The Stat Abstract Lives!

The Stat Abstract Lives!

By Robert Samuelson - December 13, 2012

WASHINGTON -- Here's a story with a happy ending: The Statistical Abstract of the United States -- which seemed destined for history's morgue -- has survived. At least for now.

You may recall (or you may not) that I wrote two angry columns in 2011 deploring the Census Bureau's boneheaded decision to discontinue the Stat Abstract. Since the first edition in 1878, it's been the go-to source for facts and figures about the United States. Probably no book has ever been crammed with so much information about America; if Census had kept only its online version, the decision would have been understandable, though still wrong. But, no, Census -- pressed to cut spending -- eliminated everything for puny savings of less than $3 million.

The Stat Abstract, I wrote, has two outstanding virtues: "First, it conveniently presents in one place a huge amount of information from a vast array of government and private sources. For example, the National Fire Protection Association tells us that 30,170 fire departments fought 1.45 million fires in 2008. Second, the footnotes show where to get more information."

I urged some wealthy benefactor -- a foundation such as Gates or MacArthur -- to rescue the Stat Abstract by contracting with Census to produce it. By year-end 2011, when Census published its last edition of the Stat Abstract, no White Knight had appeared.

Oh, me of little faith.

Just in time for the holidays, we have the 2013 edition of the Stat Abstract published in book form by Bernan, a distributor of government publications, and in an online version by ProQuest, a company that provides access to government databases. It will be virtually indistinguishable from the government's Stat Abstract, except for the title ("ProQuest Statistical Abstract") and its size (8 1/2 inches by 11 inches versus 6 inches by 9 inches) -- the bigger size making the tables about 25 percent larger and easier to read.

Otherwise, it contains virtually all the tables in last year's edition, plus some new ones on child obesity, same-sex households and home mortgages, said Bruce Samuelson, Bernan's director of marketing and library services. (Honest: Bruce Samuelson and I are (BEG ITAL)not(END ITAL) related. We've only talked on the phone, and before that, I'd never heard of him.) About a tenth of the tables are separately copyrighted and some are prepared especially for the Stat Abstract. Copyright permission was secured for more than 90 percent of these tables, Samuelson said.

The ultimate saviors of the Stat Abstract were the nation's librarians. They use it heavily as a reference book, and many were outraged by Census' decision. Samuelson participated in a panel discussion on the Stat Abstract at last January's meeting of the American Library Association. This proved the catalyst to form the partnership with ProQuest, which was also on the panel and would provide statistical specialists to gather the tables and verify their accuracy.

"It's a really difficult challenge," said Samuelson. "It would cost a lot of money. Could we do it justice, and would libraries be willing to pay for it, because we are not being subsidized?" The price for the hardcover is $179, up from the government's $40 (paperback) and $44 (hardcover). The online version will no longer be free, though tables will be updated more frequently. ProQuest sells heavily to colleges and universities; subscription prices for online access to the data vary according to school size.

So the Stat Abstract's reprieve could be temporary. Its fate depends on whether the market will support what the government won't. 

Copyright 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

Robert Samuelson

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