The Geography of US Public Libraries

Last month my article on the geographic disribution of US public libraries was pre-published online in JOLIS, with a print date pending. I can’t share this one freely on-line, so if you don’t have access via a library database (Sage Journals, ERIC, various LIS dbs) you can contact me if you’re interested in getting a copy.

Title: The geographic distribution of United States public libraries : An analysis of locations and service areas
Author: Francis P. Donnelly
Journal: Journal of Librarianship and Information Science (JOLIS)
Year: 2014, Volume 46, Issue 2, Pages 110-129
ISSN: 0961-0006
DOI: 10.1177/0961000612470276
Publisher: Sage

Abstract

This article explores the geography of public libraries in the United States. The distribution of libraries is examined using maps and spatial statistics to analyze spatial patterns. Methods for delineating and studying library service areas used in previous LIS research are modified and applied using geographic information systems to study variations in library accessibility by state and by socio-economic group at the national level. A history of library development is situated within the broader economic and demographic history of the US to provide insight to contemporary patterns, and Louis Round Wilson’s Geography of Reading is used as a focal point for studying historical trends. Findings show that while national library coverage is extensive, the percentage of the population that lives in a library’s geographic service area varies considerably by region and state, with Southern and Western states having lower values than Northeastern and Midwestern states.

Keywords

Geographic information systems, geography, public libraries, service areas, spatial equity, United States

This OCLC flier (How Public Libraries Stack Up) piqued my interest in public libraries as community resources, public goods, and placemaking institutions. If the presence of a public library brings so much value to a community, then by extension the lack of a public library could leave a community at a disadvantage. This led to the next set of logical questions: how are libraries distributed across the country, and which people and communties are being served and which aren’t?

I took a few different approaches to answer these questions. The first approach was to use (and learn) spatial statistics so the overall distribution could be characterized, and the second was to use spatial extraction methods to select census areas and populations that were within the service areas of each library, to see differences in how populations were served and to study these differences across different states. The LIS literature is rich with research that uses GIS to study library use, so I provide a thorough summary of what’s come before. Then after I had the results I spent a good deal of time researching how the contemporary pattern came to be, and coupled the research on the history of public libraries with the broader history of urban and economic development in the United States.

I had a few unstated motives – one of them was to learn spatial statistics, with the help of: OpenGeoda and its documentation, this excellent book on Spatial Data Analysis (for theory), these great examples from Spatial Justice, and invaluable advice from Deborah Balk, a Professor of Spatial Demography with the CUNY Institute for Demographic Research.

One of my other goals was to use only open source software – QGIS, GRASS, and OpenGeoda, which was also a success. Although in my next study I’ll probably rely on QGIS and Spatialite; I found I was doing a lot of attribute data crunching using the SQLite Manager, since the attributes of GRASS vectors can be stored in SQLite, and I could probably save time (and frustration) by using Spatialite’s features instead. I did get to learn a lot about GRASS, but for my purposes it was overkill and I would have been just fine with a spatial database. I was definetely able to sharpen my Python skills, as processing the American Community Survey data for every census tract in the US manually would have been crazy.

In a project this size there are always some pieces that end up on the cutting room floor, so I thought I’d share one here – a dot map that shows where all 16,700 public libraries are. In the article I went with a county choropleth map to show the distribution, because I was doing other county-level stuff and because the dimension restrictions on the graphic made it a more viable option. The dot map reveals that libraries are typically where people are, except that the south looks emptier and the midwest fuller than it should be, if libraries were in fact evenly distributed by population. As my research shows – they’re not.

US Public Libraries

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