Statistical Abstract to continue in private hands

Information Today is reporting that the Statistical Abstract is being “rescued” by major database publisher ProQuest. (Full disclosure: I, like many other librarians, am a customer of ProQuest in my day job.)

The good news:

  • Someone will continue to compile the most important statistics from the federal government and other organizations in one convenient place
  • There will be a print version available from Bernan Press, but we don’t know yet how much it will cost. (The 2012 edition costs $40 in paperback from the Government Printing Office, $44 in hardback.) This is important for smaller libraries, as I will explain below.
  • The new electronic version will be more interactive than the current flat PDF and updated more frequently (monthly vs. annually). Current web site (Census Bureau)

The bad news:

  • The electronic version will not be free. Right now, anyone can get access to the web version and find statistics collected by the federal government. In other words, we (as U.S. taxpayers) paid for this data to be collected. Why should we have to pay again to get access to it? After the changeover, ProQuest says, it will sell Statistical Abstract as a stand-alone subscription and as part of a larger statistical database. Maybe Stat Abs will be cheap enough that every public library in the country can subscribe. But maybe it won’t. Maybe you will only have electronic access to it if you are affiliated with one of the academic or public libraries that are able to afford it. Otherwise, you will have to go to your library and use the print edition (assuming that’s still reasonably priced). Or you can buy your own copy of the print edition. These were our choices in the pre-Internet days.

It’s better than seeing Stat Abs go away, but there are some real potential down sides here.

Update, April 16: I’ve been thinking about this some more since yesterday. Yes, the federal government collected these statistics with our tax dollars. (And you could probably find them for free on several hundred different dot-gov web sites.) But that’s not what’s so valuable about Statistical Abstract. The valuable thing is that it compiles these statistics in one place and tells you where to get more information. To the extent that ProQuest and Bernan are taking over that function, they deserve to be paid for their work. However, I still worry that we could be getting a pricey database, available in relatively few libraries, in place of the free web site we have now.