The fascinating three-thousand-year history of the census, revealing why the true boundaries of today’s nations aren’t lines on a map, but columns in a census tabulation.
“A lively and enlightening history of the census… an entertaining and informative story, more about society than statistics.”
— The Economist
“Whitby’s vigorous style, fine story-telling, and detailed knowledge combine to form a riveting narrative.”
— David Spiegelhalter,
author of The Art of Statistics
In April 2020, the United States will embark on what has been called “the largest peacetime mobilization in American history”: the decennial population census. It is part of a tradition of counting people that goes back at least three millennia and now spans the globe.
In The Sum of the People, data scientist Andrew Whitby traces the remarkable history of the census, from ancient China and the Roman Empire, through revolutionary America and Nazi-occupied Europe, to the steps of the Supreme Court.
Marvels of democracy, instruments of exclusion, and, at worst, tools of tyranny and genocide, censuses have always profoundly shaped the societies we’ve built. Today, as we struggle to resist the creep of mass surveillance, the traditional census—direct and transparent—may offer the seeds of an alternative.
“When we hear census, we think of numbers and statistics. But Andrew Whitby shows that the history of the census is an amazingly fascinating and illuminating story, and in The Sum of the People, he tells that story eloquently and persuasively. A real page-turner!”
— Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, coauthor of Big Data
“In The Sum of the People, Andrew Whitby tells a gripping tale of humanity, civilization, and power. If you never imagined that a book about the census and the statisticians who conduct it could be a page-turner, think again. At a time when the need for the census is being challenged amid a tide of online big data, this book is also a deeply thought-provoking read.”
— Diane Coyle, author of GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History
and Bennett Professor of Public Policy, University of Cambridge
“Humans spend much effort counting themselves. Always have, always will. Why? To control, conscript, and tax; but, then, also to hold accountable the powerful people who control, conscript, and tax. Andrew Whitby, alert to this duality, instructs and entertains as he brilliantly travels across the census landscape. Literally, a tour de force.”
— Kenneth Prewitt, Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs, Columbia University
and former director of the US Census Bureau
“This is a wonderful book. The history of the census may not at first appear to be a particularly hot topic, but Andrew Whitby’s vigorous style, fine story-telling, and detailed knowledge combine to form a riveting narrative. Who would have thought that simply counting people could be such a deeply contested issue?”
— David Spiegelhalter, author of The Art of Statistics
Press and reviews
- C-SPAN2 BookTV (November 21) [recording of my National Archives talk]
- CBS Sunday Morning (March 29) [also at WCBI, and on YouTube]
- Marketplace Morning Report (April 3)
- a longer cut of the interview, including an excerpt.
- WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show
- Diane Rehm interviewed me her WAMU podcast On My Mind (September 25)
- John Donahue interviewed me on WAMC’s The Roundtable.
- Marcus Smith interviewed me on BYUradio’s Constant Wonder
- Steve Kraske interviewed me on KCUR’s Up to Date (August 25)
- Jill Erickson of Falmouth Public Library gave the book a shout out on WCAI’s What’s on Your Bookshelf (at about 31:30 - 35:30)
- Sidewalk Labs’ Sidewalk Weekly discussed the Wired excerpt
- Marc Bernier show (April 3) [not available online]
- Significance Magazine interview
- I was on a panel discussing the history of the census on BBC World Service’s The Forum (April 29, 2021)
- The Economist titled their review “A lively and enlightening history of the census” (in print “The Big Ask”)
- Jill Lepore asks in The New Yorker, “Will this Year’s Census be the Last?”
- Lyman Stone’s review in The Wall Street Journal: “an excellent primer on the history of census-taking, achieving the rare combination of offering appealing writing for nonexperts and high-quality research for specialists.”
- Brian Maye’s short review in the Irish Times: “well-written and readable.”
- Reed Tucker explains in the New York Post “Why filling out the 2020 Census is more important than you think.” (March 29)
- Smithsonian Magazine included the book in a round-up of new books and also published a longer interview
- Katrina Gulliver’s review in Reason magazine
- Christopher Adams’s review in the Winnipeg Free Press: “a fascinating history of the census…a highly readable, well-written account”
- Patty Crane’s review in the Joplin Globe: “Whitby’s passion and research… shows”
- David Miller’s review in Library Journal: “timely and eye-opening”
- Michelle Ross’s review in Booklist: “a shockingly captivating history of the census”
- Review in Publisher’s Weekly: “timely”
- Diane Coyle’s full review: “genuinely a page-turner from the first page of the Preface on”
- David Boaz mentions the book in his Cato Institute blog “The Census is Too Intrusive”
- Medium.com’s Sarah Begley interviewed me, mostly on how COVID is affecting the US census.
- Michael Todd of Social Science Space interviewed me.
- A. K. Rinehart of Ohio State University in the March 2021 issue of the Association of College and Research Libraries’ CHOICE: “an exceptionally valuable read for any student of data analytics, public affairs, or history… Highly recommended.”
Reader reviews via Goodreads.
- Shortlisted for the Non-Obvious Book Awards
- “26 of the most fascinating books WIRED read in 2020”
- Grattan Institute’s Annual Wonks’ List: “some of the year’s best technical policy reads, for anyone who wants to take a deeper dive.”
- End-of-year book lists in Dubuque Telegraph Herald and Williston Herald.
Excerpts and essays
- “Trump’s Desperate Plan to Cut Short the Census Could Backfire” in New York Times (September 23)
- “A Brief History of the Census—and How Covid-19 Could Change It” in Wired
- “Filling Out a Census Has Always Been a Political Act” in Time
- “A once-in-a-century pandemic collides with a once-in-a-decade census” at Brookings Institution’s Future Development blog
- April 22 6pm ET—Boston Athenaeum—recording to come soon
- June 9—South Park Commons—recording
- July 23—invited testimony before New Jersey Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee.
- October 28—US National Archives and Records Administration—recording
- November 5—Toronto Data Workshop
- No further events scheduled for 2020. Please contact me via the details on the footer of my homepage if you are interested in arranging a talk.
About the author
Andrew Whitby is an economist and data scientist with a PhD in econometrics from the University of Oxford. Most recently, he worked in the development data group of the World Bank, where he was coeditor of the Atlas of the Sustainable Development Goals. He lives in Brooklyn.
For queries regarding rights please contact my agent, Lisa Adams at the Garamond Agency.