Public Libraries: A Great Equalizer1

Public Libraries

Where you grow up has significant influence on your opportunities in life. These opportunities, as well as access to education, food, and even tree cover, can vary greatly based on your state, city or neighborhood. Studies have shown that many resources—both public and private—are distributed unequally across our neighborhoods, which means lower income households often face barriers to accessing high quality amenities. What's one public institution that defies this logic? Libraries.

Due to their rich programming and accessibility, libraries have become an integral part of housing initiatives across the country. In Ohio, the recently released state Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP) incentivizes the placement of affordable housing developments in proximity to a library. In other states, libraries are experimenting with incorporating affordable housing into their structural design. Local libraries can act as a buffer to the inequitable access of resources dictated by the neighborhood in which you live.

Ohio has over 700 libraries2 throughout the state and is ranked fifth in the nation for its number of libraries3. Partly due to the large number of locations, a quarter of Ohioans live within one mile of a library, and half of Ohioans live within two miles of at least one library4. This is true for urban and non-urban regions. Although libraries tend to be concentrated in urban and suburban areas, nearly half of Ohio's libraries are spread out across rural parts of the state (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Density of libraries and locations

Figure 2: Breakdown of libraries in USR typologies5

Since low-income communities and communities of color have traditionally faced the greatest barriers to accessing resources, it is important to look not only at where libraries are located, but also who is living nearby. Are libraries accessible to all members of the community, regardless of race or socioeconomic status? In Ohio, of those who identify as a person of color, over 40% live within one mile of a library and 78% live within two miles (Figure 3). When looking at poverty levels, of those in Ohio who are considered to be living below the poverty line, 37% live within one mile of a library and 70% live within two miles (Figure 4). This shows that libraries in Ohio are easily accessible to a diverse group of people.

Figure 3: Racial breakdown near libraries6

Figure 4: Poverty breakdown near libraries7

The equitable distribution of libraries throughout the state is important because libraries are a key resource that can help communities of all types, particularly vulnerable groups: children, aging adults, and low-income families. Living close to a library means access to a number of free benefits including education and job resources, health care information, and after-school homework programs. Additionally, libraries are frequently cited as important “third spaces” that strengthen communities and function as places outside the home or office where people can gather. At least a dozen library systems in Ohio have taken steps to ensure more equitable access for the communities they serve by fully or partially eliminating overdue fines and fees, another possible barrier to low-income communities.

1 "Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men -- the balance wheel of the social machinery." – Horace Mann, American education reformer
2 Dataset created with information from the FY 2017 Public Libraries Survey and the Ohio Public Library Systems Directory
3 Data from the FY 2017 Public Libraries Survey
4 U.S. Census Bureau, 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Demographic and Housing Estimates
5Based on The Ohio State University Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity Urban-Suburban-Rural (USR) typology classifications
6U.S. Census Bureau, 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Demographic and Housing Estimates
7U.S. Census Bureau, 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Poverty Status in the Past 12 Months