Census 2020: Amid the Pandemic, Oklahoma Libraries Worked to Get the State Counted

Every ten years, America counts its population to determine where federal dollars should be spent during the next decade. The accuracy of a state’s count impacts how much of that federal pie will flow in. A bad count can cost a state millions of dollars, impacting the funding of necessary services. When America wrapped up its Census 2020 enumeration on October 15, the Census Bureau reported that 99.9% of Oklahomans had been counted, thanks to self-response and Bureau field operations… and LIBRARIES. Read on to see how Oklahoma’s public libraries helped with this year’s count.

America’s libraries were uniquely positioned in 2020 to play their most important role ever in a decennial count of the country’s residents. The U.S. Census Bureau set a high goal for the 2020 effort: 70% of Census self-responses would be online. As dependable providers of internet access, Oklahoma’s public libraries were ready and excited to help their communities get online to complete the Census and assure an accurate count.

The Oklahoma Department of Libraries launched a Census website in the fall of 2019 to help libraries and the public stay up-to-date and informed on preparation for the count. ODL appropriated federal dollars from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to support Oklahoma libraries’ efforts. The funds were used for a “Get Counted at Your Library” initiative that provided promotional materials for all public libraries. The funding also provided 16 grants to help communities target hard-to-count populations and improve Census responses. The agency held a Census Solutions workshop for libraries and literacy councils to brainstorm ideas on reaching hard-to-count groups, developing grant proposals, and identifying local partners to aid the count.

As we moved through the month of March, excitement about the impending Census turned to nervousness over the pandemic. By mid-month, the nation had shut down and libraries across the country closed their doors. Suddenly, local library Census programs, along with many other library services, seemed to be in jeopardy.

While access to digital information and resources cushioned the blow for many customers, library staffs scrambled to implement different ways to serve the community from curbside pickup to piggybacking with school districts’ free lunch distribution programs. Cautious re-openings brought customers back into many Oklahoma libraries beginning in the spring and through the summer, yet it was anything but business as usual. Throughout this new paradigm, libraries worked to inform their communities about the Census and the importance of completing the form to bring federal dollars to the state.

“The extension of the Census count deadline certainly helped,” according to Susan Woitte, ODL Government Information Librarian and lead officer on the agency’s Census Grant project. “Even with the extension, a couple of our grantees had to drop out, but 14 libraries kept their grants and did the best they could. A lot of the activities they came up with were creative and safe. They demonstrated a passion for civic duty and expressed regard for their patrons and communities.”

Woitte shared some highlights from participating libraries:

Grace M. Pickens Public Library in Holdenville recorded the earliest start in the process of all the grantees. In partnership with the Muskogee Creek Nation, Library Director Kim McNaughton made presentations to the city council and the chamber of commerce. In addition to targeted advertising toward senior citizens, families with school children were given the free book, We Count. While copies of this Census book for children could not be distributed through the schools during the pandemic, they were distributed at nutrition services drop sites. Each book had a label offering Census assistance with the library hours listed.

Blackwell Public Library served “grab & go” meals to kids curbside to supplement those that the school district was distributing. They used that method to distribute information about the Census and explain the importance of being counted. When the library checked out hotspots to patrons at curbside, Census information was provided. After reopening, there was a steady use of the Census response workstations. One of their patrons said having the Census station available at the library helped reduce her “anxiety in getting countless reminders in the mail asking me if I had completed it yet.”

Davis Public Library was fortunate to be a polling place where two spring elections were held.  During the elections, Census information was displayed in the lobby, people could pick up bookmarks, and computers could be used for questionnaire submission. This was a positive experience because it allowed the staff to reach people who did not normally visit the library. The staff also called many of their regular patrons while the library was closed. During the phone conversations, the Census was explained and questions were answered. When this library reopened, they had a Census Bureau Partnership Specialist in the library to assist patrons throughout June and July. One of their patrons said they appreciated the efforts of the Davis Public Library and Southern Oklahoma Library System employees to make filling out the Census easier.

Madill City County Library not only had to overcome the effects of COVID-19, the community also experienced a tornado on April 22.  “Nothing was going to stop this library’s staff!” Woitte said. Staff training was held on how to talk to the patron about the importance of the Census, the confidentiality of responses, and how to complete the questionnaire. The library used local newspapers, a radio station, local businesses, city hall, and the courthouse for Census promotion. Similar to other grantees, they used Facebook for promotion, but this library created and posted a video showcasing the laptops in their library’s Census response area. One patron said, “I haven’t filled out the Census since the boys were little; they’re 54 and 49 now. They were in grade school and we lived in Texas. I’m thankful the library had this available.”

Stillwater Public Library took tablets with internet service to a local food pantry to promote Census participation. They talked with people in the drive-thru curbside pickup lines about the Census. Families were also given the opportunity to participate in the Census at Stillwater Public School’s free lunch distribution locations. The library staff also set up Census promotions at city hall and at the Stillwater Housing Authority. (Stillwater was also the recipient of a $2,000 American Library Association Census Equity Grant, as was Ada Public Library and the Public Library of Enid and Garfield County.)

Woitte said Stillwater Public Library also presented a virtual Ask a Census Expert program on Facebook Live. “So many libraries started presenting storytimes and other activities online. I was really happy this library incorporated a Census program.”

While we will never know what impact libraries would have had during a normal Census year, Woitte said she’s inspired by the “can do” attitude of Oklahoma’s public libraries. “Every person that filled out their Census at the library, every person that took action to participate because of a library’s outreach, that’s one less person that a Census field worker had to contact or may have missed.”

So, amid a pandemic and library closures, was ODL’s Census grant program ultimately a success? Perhaps it is Blackwell Public Library Director Lisa Vargas who provided the best answer to this question: “Just because success doesn’t look like you thought it would, that doesn’t mean that you weren’t successful.”

That’s a healthy attitude for a very difficult year.