Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

An Idea for a Resolution

I have a confession to make that will probably come as a shock. I’m not a small town girl, or even a small town woman. Small towns are those places I sometimes pass through on the way to somewhere else, unless I can just fly over them.

Thus, I’ve never given much thought to small town libraries, although I knew that with 16,000 public libraries in the U.S., lots of them must be in tiny places. After reading this article about library funding in small Pennsylvania towns, one question is, how do they survive?

Or at least, how do some of them survive?

The library in Mount Jewett, PA got $4,308 to spend from the state of Pennsylvania. What the heck do you do with so little money? $3800 has to be spent on books. I’m assuming it’s pretty easy to spend that little bit.

And because of the way Pennsylvania state funding works, the low amount also means it’s not getting much support from the community, at least through taxation.

That’s not too surprising, considering hardly anyone lives there. According to Wikipedia, the estimated population in 2012 was 912 people.

But the range is weird. The library in Emporium, PA, for example, got $67,000 in state funding, with an estimated population of only 2,013.

Not only is the state funding so variable, it seems that cuts to ILL and statewide databases haven’t been restored to pre-recession levels, and everybody is generally worse off.

I assume these are problems that most small town libraries have. As with many other services, more populous places have better choices. Still, it kind of shocks me how relatively little access to books there is for people whose public library has $3000 a year to spend.

And that’s in the places that actually have libraries. According to this article on the geographic distribution of public libraries (which you certainly won’t be able to view in most of those public libraries), “Approximately 196 million people (65% of the total US population) lived in a library GSA [geographic service area] and 106 million (35%) lived outside a library GSA.”

Thus, over a third of Americans apparently have no access to a public library.

Whether you have access to a public library really depends on which state you live in. “There is a much greater discrepancy by geographic area. The percentage of state populations that live in a library GSA range from a high of 97% in the District of Columbia to a low of 42% in North Carolina.”

The accompanying table is instructive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest public library coverage is in the northeast, followed by the midwest and California, with most of the deep south coming in last, and most of those southern states well below the national mean.

And no state outside the northeast has more than 76% population coverage except Illinois, which sort of surprised me after all the great things I’ve heard over the years about Ohio libraries.

This is one aspect of life where non-white races aren’t disadvantaged, because other races apparently tend to cluster near cities, which have relatively good access to libraries. That is, except for Native Americans, who in this social indicator as with so many others fare poorly.

The biggest factor is whether you’re urban or rural. Not only do rural people have poorer libraries in general, as we see with Pennsylvania as an example, but they have a much greater chance of having no library service at all.

There’s obviously nothing new here. I was just really surprised after reading the second article how underserved by libraries so many Americans are, either by libraries with relatively few books or no libraries at all. And I’m sure this is correlated with other poor social indicators.

We could believe that it’s by choice. If people want access to libraries, they can move out of the sticks or the south and get them. I kind of assume that poor rural people don’t have a lot of life choices available, including moving somewhere new, but maybe.

Be that as it may, I have a suggestion for the Socially Responsible Round Table. The next time you want to push a meaningless resolution about something unrelated to the libraries, why not instead push a meaningless resolution in support of the third of Americans that have no library access at all.

That actually has something to do with libraries and it’s a worthy cause. It’s just not very sexy.



  1. The Librarian With No Name says:

    I grew up with a small town library whose materials budget this year was a shade over $2000. As a result, I spent much of my formative years reading science fiction from the 60s and 70s and did not realize the Cold War was over until around 1997.

    When I went off to college in 2002, the library still had a physical card catalog and a robust collection of audiobooks on cassette. Library cards were still physical pen-and-stamp jobs. The sporadic new entries in the catalog were created by the sole librarian or her part-time assistant on an electric typewriter.

    Since we were in New Mexico, we did get a Gates grant to install two dial-up internet terminals in 2001.

    So yeah, that’s all pretty terrible. But on the other hand, the library serves an area the size of Wales with a population of less than 5000. In 2010 it clocked a little under 12,000 circs. I’m currently working in one of the smallest branches in my city, and we double that in a good MONTH.

    So if we had ten million dollars to spend, we could pour it all into the long tail of the 10,000 smallest libraries and increase their budgets by $1,000 apiece. Granted, that would be a big deal for my home town library, but would it end up doing more good than using the whole ten million to jump-start an ailing urban system like Miami-Dade?

    Maybe our meaningless resolution should support central solutions for rural users, like the New Mexico State Library’s excellent Books By Mail program or one of the various rural eMedia consortia. I’d just like to get some bang for my imaginary buck.

  2. I can’t access the full article, so I can’t see what they are counting as a geographic service area. I can tell you, if you look at legal service areas, library coverage is near-universal. According to IMLS, in FY10 297.6 million people lived in a U.S. library’s legal service area. A patron might have to drive longer than whatever the authors deemed appropriate, but they have access to a library. I live in Wyoming, and we have people who drive 30 miles to get to a grocery, so I’m guessing many of those live outside what the authors would consider the geographic service area. We know a lot of those folks are still using their local libraries. I do not believe it’s accurate to say that 1/3 of people have no access to a public library.

    • If a person has to drive 30 miles to get to a grocery store, they live in a food desert. I would also suggest that a person who has to drive 30 miles to a library does not live in a library’s “geographic service area.” Just because some people are willing and able to drive that far for basic services doesn’t mean that it’s still not terrible for their overall quality of life.

      And what happens to kids who are too young to drive and whose parents can’t or won’t take them? Or the elderly? Or what if your car breaks down and you have no internet? How will you get to a library to borrow a Chiltons?

      So, sure, if you have a working car, gas money, time to waste, and are able to drive, then, yes, you can drive great distances to get to a library. I really don’t think it’s fair to assume that people must have those luxuries to access a library.

    • I couldn’t agree more ks. Before I could legally drive a car, being in a rural area was very limiting. And today probably even worse chance a stressed out parent would make driving 30 or 40 miles to a library worth it with today’s gas prices.
      Bookmobiles are rare today too. I used to love using the bookmobile that came to my Junior High once every 2 weeks.

    • I know people, ranchers, who live in those situations, ks, and I don’t know how kindly they would take to your assessment of their “terrible” situation. Many have chosen it because they believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks for themselves and their families. There are strong communities out there in the sticks and libraries that make the effort to reach out and provide services to them.

      My point is that what constitutes a “geographic service area” is not necessarily the same in a sparsely populated area than in an urban setting. In urban settings, I have read that outside of a mile or two radius, library use drops off. However, out here, the expectation is that you’ll need to go farther to get to services. Setting an arbitrary mile or two radius around our libraries seriously underestimates the area of active use. (Again, I have no idea what standard was used in the original article.) I understand there are barriers, but I still say it’s misleading to say there is no access to libraries.

    • I don’t suggest it’s “terrible.” I’ve lived in rural areas and currently I live in Chicago. I definitely prefer city life but I’ve enjoyed both lifestyles (I actually thought living in the suburbs was the definition of hell). I also recognize that you can live in a city and not have easy access to libraries because of poor public transit, poor infrastructure, high crime areas, etc.

      But I still say 30 miles is too far to go for basic services. Bookmobiles or a bus system would help but I understand that in sparsely populated areas that’s not always feasible.

      I’ve never lived in such a sparse area as Wyoming but my first job was in the foothills of the Ozarks and I know some patrons who came from more remote areas always made it seem like it was such a problem for them to get into “the city” to pick up or return books on time. They chose to live in remote areas too and the only major grocery store was in our town too. A bookmobile could have benefited our library but really these people were coming from other counties and outside of our tax district. Their own counties could have supported one central library but there is just no money for those resources.

  3. I grew up in a small town, and was lucky to have a really good library (for a small town)… but I totally agree about putting in this kind of “meaningless resolution.” It (a) has something to do with libraries and (b) is therefore something the ALA has a good reason to have a resolution about. And it’s important — if you’re isolated out there, having access to the rest of the world is a good thing. With the advent of digital materials, they could even have a concrete, doable project: Get kids out there library cards so they at least have access to the digital collections in the nearest place that *is* served. Of course, then you run into the internet connectivity problem, but that may be easier to solve than creating a building and hiring staff. And once people are used to that, getting a physical library will probably become a bigger point of interest.

  4. I grew up in small towns and rural areas with only spotty library services. Some summers I would read my parent’s old college textbooks when I ran out of reading material of my own. And rainy days would skim the World Book Encyclopedia. Thanks to all that’s holy that I had reading material at hand. I always vote yes for public library levies because I know how much the most young and vulnerable need them. And the not so young too for free internet access.

  5. Tactical-Librarian says:

    So, what about most people in farming areas who have Internets access (they need that for weather and price data) who can download thousands of public domain books from places like Project Gutenberg and who very likely educate their children via state sponsored online learning systems. Library “geography” would be irrelevant in analyzing their participation/use.

    • There is definitely a lot of options if you want to include online databases and electronic resources. I think the issue that comes into play in this case is the lack of awareness that they exist and the lack of knowledge in using them. I work at a library in a city that has over 100,000 people, yet I still encounter numerous people who barely know basic computer skills and have never even attempting checking out an ebook.

      I also considering myself pretty tech savvy, and I love reading, but there were a lot of free, online resources that I didn’t know about until working at a library. I can definitely understand how they go so unused.

  6. back on 2/20, ks outlines a number of what if questions regarding access to a library 30 miles away. Unfortunately, the only resolution to her questions is to have a library within walking distance of every conceivable user. How many people do you see walking or riding a bike even 3 measly miles to get to their most local library on a consistent basis? I dare say the answer is practically 0. So whether the library is 3 miles or 30 miles away, it almost doesn’t matter except for the cost of gas and the time needed to access those libraries. However, I’m guessing those same people need to travel relatively similar distances for access to other quality of life “needs.”

    • Where do you live where you never see people out walking or riding a bike? The bike racks are always full at every library I’ve ever worked at….and it’s not just filled with kids’ bicycles. And many of our patrons walk–especially the elderly who live nearby and moms pushing strollers and joggers stopping in and kids coming over right after school, etc.

      You’re also forgetting public transit options.

  7. oh, and what is this resolution everyone is referring to? There are no links provided to read it, but just casual references to it.

  8. I grew up in a small farm town in southwestern Michigan, population 372, that has a dynamite little library located in a tiny old house. It is part of an 81 library consortium, offers internet access, and you can borrow almost anything though interlibrary loan or ebook downloads. The local school libraries are high tech and well stocked so the public library can concentrate on providing a strong general interest collection. It is run by trained volunteers and the library board is very active. The children’s collection is superb — it is where I learned to love reading and got my first library job as a page fifty years ago. I still visit when I go home – it is a lovely interlude from the 22 branch suburban system where I work — the place wheer everyone does know your name!

  9. librarylady says:

    In response to the conversation between KS and KSOL about what “service area” means: In the case of public libraries, “service area” is a politically-determined area. A public library’s service area is determined by who pays taxes to support that particular library. If only a single township pays taxes to support that library, then its service area is only that township. If the entire city pays taxes to support that library, its service area is that whole city. If the entire county pays taxes to support that library, then it’s a county-wide library system. In my state (Indiana) we have many unserved areas, because there are many counties with public libraries that only serve a single township, town, or city, but not the other nearby areas, due to the taxing situation. If the people in those unserved areas want library service, they have to purchase a library card at the library nearest them (which might be quite a drive).

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