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CNY Librarians Are Preparing For First Digital Census In Area With Stark Digital Divide

Katie Zilcosky

The 2020 census is officially underway with the first person in the country being counted in rural Alaska. But people in the Syracuse area won’t have census takers on snow mobiles coming to their door. Instead, they’ll be asked to fill out the census digitally for the first time in history. And libraries expect to play a big role in our area, where a quarter of residents don’t have internet access at home.

99% of hard-to-count census tracts are located within five miles of a public library according to the American Library Association, positioning these institutions to take on one of the country’s biggest e-government undertakings to date. 

In 2020, it’s expected a lot of people will be coming to libraries to fill out their census. Digital access gaps exist across the nation, and when the federal government declared the 2020 Census primarily digital, it planned for libraries to fill in the gaps. 

"And the government said when the Census would be taken online that libraries would be able to provide people who don't have access to computers," said the Central New York Library Resources Council Marc Wildman. "No additional funding to take up that. But it's been important to libraries. And a lot of libraries in my organization, some of our funding depends on the size of our populations."

And librarians across Central New York are stepping up in a number of ways. They’ve heldtrainings for staff and community members on what to expect from the first digital census. They have published materials on how to reach a complete count. And here in Central New York, they’ve developed secure kiosks that can be used for census purposes only.

Credit Katie Zilcosky / WAER News
The kiosk hardware fixes on the back of a monitor, allowing librarians set up a Census-only terminals.

"When you whitelist that, it means anything that is not on that domain cannot be accessed on this terminal," said Baldwinsville Systems Librarian Robert Loftus. He created the kiosk and a guide on how to set it up. 

The kiosk hardware cost under $200, and can be used with existing monitors. The Central New York Digital Inclusion Coalition has recieved grant funding to put more kiosks in libraries across Central New York. 

Residents can expect to start recieving their invitation to fill out the Census online in mid-March.