Unit 1: Community Analysis


Public libraries’ users are not homogeneous, so it may be more appropriate to refer to a library’s plural communities. Users in a particular community may be of a variety of ages, racial and ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic classes, and political or ideological stances. They may coexist peacefully, or there may be tension between various user groups. They may have little in common other than a geographical location. The library serves as a common meeting ground for all of these communities.

Ways of knowing the community will include community analyses and engagement with community members to understand the needs and desires of the various populations that make up the community. In 1982, Roger Greer and Martha Hale described community analysis as “a systematic process of collecting, organizing, and analyzing data about the library and its environment” (p. 358). They used this to discuss various strategies for learning more about the community and how the library could proactively serve that community. This fit well with the emphasis on public library planning and role setting (McClure, Van House, & Lynch, 1987) at the time, wherein a public library would choose to emphasize its two or three major functions within the community. 

A related concept describing this process of learning more about the community the library serves is environmental scan. The term itself comes from the business world, where it is described as “an organized way of looking at the world outside of the company so that planners can anticipate new opportunities and impending dangers soon enough to deal with them effectively” (Pearce, Chapman, & David, 1982, p. 27). An environmental scan also looks at trends and directions in larger environments such as government, technology, political, and business trends.  

A more focused exercise is the information needs assessment, which concentrates examination of one particular community and their needs, with a goal of eliciting what information this community needs to succeed and how that information should be packaged and provided for their optimal use.

Librarians develop their collections, programs, and partnerships using data: about what is popular, based on past experience and statistics that they have kept and what is possible, based on community analysis. In this unit we will focus on the community analysis methods and readings used by students in the C4CH cohort in order to analyze their communities.

The Decennial Census and the American Community Survey

The decennial Census, conducted every 10 years, provides a high-level overview of the U.S. population, including population in U.S. territories. The rationale for the Census is established in the Constitution, wherein government representation in the House of Representatives is determined based on population. The U.S. Census has been conducted every ten years since 1780, demonstrating how our nation has grown and changed in the way we think about personhood and citizenship since that time.

From 1940 to 2000, the Census Bureau compiled two different sets of data from the Census, with the “short form” asking basic demographic information of every respondent and the “long form” asking a sample of residents for more specific information. The American Community Survey (ACS) was first administered in 2005, to replace the long-form Census with data that was more timely and responsive to social change. The ACS is sent out monthly to a random sample of addresses, and results are compiled into one-year and five-year population estimates. One year estimates are more current, but have larger margins of error; five-year estimates are more statistically reliable but are less current. 

The ACS is provided in both English and Spanish. The 2023 version of the ACS questionnaire focuses on Population and Housing. It includes questions about residents’ family relationships, including same-sex and opposite-sex spouses and partners, racial and ethnic origins. Additional questions focus on citizenship status and immigration year, school enrollment and total education completed, ancestry, language use, health coverage, disability status, fertility, armed services status, employment status, occupation, and income.  Housing questions focus the type of residence (e.g., single-family home, apartment, houseboat), year of construction, number of rooms, major appliances, running water, source of heating, computer and internet access, number of vehicles, and details about rent, utility bills, and taxes. By contrast, the 2006 version did not have a Spanish-language version, did not ask about computer and internet access, and did not recognize the existence of same-sex spouses.

Additional place-based data is available via the Census Bureau, including the Economic Census, conducted every five years and providing data about regional industry and economy; the American Housing Survey related to quality and cost of housing in metropolitan areas; and Federal Reserve Economic Data covering topics like patents granted and preventable hospital admissions at the county level. The Household Pulse Survey is a biweekly survey intended to track household response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but results are available only for states or large metropolitan areas. 

Mapping Your Community with Data Aggregators

The federal government is not the only collector of demographic data. Cities, states, and service agencies also collect information on our nation’s residents. Community Commons (https://www.communitycommons.org/) provides a collection of data resources for communities across the United States, including data you may not know about. Community Commons advertises itself as having “thousands of curated tools, resources, data, and stories,” organized into ten major areas, including health, economy, environment, and transportation. These resources include more localized data and data provided by non-governmental organizations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, United Way, the Big Cities Health Coalition, the Rural Health Information Hub, universities across the country, and local city and county data. 

The free SparkMap tool (https://sparkmap.org/map-room/) allows you to create your own maps, by topic or by data provider. While some data is available only at the state or county level, other data can be mapped down to the census tract or block group level. You can add multiple layers of data, including the locations of schools, colleges, churches, and medical facilities in your area, demographic data, environmental and quality of life data, and health outcomes. You can also query data to highlight areas with specific characteristics and generate community demographic reports for specific areas. 

While the free SparkMap tool does have limitations, subscriptions to the tool can be purchased that allow more customization. PolicyMap (https://www.policymap.com/) is another service that allows users to map their locations. Like SparkMap, PolicyMap provides multiple sources of data and presents visualizations. Also like SparkMap, PolicyMap has a basic free option and a subscription option for more customization. 

Products that display demographic data in map format do something special: they allow you to see where your community needs and strengths are, and they combine that knowledge with your local knowledge of the community, helping you make decisions based on both data and your tacit knowledge of your local community. However, to truly know your community, you need to go beyond demographics. 

Video: SparkMap

Here is a video that explains how to use the Community Commons interface to gather information about your community. In this video, you will learn how to create maps using the Missouri Map Room – especially focusing on health conditions and health disparities. While this video uses Missouri as an example you can use the same techniques to find information about other states and regions.


Recommended Readings

  • Fisher, K., et al. (2005). Something old, something new: Preliminary findings from an exploratory study about people’s information habits and information grounds. Information Research, 10(2). http://informationr.net/ir/10-2/paper223.html 
  • Grover, R. J., Greer, R. C., & Agada, J. (2010). Assessing information needs: Managing transformative library services. Libraries Unlimited. 
  • Sarling, J. H., & Van Tassel, D. S. (1999). Community analysis: Research that matters to a north-central Denver community. Library & Information Science Research, 21(1), 7-29. 


  1. Community Commons. https://www.communitycommons.org/
  2. Explore Census Data. https://data.census.gov/ 
  3. Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED). https://fred.stlouisfed.org/ 
  4. My Community Explorer. https://experience.arcgis.com/experience/13a111e06ad242fba0fb62f25199c7dd/ 
  5. PolicyMap. https://www.policymap.com/
  6. SparkMap Map Room. https://sparkmap.org/map-room/


Where do adults in your neighborhood work? If they have a long commute into the city, this suggests a need the library can fill: audiobooks for learning and enjoyment. If they stay in the local area, perhaps there’s an opportunity to work with local businesses. Where do adults go in their free time? Do you find them at church? In the bookstore? At home with their families? Regardless of what they do, there are many opportunities to serve those people, if you know what their needs are. 

  • Using a tool such as SparkMap, identify areas in your location that have high rates of illiteracy. Collect as much demographic information as you can on one of these areas. 
  • Using a tool such as SparkMap, see if there are any schools or health clinics in the area you identified. 
  • Using a tool such as the phone book or your local government website, identify local businesses in the area you identified. How much information can you find about these businesses? Who would you contact to learn more? 
  • Using a tool such as the phone book or local government website, identify a community service agency in your area. How much information can you find about this community service agency? Who would you contact to learn more?
  • With a partner or alone, brainstorm potential options for extending library services to the area you identified. 
  • With a partner or alone, identify potential partners in the area you’ve identified.

Try filling ou the IFLA – UNESCO Multicultural Library Manifesto Community Analysis form: