The Social Explorer database was launched in 2003 by Oxford University Press, and contains the entire U.S. census history as well as numerous other demographic and environmental study reports, as well as mapping tools. The website seamlessly integrates spatial and numeric data through an easy-to-use interface and makes working with socio-demographic data simple even for a novice user.
Sources for this review include information publicly posted or obtained directly from the publisher, data collected by CRL staff and members, and examination of the digital collection when possible.Other sources are noted where cited.
Center for Research Libraries
- Carolyn Ciesla, Research Assistant
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- Karen Hogenboom, Numeric and Spatial Data Librarian
University of Saskatchewan
- Sunny Kaniyathu, Data Services Librarian
Social Explorer provides access to over 200 years of historical census data for the United States, as well as data on religious affiliation. Decennial census data at the county level is available from 1790 through 2010, and at the census tract level from 1940 through 2010. The American Community Survey (ACS), a yearly survey that records information previously obtained through the long form of the census, is available for the period 2005–10. Five-year and three-year estimates in addition to the ACS annual estimates are also accessible. County-level data for religious congregations and memberships can be obtained for 1980 through 2000 (to be updated in 2012). Additionally, carbon emissions data for 2002 is included, obtained from the Vulcan Project.
Other sources of demographic data
While the census data is available from several other sources, including freely available on the census website (www.census.gov), the ability to create maps as well as statistical reports about religion in the U.S. for small geographic areas is unique. Also, the inclusion of historical data back to 1790 is an important advantage of Social Explorer.
Advanced researchers may need microdata available from the Bureau of the Census or the Inter- University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR). Also, some geographies other than county, state, and tract in print reports for the older decennial censuses or in the National Historical GIS (www.nhgis.org) are not available in Social Explorer -- such as the Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas for 1960 or places for 1980. In addition, Social Explorer does not include the non- decennial (intercensal) data from 1790 to 1945, generally known as the Dubester set (referencing a guide issued by the Library of Congress).
Appendix I of this review contains a comprehensive list of the various U.S. census publications held by CRL, representing the range of titles available in microform from original source material. This tabular data in print or facsimile format has the advantage for advanced scholars of providing a sense of structure of the data, as well as what information has and has not been recorded.
Technical platform & interface
In addition to providing online access for almost 200 years’ worth of census data, Social Explorer’s great strength is as a visualization tool. It provides two valuable features: a robust, easy-to-use mapping tool, and the availability of detailed documentation along with a data dictionary. Interactive thematic maps based on available census geographies can be generated without any prior experience with GIS software. Users can download and print generated maps in Microsoft PowerPoint or JPEG image format, and view associated data in report form and save in Microsoft Excel or CSV formats. In addition to a few pre-made reports, custom tables can also be generated separately and downloaded. Guidance is provided on how to easily import Social Explorer data into statistical software programs, including SAS, SPSS, or STATA syntax files. The Data Dictionary and the documentation offer more information on variables, including definitions, data sources, and how variables were derived. The site also provides an animated training guide for new users.
The statistical reports interface looks almost exactly like the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder site familiar to anyone who has used the Bureau’s current data. The mapping interface is much easier to use than the thematic map feature on the Census Bureau’s website, containing drop- down lists for the data set to be mapped, the general topic, and the detailed topic. For example, the user could choose the 1940 Census County and Census Tract data, housing topics, and then map the percentage of renter-occupied housing by county. Furthermore, once the map is displayed, it can be zoomed in to a particular geographic area and saved with one click. The user can then zoom to a different geographical area or create a map of renter-occupied housing in 1950 for the same area. An entire series of maps can then be “played” within Social Explorer or exported as a PowerPoint slideshow.
One caution: the interface works best for users who are already familiar with the Decennial Census, particularly when using the older data or tracking trends over time. For example, different questions were asked over the years about transportation to work, so looking at trends in public transportation is not as easy as it appears at first. Geography can also be a complex issue when using census data. Many maps in Social Explorer can be drawn at the tract level, but tracts were created over several decennial censuses, beginning with the largest cities in 1910 but not completed until 1990. Users looking for neighborhood racial composition in Little Rock, Arkansas, during 1950 would be disappointed, and if they were unfamiliar with the development of census geographies they would not know why this data is unavailable. This of course represents a limitation of the original data rather than Social Explorer’s product, but a link to further explanation would be helpful.
Direct from Publisher
|Subjects covered||Entire US census history (1790-2010), the American Community Survey (ACS), the Religious Congregations and Membership Study (RCM|
|Geographic coverage||United States states and territories|
|Content types||Monographs and serials|
|Digital collection launch date||2003|
|Update frequency||2-4 times/year|
|Browser compatibility||• IE8/Windows • IE7/Windows • IE6/Windows (version 6.0.2900.2180 or higher) • Firefox 3/Windows • Firefox 2/Windows • Firefox 1/|
|Authentication options||IP/cookie storage|
|Archiving solution – master files||N/A|
|Archiving solution – derivative files||N/A|
|Availability in web discovery tools||N|
|Open URL target||Y|
|Federated searching, z39.50||N|
|Local host option||N|
|Color images||Y (100%)||N|
|Search full text||N/A||Y|
|Advanced search (fielded)||N/A||N|
|Search within results||N/A||N|
|Limit results by dates and/or document types||N/A||N (results can be refined with limited, pre-set options)|
|Display highlighted search terms||N/A||Y|
|Display snippet -- search term in context||N/A||Y|
|Download PDF||N/A||N (reports can be downloaded as Excel or CSV data files)|
|Print page||N/A||N (there is no dedicated print option within the interface, but reports are printable via browser printing)|
|Print full document||N/A||N|
|Cross-product searching||N/A||Y (searches are carried out across both maps and reports database, and within all document types within each database)|
|Publisher/Distributor||Oxford University Press|
|Address||Oxford University Press 198 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10016|
|Contact||http://www.oup.com :: email@example.com|
|CRL Profile of Publisher||N/A|
|Multiple year payments option||N/A|
|List of purchasers available||N/A|
|Sample license available||N/A|
|MARC records purchase fee||N/A|
|Price tier basis||Special pricing is available for library consortia|