Concerns grow over accurate counts of people who rely on libraries for internet

CANANDAIGUA — Many may be aware of the 2020 census and that it will be the first to be conducted primarily online.

But already there is growing concern about the accuracy of those population counts in New York, particularly of people from rural and poor communities and city neighborhoods, without statewide funding to help libraries provide online services to New Yorkers without home internet service.

The stakes are high, said Pioneer Library System Executive Director Lauren Moore, who also is chairwoman of the New York Library Association’s Census 2020 Task Force.

“There’s a lot on the line,” Moore said. “I don’t think we can stand to ignore it.”

Here’s why the Library Association is calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allocate funding.

The state is “woefully unprepared” for the online census, said Mike Neppl, who is general counsel and director of government relations for the Library Association.

Earlier this year, Cuomo and other legislative leaders created a commission to avoid making the same mistakes made during the 2010 census count — the undercounting of New Yorkers cost the state billions of dollars in funding for education, health care and infrastructure, according to information provided by the Library Association.

And the fear is it could happen again.

Library officials said the commission has yet to meet, and is supposed to provide a report to the state Legislature in January.

Their concern is that people who rely on libraries for internet service — an estimated one of every five New York households, or 1.5 million people — will not be counted accurately.

Besides the loss of funding, congressional representation also is threatened by an undercount, library officials said.

Moore estimates about $40 million in state funding would help to upgrade technology and provide for security checks of library networks. Funding also would provide access to devices that can be used by everyone, and instruction from library staff on how to complete the census and how to use the equipment itself.

Jeremy Johannesen, the executive director of the Library Association, said all of this census work has to be done while maintaining day-to-day library services.

“This is an unprecedented effort in both scale and scope,” Johannesen said in a prepared statement.

Without funding, the fear is that not only will typically hard-to-count populations such as low-income families, people living in transient conditions, people of color and people who speak languages other than English not be counted accurately in 2020, but populations of those without internet access in the home will be undercounted, Moore said.

And Americans have rights to be counted equally, library officials said.

In the Pioneer Library System — which serves 42 small and rural libraries throughout Ontario, Wayne, Livingston and Wyoming counties, including Wood Library in Canandaigua — every library should have at least one computer on a separate, secure network for this purpose, Moore said. Library staff also must be trained properly.

“Some libraries will have to invest,” Moore said.

The concern over the online census is based on reality; libraries have taken on costs of other e-government functions, such as tax forms and health-care enrollment, Moore said.

In fact, 500 people visit the Wood Library seeking help with tax forms and tax preparation, Moore said.

Action is required sooner rather than later, because of the potential impact locally.

“It’s going to be huge,” Moore said.