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Spotlight on the States: Key Online Resources (August 2012): General Reference

Francine Graf and George Graf

General Reference

Basic factual and statistical data on each state can be found in many sources, from those providing simple facts on elected state officials and demographic data to those with more whimsical tidbits, such as state mottos and birds.  These sites are valuable for gaining an overview of key aspects of a state, such as its size, population, governance, and history.  A particularly useful directory to state government websites and key state officials is available on State Government.  Links to all of the state websites are provided on the home page, and in addition, there are useful links to governors and legislators for each state in the State and Territorial Contacts section.  State and Local Government on the Net provides a similar directory of links to such bodies, as does State Government, which also includes links to related information, including state courts, major government agencies, and local government.

More popular sites helpful for learning about the states include The Fifty States, which provides basic information about each state (e.g., history, population, maps, flags) but also links to many interesting lists ranking states by various factors (e.g., most livable, healthiest, happiest states) as well as state trivia sites.  StateMaster offers similar profiles of each state and links to numerous comparative state rankings on a wide range of indicators, e.g., health, housing, and crime.  These two sites contain ads, which can be distracting, but are convenient for browsing or a quick overview.

Specifically focusing on state legislatures is State Legislature Websites, part of the excellent Library of Congress THOMAS site.  This is a reliable, easy-to-use resource for information on a particular state's legislative members, legislative calendar, upcoming bills, and related documents.  MultiState Associates Inc., a lobbying group, makes available many useful resources on its State and Local Resources page, which has links to the sites of state governments, state executive officials, state legislatures and session calendars, and key online newspapers for each state.

Statistics on a wide range of demographic, social, and economic data relevant to the states can be found in a set of core publications produced by the venerable U.S. Census Bureau, whose website is a model of attractiveness and usability.  Sections on the home page labeled QuickFacts and Interactive Map allow users to easily view state data, much from the 2010 census, by selecting a state from a drop-down menu.  In addition, the Geography section, accessible from a tab at the top of the page, shows a detailed list of all the products and services provided by geographical breakdowns.  Given the enormous amount of census data available and the sophisticated ways to search and limit data sets by locality, any serious researcher will want to consult the U.S. Census site to learn about its vast offerings.  For more convenient access to state data, the Census Bureau has created the popular and handy State and County QuickFacts, which provides a wide range of statistics for all states and local areas with populations exceeding 5,000.  This site is easy to use; data can be accessed by selecting a state from a drop-down menu or by clicking on a particular state on a U.S. map.  Separate columns display data for the state and for the entire United States.  In addition, a link at the top of each state page allows users to browse more detailed data sets for the state.

American FactFinder, another great Census resource, provides a searchable database of several major Census surveys, which allows users to browse or limit searches by topic and geographic area.  This site offers more sophisticated search and display options, with corresponding robust results.  Specifically focused on the geography of the states (e.g., land area and density, county subdivisions, census tracts, and American Indian areas) is the Census Bureau's Guide to State and Local Census Geography, which provides data from the 2010 Census but links to historical data as well.

Also conducted by the Census is the American Community Survey (ACS), which is frequently reported in the press when new data are released.  The ACS, which is separate from the decennial census, is conducted on an ongoing basis to gather information on specific social and economic characteristics of the U.S. population (e.g., data on disability, family relationships, employment, and poverty).  A section on the home page titled Nation or State Level Profile allows the user to select a state from a drop-down menu to view social, economic, housing, and demographic data.  Readers interested in these types of indicators will also want to consult Mapping the Measure of America, part of the Social Science Research Council's American Human Development Project.  This project has developed an index as "an alternative to GDP and other money metrics that tells the story of how ordinary Americans are faring."  The index scores, based on key social and economic indicators, can be viewed for each state by clicking on an interactive map of the United States.  In addition, an impressive amount of health, education, and income data can be mapped by selecting a specific indicator from the Human Development Index menu.  Users can easily share the color-coded maps, create charts, or download data sets.

It is important to note that another highly popular, widely consulted U.S. Census publication, Statistical Abstract of the United States, has been discontinued by the Census Bureau due to budget cuts.  The U.S. Census ceased collecting data for Statistical Abstracts and its derivative compilations as of October 1, 2011.  ProQuest and Bernan Press, however, have announced plans to continue online and print publishing of the Statistical Abstract, releasing the 2013 edition in the fall of 2012.  Both were available for pre-sale beginning in April 2012.

Among the derivative products being discontinued by the U.S. Census is the convenient compilation for state data titled States and Local Areas; previous data and links to ongoing current data sources, though, are available on the site.  These include publications such as the State and Metropolitan Area Data Book: 2010.  Also helpful is The 2012 Statistical Abstract: State Abstracts, which identifies and links to state sources of statistical data.

Sifting though the massive amount of information collected by the U.S. Census can be overwhelming, but some resources present key data in more user-friendly and innovative ways; notable among them is CensusScope, produced by the Social Science Data Analysis Network, University of Michigan.  CensusScope is a marvelous tool for creating customized charts and tables of demographic trends (e.g., population growth, or population trends by race and ethnicity) for states and metro areas based on 2010 Census data.  This site also provides historical data for many indicators and presents this information in various useful formats, e.g., maps, charts, and rankings.

Patchwork Nation, created by the Jefferson Institute, displays socioeconomic data in a fascinating manner through the use of interactive maps of states and local areas that depict particular community characteristics.  For each community type (e.g., "monied 'burbs," "boom towns," "tractor country," "evangelical epicenters"), users can easily generate maps of locations throughout the United States.  County, district, and state map sections of the site allow for mapping a visual representation by state of various kinds of communities or characteristics (e.g., culture or education) of the U.S. population.  Another novel resource is SHOW/USA for the way it "resizes" states on a U.S. map relative to numerous interesting and quite specific characteristics, e.g., causes of death, particular crops, or religions.  Accompanying the map is a list of states with their values, which can be sorted and viewed by rank or alphabetically.  Maps can be downloaded or embedded on another site.  While derived from authoritative sources, some of the data are not the most current; however, sources are noted adjacent to the maps and are often hot-linked, which makes it easy to consult the original source for more up-to-date information.

Local news is a vital category of information for keeping up with current issues specific to a particular state.  Especially valuable is Stateline, maintained by the Pew Center on the States, which notes on its site that it provides "the top political and policy news from all 50 states."  In addition to providing coverage of current news by state and by topic, an Archive section contains news stories by year back to 1999.  Given that blogs are an increasingly important source for coverage of local hot-button issues, the listing of state-oriented blogs is another benefit of this site.  For a concise weekly wrap-up of major state news, State Net Capitol Journal is highly recommended for its expert "overview of issues, decisions, scandals and politics from all 50 states."  While much of the information and data on the State Net parent site is only accessible to subscribers, State Net Capitol Journal is a great free resource.  Each issue leads with an analysis of a key topic; continues with sections on budgets, politics, governors, and hot issues; and concludes on a humorous note with entertaining stories in the "Once around the Statehouse Lightly" section.  Readers can subscribe to this e-journal and can also access earlier issues back to 2004.

Also useful for locating local news is, which permits searching and browsing by geographic region.  From the United States link, users can search for newspapers in various ways (e.g., by title, city, state) using a set of menus or by clicking on a state of interest on a U.S. map.  All newspapers are hyperlinked, making a convenient resource.  More selective coverage of state news is available on Governing: The States and Localities.  State or local news, and news on various topics, can be found on the drop-down menu News and Topics.  For locating historical news, the Library of Congress's digital collection Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers is a pertinent resource.  The search interface on the newspaper directory page allows limiting by state; however, not all states are represented in this collection.

And finally, the official libraries for each state are a wonderful resource, and links to each can be found on State Libraries.  State library websites offer rich collections of digital resources, and provide access to highly skilled reference services.