What do I need to know about my topic before I start looking for statistics?
No matter the subject statistics are limited by both time frame and geography.
Time: Are you looking for information about a single point in time? Do you want to look at changes over time? Do you need historical information? Current information?
Be prepared that the most current statistics may actually be a year or more old! There can be multiple year lags before some information is released depending on how often the information is collected, the time it takes to process and crunch numbers, and the public release schedule.
Geography: Geographical areas can be defined by political boundaries (nations, states, counties, cities) or statistical boundaries (mainly Census geography such as metropolitian statistical areas, block groups, or tracts).
Remember to define your topic with enough flexibility to adapt to available information!
A visual diagram to start the thought process for your statistics search.
Search Strategy #1: Use a Finding Aid
Finding Aids are research guides, reference sources, and databases.
Not sure who might have produced the statistic you need? Look in one of these sources:
Data and Statistics Research Guides
MSU Librarians have compiled guides that point you directly to the major sources and producers and data and statistics in different topical areas such as agriculture, criminal justice, health, public opinion, religion, etc.
ProQuest Statistical Abstract of the United States (2013- ) Statistical Abstracts of the United States (1878-2012)
The first source for statistics on all aspects of population, economy and society in the United States. Annual publication 1878-present. This source provides a tremendous amount of statistics for many different geographies and periods. The statistics are drawn from decennial census (every 10 years), economic census (every 5 years) and a whole host of other survey programs. It is this last fact that makes it necessary to take advantage of the wonderfully detailed footnotes/citations to the tables. These will often lead to fuller information. Print versions back to 1879 can be found in the Main Library Census Collection (3 West).
Ask yourself: Who might collect or publish this type of information?
Then visit the organization’s website and see if you're right! Or, search for them as an author in the library catalog.
These are some of the main types of producers of statistical information:
The government collects data to aid in policy decisions and is the largest producer of statistics overall. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau, Federal Election Commission, Federal Highway Administration and many other agencies collect and publish data. To better understand the structure of government agencies read the U.S. Government Manual and browse FedStats. Government statistics are free and publicly available, but may require access through library resources.
Many independent non-commercial and nonprofit organizations collect and publish statistics that support their social platform. For example, the International Monetary Fund, United Nations, World Health Organization, and many others collect and publish statistics. For more information about NGOs, visit Duke Libraries NGO Research Guide. The library subscribes to many NGO resources, so be sure to check the library’s e-resources pages or catalog, as not all statistical publications will be freely available on the web.
Academic research projects funded by public and private foundations create a wealth of data. For example, the Michigan State of the State Survey and many other research projects publish statistics based on their data collection projects. Some statistical publications are available freely online, but others may require access through library resources.
Commercial firms collect and publish data and statistics as a paid service to clients or to sell broadly. Examples include marketing firms, pollsters, trade organizations, and business information. This information is almost always is fee-based and may not always be available for public release. The library does subscribe to some commercial data services, particularly through the business library.
Search Strategy #3: Turn to the published literature
Look for statistics reported in journal, news, and magazine articles. If they report a source, be sure to follow it up!
By searching periodical indexes, you can determine if anyone has conducted research into your area of inquiry. You may turn up a journal article with statistical tables on your topic, or you may find out that you have chosen such a unique topic that little to no research exists in that area. Maybe you can be flexible with your topic and find a similar substitute.
Indexes & Databases
Subject-specific indexes or databases allow you to search the content of scholarly journals, magazines and other materials. Most include summary abstracts describing article content, and some provide the full text of articles.
ProQuest Research Library
A great multidisciplinary index, ProQuest Research Library is a great place to start looking for articles.
Another great source for articles on current social topics.
Search Strategy #4: Targeted Online Searches
Think about where to search and which keywords to use.
Internet Search Engines
I know, it's obvious! When searching the Internet, be sure to identify your topic keywords carefully and try using synonyms. Add in terms like “data” or “statistics”. Use advanced search features such as the “site:” command which allows you to limit your search to a certain website or domain. For example, if you think that the government is a likely producer of the statistics you need end your search with the command “site:.gov” to only search within government websites.