Fridays in the Stacks: Encyclopedia of the U.S. Census

Since joining the team at Wellesley College as a Research & Instruction Librarian supporting the Social Sciences,* I have embarked on a quest to beef up my print reference expertise by spending an hour a week in the stacks looking at whatever caught my eye (related to my disciplines of course).

So, I thought I’d get back on the blog horse and write a bit about what I looked at this week. But before I talk about that, let me back up.

Now, I have two strategies (so far) for learning about the print reference sources in the disciplines I support. The first is to take a call number range and skim titles and dates of books we have to get a broad sense of our collection in terms of scope and datedness. I pick up a few here and there that look interesting to skim the table of contents, the indices and appendices, and perhaps an article or two to understand the style and perhaps quality of the source at no fine-grained level.

The second strategy I use to build knowledge of print sources is to select something off the shelf and delve into it for an hour or so. What fun! I often find myself ruing the ticking clock and I tend to finish my hour with a list of follow-up sources I swear I will look up next week only to find when next week arrives that another rabbit hole, err, ahh, book has captured my attention. I digress, dear reader(s).

Encyclopedia of the U.S. Census

Encyclopedia of the U.S. Census

This week I thought I was going to find some sources on immigration but instead got sidetracked before I got to that section by the irresistible HAs. So, I picked up the Encyclopedia of the U.S. Census and started to delve (all the while thinking of one of the only weakest moments from the West Wing from season 1 where C.J. Cregg has to ask Sam Seaborn about the census… come on, a WH Press Secretary who doesn’t know about the census?! I realize this was a plot device to educate the viewers, but wasn’t there any other way to do this?! The lone woman of power on staff doesn’t know about the census?! There I go digressing again.).

What a fascinating read! Entries are organized alphabetically but I picked two to read: the entry describing each of the decennial censuses and the entry on race (about how race is dealt with and characterized over the century and a quarter this thing has been going on). I’ll just briefly talk about the entries of the censuses of ages past, which were gripping: there is a long history of controversies around who shall be counted and how, and whether approximations might be allowed. The political implications of the decisions are crystal clear: greater political representation means simply more power. Two interesting things struck me as I read the summaries on the censuses from the 1800s: prior to the Civil War, some southern analyst looked at the census data from 1850 on whether someone was labeled as an “idiot” or “insane,” and discovered an unmistakable trend that there was a high degree of positive correlation between idiocy rates of African Americans and the northern-ness of the state. Hmmm… I raised my skeptical eye as high as it would go; but the point is this was used as an argument for slavery in the U.S. Luckily, it didn’t hold water.

The second fascinating thing was that the 1870 census counted African Americans as whole people (finally); but that meant that the southern states actually gained more political representation! Obvious point, but I had never thought about it before.

Now, in between these two entries I looked at (the census summaries and the entry on race), there were some glossy images. The pictures of the workers crunching the numbers in the mid-1900s struck me: a room full of women toiling away at their desks! Made me feel like there’s some paper out there for some student on the history of the laborers behind the fascinating-in-its-own-right census.

So, the take away here is that the U.S. Census might seem like quite a dry topic but I assure you its history is filled with intrigue, controversy, and huge political and social implications and critiques and analyses are just waiting to be written. Lastly, I mentioned I often find other books I want to pick up upon skimming the reference stacks. This time it’s this one: The American Census: A Social History.

Happy reading!

* I support Anthropology, Cognitive & Linguistic Sciences, Environmental Studies, Psychology, Political Science and Sociology.

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