After Trump’s failed battle over the citizenship question, UC Berkeley Library exhibit explores the secret life of the U.S. census

Displays of census questions about race
Displays show the difference in U.S. census questions regarding race over the years as part of Power and the People: The U.S. Census and Who Counts, in Doe Library. (Photos by Violet Carter for the UC Berkeley Library)

Outside a select group of researchers, demography nerds, genealogists, and dataphiles, the U.S. census is often considered a staid and decidedly unsexy part of American civic life, like serving on a jury or paying taxes.

But a richly detailed, incisive, and delightfully wonky new exhibit in Doe Library’s Brown Gallery is challenging that.

With the 2020 census on the horizon and President Donald Trump’s failed bid to add a citizenship question to the census in the rearview, Power and the People: The U.S. Census and Who Counts opened this month, providing an inside look at some of the fascinating stories and hidden gems relating to the nationwide decennial drive for data through maps, data, and other Library treasures.

‘A long history’

Every 10 years, the census has a tall order, one mandated by the Constitution: to count the entire nation’s population — including the most often overlooked.

“There’s no other source like this where you get poor people and people who have been excluded and marginalized, and you get to see they left a record,” says Susan Edwards, social welfare librarian and head of the Library’s Social Sciences Division, who served as one of the lead curators of the exhibit.

Census exhibits
Maps, pamphlets, and data visualizations are included in the exhibit.

But as of late, say the word “census,” and something else comes to mind, namely Trump’s controversial, tweet-filled crusade to include a question asking respondents about their citizenship status. 

Critics argued that the question would result in undocumented immigrants declining to fill out the survey, compromising funding and tilting the scales of representation toward the Republican Party in areas with high concentrations of undocumented immigrants. After an unsuccessful legal fight, Trump dropped the effort.

“It’s intensely political, but it’s not supposed to be political in this way — deliberately creating an undercount of specific populations,” Edwards says.

But the exhibit reaches far beyond citizenship. Broken into nine themes — including explorations of race, gender and sexual orientation, immigration, and controversies — Power and the People looks at the unbroken trail of data left by the census since 1790, the first time it was conducted in the still-young nation.

“It was very revolutionary at its time,” says Ann Glusker, the Library’s new sociology, demography, and quantitative research librarian and part of the exhibit’s curatorial team. “It’s a social phenomenon.”

In the 230 years of its existence, the census, like the makeup of the country itself, has changed over the years, even in recent decades. In 1990, the census started to allow people to identify as more than one race, and in 2000, unmarried same-sex partners started to be counted, followed by same-sex marriages in 2010.

But some things just haven’t changed. Take the Golden State. Despite the ongoing debate over immigration and belonging, the truth is that California has always been pulsing with diversity, notes Jesse Silva, scholarly resources strategy librarian, the other lead curator of the exhibit. Just look at the map showing foreign-born populations across America, based on 1890 census data, which is part of the exhibit. (The maps from the turn of the century are a sight to behold: “It’s this early development of data visualization that’s so beautiful — and still state of the art,” Edwards says.) 

“You’ll see pockets here and there, and then you see California, and (there’s) a huge foreign-born population in California in 1890, which continues today,” Silva says. “It’s always been a big melting pot of folks.”

In California, in fact, Spanish is anything but foreign. It was an official language in the state’s early days.

“California is tricky because it also raises the issue, ‘I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me,’” Edwards says. “This is a long history that we’re trying to deny.”


Power and the People: The Census and Who Counts

Where: Brown Gallery, Doe Library

When: Power and the People runs Sept. 16, 2019, through March 2, 2020; the gallery is open during Doe Library business hours. A reception will be held Dec. 4 at 5 p.m. in Morrison Library.​​​​

Cost: Free


The exhibit also takes a look at some of the darker moments in the census’s past. In the 1940s, the census cooperated with the government by providing information — including names and addresses — that helped the military roundup and intern Japanese Americans. Records show that, when turning over their own information, workers at the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington, D.C., put the names of their own colleagues of Japanese descent at the bottom of the list, as if trying to protect them, Silva notes.

The exhibit weaves together these threads, and more, to tell a bigger story — the story of an American institution, and the best source of data of its kind that we have.

“I love (the census) so much because most of history is about wealthy people and powerful people, and you have to fight so hard to find these little records — these little traces, these ghosts of the regular people,” Edwards says. “But the census has it.”

The census counts

Exhibit items
The exhibit illustrates the importance of the census in economics and equity.  

Along with its value as a historical record, the census has some other very important functions. For starters, the information gleaned from the census is used to distribute $500 billion in federal funding and to ensure fair representation. (It’s also used to track demographic trends; plan schools, hospitals, and the like; and enforce civil rights protections.)

“There is a ton of money tied up in this,” Silva says. “There’s a lot of redistricting: congressional districts are redrawn, states lose or gain congressional members.”

The exhibit offers a window into a time before computer mapping, when district lines were hand-drawn on AAA maps, like the kind you can get at the gas station. The exhibit shows Los Angeles County and parts of the Bay Area mapped in this fashion, highlighting just how far the technology has come.

But even with so much riding on the census, many people forgo filling out the form. In 2000 and 2010, the response rate hovered at 74 percent, and the U.S. Census Bureau continues to work to smash the barriers — from privacy concerns to a lack of awareness — that prevent people from participating. (Even in fiction, the census can’t catch a break — it was a census taker who Hannibal Lecter famously ate with “fava beans and a nice Chianti.” That line from The Silence of the Lambs, playing in a loop with clips from the likes of Saturday Night Live and The West Wing, will be displayed on a monitor as part of the exhibit.)

Sure, people might think the census is not important — that it’s just a time-wasting administrative hurdle, with no real-world impact. But Edwards, Silva, and Glusker respectfully disagree. 

“I know it sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, but I hope people take away that it’s theirs,” Glusker says. “This effort belongs to them. The data belongs to them.

“One thing I like about demography is that it’s bigger than any individual. And the census is bigger than any individual.”