71,767 99.1% 53,391 73.7%
Population 318,553,192 100% 316,337,720 99.3% 232,975,181 73.1%

These patterns are similar for areas with poor internet access. For this analysis, we consider a census tract having poor internet access if 40% or more of its households do not have the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) minimum threshold of having internet connectivity of 200 kbps for uploads or downloads.4

Based on FCC data from 2016, there are approximately 12,400 tracts in this “poor internet access” category representing 45.3 million people. Libraries are located near most of these tracts. Our findings are listed below and in the following Tables 2a and 2b:

  • Public libraries are located within 5 miles of 98% of these tracts, representing 44.4 million people.
  • Almost three-quarters of these tracts – 9,200 tracts, representing 33.5 million people – are located within 1 mile of a public library.


  All Poor Internet Access
  Number Percent Number Percent
Tracts 72,418 100% 12,446 17.2%
Population 318,553,192 100% 45,335,963 14.2%


  For tracts with poor internet access:
  Within 5 miles of a library Within 1 mile of a library
  Number Percent Number Percent
Tracts 12,165 97.7% 9,199 73.9%
Population 44,460,804 98.1% 33,459,827 73.8%

Another measure of internet access is share of households with broadband subscriptions; the Census Bureau collects information on this statistic via the American Community Survey.5 In several states with the lowest rates of broadband subscriptions, a majority of libraries are located directly within tracts that have poor internet access.

Mississippi and Arkansas have the lowest shares of households with broadband access, and Alabama has the sixth lowest share; see Map 1 below from the Census Bureau’s latest report on broadband subscriptions.6 These three states – Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi – have the greatest share of public libraries located not just near, but also within, poor internet access tracts (where 40% or more of the tract’s households do not have the FCC's minimum threshold of internet connectivity). Each of these states has more than half (between 58 and 72%) of its libraries located within such tracts.


CUR Census 2020 - ACS 2016 data map internet access by state
Source: US Census Bureau, Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2016, August 2018.

In the nation’s largest cities,7 almost 3,000 tracts have poor internet access, representing just under 10 million people. In these cities, a greater share of these tracts than in general nationwide are close to public libraries: 86% of these tracts are within 1 mile of a public library.

Also, in 34 of the largest cities – including San Francisco, Newark (NJ), Atlanta, Washington DC, Seattle, Miami, and Philadelphia – all of these city’s libraries are within 1 mile of tracts with poor internet access. Even reducing the distance threshold to one-half mile, just over 60% of tracts with poor internet in the largest cities are within a half mile of a library, and many cities have between 80-100% of their tracts with poor internet access within a half mile of a public library.

Libraries In and Near Hard-to-Count Communities

For the purpose of this analysis, a census tract is considered hard-to-count if its self-response rate in the 2010 decennial census was 73% or less (self-response in the 2010 census was mainly by mail, so this threshold is considered a mail return rate). The 73% threshold represents all tracts nationwide that are in the bottom 20 percent of 2010 mail return rates — i.e., the worst 20% of return rates. In other words, in each of these tracts a quarter or more of local households needed to be counted in-person by door-to-door Census Bureau enumerators: an expensive, time-consuming, and difficult process which presents the greatest risk that people will be missed and the count will be inaccurate.

Also, some tracts do not have mail return rates from the 2010 census. In 2010, households in some tracts did not receive a census questionnaire. Instead, they were counted by the Census Bureau using solely in-person enumeration. These tracts were either very rural, did not have traditional street addresses, or both (often located on Tribal Lands, or in rural parts of Alaska or Wisconsin, and in some vacation areas with high seasonal vacancies). Although they do not have mail return rates, these tracts nonetheless are also considered hard-to-count because of the cost and difficulty of in-person enumeration.

There are 14,866 census tracts considered hard to count, home to 60.3 million people. Just like tracts with poor internet access, libraries are located near most hard-to-count tracts:

  • Public libraries are located within 5 miles of 99% (or 14,674) of these tracts, representing 59.7 million people.
  • Almost 80% of these tracts – 11,752 tracts, representing 46.9 million people – are located within 1 mile of a public library.

Two states – New Mexico and Alaska – have a majority of their public libraries located within hard-to-count tracts (in Alaska, almost 74% of its libraries are within hard-to-count tracts; in New Mexico, almost 68% of its libraries are in hard-to-count tracts). These two states have the greatest share of people living in hard-to-count tracts nationwide (48% of New Mexico’s, and 44% of Alaska’s, population lives in hard-to-count tracts).

In the nation’s largest cities, just over 6,100 tracts had mail return rates in 2010 low enough to characterize them as hard-to-count, representing 23.1 million people. In each of these cities, all hard-to-count tracts are located within 1 mile of a public library. And almost two-thirds of hard-to-count tracts in these cities are located within one-half mile of a library, representing 14.6 million people.

Public Libraries on the Map

The Census 2020 Hard to Count online map now displays the locations of public libraries. Users who are planning their census 2020 outreach and Get Out the Count campaigns can zoom in to a location on the map and select individual libraries to access their contact information – see Map 2 below. Future updates to the map will include the ability to download a list of libraries for any area on the map.


CUR Census 2020 - public libraries mapped

Data Sources & Methodology

To calculate proximity to public libraries, the Center for Urban Research compared the latest nationwide list of public libraries (2016) from the Institute of Museum and Library Services with census tract boundaries in GIS format from the U.S. Census Bureau’s “TIGER/Line” files. We attached population estimates to the tracts for the 2012-2016 period (downloaded via the National Historic GIS / IPUMS NHGIS maintained by the University of Minnesota), as well as data on the share of households per tract with internet connectivity from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Form 477 Census Tract Data on Internet Access Services (current as of June 30, 2016).

The IMLS 2016 list of “Main Libraries, Branches, and Bookmobiles” includes 17,427 records. We used the 16,747 branches and main library locations located in the 50 states (excluding libraries in American Samoa and Guam, any records coded as bookmobiles or books-by-mail services, and 35 records that represented libraries that are permanently closed). We created a GIS point file using the latitude/longitude values in the IMLS data. Incorrect latitude/longitude coordinates were included in the IMLS data for four libraries. We corrected these locations and projected the file using the North America Lambert Conformal Conic (NAD83) projected coordinate system (EPSG 102009) in order to measure distances between libraries and tracts.

We calculated proximity between tracts and libraries by measuring the distance between tract boundaries and library points. As a result, some people included in this analysis live farther than 1 or 5 miles from a library because they may live at the far end of a tract, and some census tracts can cover a large geographic area (such as Census Tract 3 in Alaska, which measures almost 270 miles across, with the Aniak Public Library located only 50 miles from the tract’s western border). Also, our distances are measured in straight line distances without regard to traffic routes.


  1. The Census Bureau’s operational plan describes how online responses to the 2020 census will work.
  2. Excluding bookmobiles and books-by-mail services, and excluding libraries in American Samoa and Guam.
  3. Compared with the 2016 United States total population estimate of 318,558,162 from US Census Bureau FactFinder.
  4. See
  5. See
  6. Ibid. p. 11.
  7. Top 100 cities with populations more than 219,097 people, based on 2012-2016 American Community Survey estimates.