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U.S. Census Information: Major Census Data Sources

A guide for locating census information on communities and neighborhoods

Social Explorer

If you need detailed Census information from any time period (1790-present) Social Explorer is the easiest tool to use. It is especially useful for pulling out statistics for the same place over time. If you want to compare the population of a state, county, etc over a long period of time (for example: 1950 to 2010) Social Explorer is the easiest way to do this.

Pros:

  • easy to use, even for those not familiar with Census data
  • maps tab allows an interactive experience and easily switches from one decade/variable to another
  • reports tab gives access to more geographies and a familiar interface for those who have used American Factfinder
  • can create a personal account and save slides to power point
  • easiest way to make a simple GIS map with Census data
  • data can be downloaded into Excel, SPSS, SAS or as a comma delimited file

Cons:

  • does not include all variables from each Census
  • does not include every available geography
  • Full access to data and features is only available to SLU users and other subscribers

For users who wish to create their own GIS maps using historical Census data, The National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) is an excellent, free source. It contains the core data used to build Social Explorer and users can download the data they need as shapefiles, ready to import into GIS software.

See Social Explorer's Help section for tutorials.

Census Bureau & American Factfinder

American Factfinder (AFF) is the Census Bureau's official source for accessing current and recent Census data. Data in American Factfinder includes data from the 2000 and 2010 Decennial Censuses, plus the American Community Survey, Census estimates and the Economic Census. Older data is only available from the Census Bureau through their FTP site

Pros:

  • official source for U.S. Census data
  • includes block group data (making AFF the best source for small area & neighborhood data)
  • user can control which dataset is used
  • using the download center, "power users" can download large data files instead of selecting a few variables and geographies at a time
  • data downloaded through AFF can be used with Census created boundary files to map data in GIS.

Cons:

  • less intuitive than Social Explorer
  • no access to older data through AFF interface (FTP site includes some 1990 & 1980 data)
  • can be frustrating for finding just a few simple numbers

Census Volumes - Digital & Print

Although Social explorer is the easiest way to get basic historical data, it simply does not include all the data. If you're looking for block or block group data, some specific variables or other specialized geographies, the original Census volumes are often the only place to turn. SLU Libraries has all these volumes in print, most held at our Locust Street Facility. The Census Bureau has also digitized a large number of these volumes. Volumes for each decade are available digitally and usually even those that are not digitized are listed under the appropriate decade, so you can get an idea of what is available. If you're not sure what volume you need or what might be available, get in touch with the Government Information Librarian.

Print versus Digital!

Digital:

  • freely accessible on the web from anywhere, by anyone
  • easy to browse decades & titles, difficult to browse volumes for statistics
  • with some versions of adobe acrobat, digital files don't work properly.

Print:

  • must be used in person at Pius XII Memorial Library or the Locust Street Facility (if SLU is not conveniently located, your local public or academic library may also have historical Census volumes)
  • much easier to browse than digital copies, though still not always straight forward.

Your Librarian

Rebecca Hyde's picture
Rebecca Hyde
Contact:
Pius XII Memorial Library
Room 202H
314-384-9757 (Phone # while working remotely)