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Making the Statistical Abstract Relevant for Modern Users
Discover America’s favorite reference, updated to include content and online functionality demanded by librarians
In 2012, ProQuest took on the responsibility of updating and releasing the Statistical Abstract, the most used statistical reference tool in U.S. libraries. We brought to this task 35 years of experience acquiring, abstracting, and indexing federal government statistical publications and tables. Still, the challenges of publishing the Statistical Abstract ourselves proved more challenging than anticipated, and it also presented opportunities for updates and improvements. Five years later, we are looking back on ProQuest’s inaugural effort.
The government ceases production of a popular resource
Published annually by the federal government since 1878, the Statistical Abstract of the United States is the best-known statistical reference publication in the country, and perhaps the world. As a comprehensive collection of statistics on the social, political, and economic conditions of the United States, it is a snapshot of America and its people. Librarians value the Statistical Abstract as both an answer book and a guide to statistical sources. It’s the authoritative go-to source behind nearly every reference desk in U.S. libraries to answer countless questions from users.
In 2011, the Census Bureau announced that the edition that year would be the last one produced at government expense, despite protests from librarians and journalists.
“The Statistical Abstract is a hugely important resource; experts in a particular field may not need it, but it’s invaluable to non-experts in need of basic information,” award-winning economist and New York Times journalist Paul Krugman wrote in his blog.
ProQuest agreed. The company announced it would take over updating and releasing the publication. Which meant there was a lot to learn.
Preparing for the transition – consulting with experts
Content Operation Supervisor Amber Zankey recalled that as ProQuest got ready to take over the Statistical Abstract from the Census Bureau, there was a lot of questions about the complex process for gathering content and publishing the book. So Zankey and her colleagues went straight to the experts.
“A team of us went to the Census Bureau to meet with former staff of the Compendia Branch, who had been responsible for the production of the Statistical Abstract,” Zankey explained, adding “It was a great opportunity to ask them a lot of questions about the production of the book and, in particular, the content and how it was obtained and maintained.”
Additionally, for deeper understanding into how the Statistical Abstract was used at libraries, ProQuest’s product management team assembled a group of librarians to consult on the content of the publication. How important was consistency of the content from year to year? What new content was of particular interest? And how could ProQuest make the most of the online product’s functionality?
The librarians weren’t shy to share their insights and opinions. “They put forth several items they wanted more data on – including student loans and debt, obesity, and domestic partner/same sex marriage,” Zankey said. “Based on this feedback, we introduced new tables on all of those topics.”
In addition to new information, these discussions confirmed librarians’ desire to keep as much data the same as possible after the transition. Librarians and their users had specific tables they referred to year after year, so it was crucial for them to have continued access to this data. “So we made sure they did,” Zankey said.
Demos of the online version of the Statistical Abstract were conducted as well, and feedback was sought from librarians on the features and functionality of the product. Unexpectedly, there was a strong demand for a PDF of the index for the print version – despite the vastly expanded search capability of the online product. “And we did implement that,” Zankey added.
The challenges of condensing and curating content – on a condensed schedule
Since its debut in 1878, the Statistical Abstract had been consistently released as an annual publication. ProQuest made a commitment to continue according to the same publication schedule. However, on top of accommodating a major learning curve while producing the new edition, from the time the Census Bureau announced the program cut to ProQuest’s decision to produce the book, 4 months had been lost.
Undaunted by the abbreviated production schedule, ProQuest’s Statistical team dug in. “Just learning how to pull data from a variety of databases was quite a task,” Zankey recalled. “We had to get familiar with each database and learn all the parameters to set in order to get the exact data we were seeking.”
Initially, it was assumed that most of the tables contained within the Statistical Abstract were just “summary” tables, pulled wholesale from other publications. Not so. It turned out many of the tables had to be created with data pulled from other tables from multiple sources, and that data had to be analyzed and, in some cases, calculated.
“There were 1400 tables to analyze and update,” Zankey said. “And we have 2 versions of every table – one for the online product, which is often more expansive, and one for the print product, which is generally condensed to fit into the book.”
All headnotes, footnotes and source citations had to be verified as well, which also involved intensive research. Plus, Zankey added, “updating and maintaining the 55-page index proved to be another major undertaking. We have tons of indexing experience, but there is a different style for this book and it took a good bit of analysis to get right.”
A favorite resource lives on – with notable improvements
The giant effort paid off – not only did the 2013 edition get published on time, but even that first year, reviewers raved about new improvements.
In the May/June 2013 issue of Online Researcher, Pat Berens wrote:
ProQuest has made us happy again by not allowing this trusted resource to cease publication! Not just that, it has made some key improvements to the web-based version of this iconic reference source by updating data more frequently, adding interesting tables, indexing the content, and making it searchable….
Overall, ProQuest has done an excellent job of enhancing the online version of the Statistical Abstract of the United States.
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