Book Deserts

Two literacy researchers have published a study that shows poor American communities are “book deserts.” Their work, covered in a story in The Atlantic, gives public and school librarians much to ponder.

Susan Neuman, a researcher at New York University who was in charge of implementing No Child Left Behind during the Presidency of George W. Bush, and co-author Naomi Moland, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, found that, in poor communities there is little access to print resources for “kids of any age, including fiction and nonfiction books and newspapers.”

Scouring sample communities they found that roughly “2 percent of all the businesses in those neighborhoods” sold print resources, making it nearly impossible for parents to buy books for their children. A 2014 study of the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington DC found the community did not “have a single store selling a book for preschoolers, and there were only five books available for kids in grades K-12. In other words, 830 children would have to share a single book in the impoverished Washington neighborhood.”

“How do you become literate when there are no available resources?” asked Neuman.

The study does not include libraries, because, as The Atlantic reports “Statistically, poor families are far less likely to utilize public libraries, whether it’s because they’re not acclimated to using them or because they’re worried about being charged late fines, or because they’re skeptical of putting their name on a card associated with a government entity. Neuman has found that only 8 percent of such families report they have taken advantage of library resources.”

Equally as troubling are the long-term effects of book deserts. According to the study, “When there are no books, or when there are so few that choice is not an option, book reading becomes an occasion and not a routine.”

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