Eradicating Library Deserts

Jill Hurst-WahlThere are more of these than the number of McDonald’s restaurants across the United States, more even than the number of towns and cities in all 50 states, yet they are hiding in plain sight. The inconspicuous and ubiquitous institution is the public library – as much part of the national landscape as baseball diamonds, football fields, and strip malls.

Given the American origins of the public library – the first such places emerged in colonial times – this may be unsurprising.  Three centuries later, the public library is a global institution, and the US has long since lost its early lead as library pacesetter.  In her latest post on the Digitization 101 blog, Jill Hurst-Wahl – a trained librarian and a devoted library advocate – notes the creeping spread of library deserts across our country.  She calls for librarians and others to irrigate those deserts with innovative approaches to information sharing.

For one thing, libraries could do with an image upgrade.

“The statistic that there are more libraries than McDonald’s gets thrown out frequently because it surprises everyone,” Hurst-Wahl tells CCC’s Chris Kenneally. “The McDonald’s are so visible.  We have them in our towns and cities, in our airports, in our malls.  And that’s not where libraries are.  Libraries are often in the central part of a city or a town on a main road, but sometimes not.  Sometimes they’re kind of tucked away in some place where there is land available.  They don’t always have flashy signage or have arrows pointing out where they are.

“So making [libraries] more visible – flashy, if you will –is something that would help our libraries.  Think about the neon that our fast food places have.  Why can’t our libraries maybe have a little bit of neon?  We should also think about placing libraries in more high-traffic areas, too. Why not have libraries in malls, in airports, in train stations, in places where people are congregating and where they have extra time and might be interested in borrowing a book?”

Jill Hurst-Wahl is associate professor of practice in the Syracuse University School of Information Studies and the director of its master of science in library and information science program. She is also a member of the Onondaga County Public Library  Board of Trustees (through Dec. 2017).

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