Addressing Book Deserts | Editorial

In too many communities, books aren’t available for purchase, borrowing, or rereading. Our focus must be on all kids getting a solid start on literacy, learning, and the joy of reading.

Sure, many of us could probably stand to pare down our personal libraries. But the brouhaha around the idea of radically limiting the number of books in our home—as some said tidiness consultant and latest Netflix star Marie Kondo suggested—got me thinking.

Personally, I enjoy stacks of books and encourage a ­less-than-aggressive approach to weeding at home—opting to keep titles that spark anything from slight interest on up to dog-eared passion. Whatever you want to do to display, or not, your books is cool with me. But, more importantly, we must be alert to the fact that those of us with books are lucky to have such a problem.

There is a gap between this decorative consideration of books and the question it evokes about equity of access. This is our focus, as caring adults, to ensure that all kids get a solid start on literacy, learning, and the joy that comes from reading.

Book deserts are real—not those self-imposed by the privileged choice to live in a book-dry home but the actual ones, where books are simply absent from the environment. In too many communities, books just aren’t available for purchase, borrowing, or rereading. In her Atlantic article, “Where Books Are All but Nonexistent,” Alia Wong provides a good overview of what this means and the factors at work, reporting on the findings of a 2016 study into access to print materials by Susan Neuman and Naomi Moland. The study, Wong writes, found “intense disparities in access to children’s reading resources in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC—even between a very poor neighborhood and a slightly-less-poor one within a given city.”

Map by Michael McGuffee/Unite for Literacy, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link


Unite for Literacy, a Colorado-based publisher, offers a visual approach to understanding book deserts (pictured). In this interactive map, swaths of terrain reveal where books are rare in the United States. The deepest red, for instance, illustrates where a mere 1-10 percent of homes are estimated to have more than 100 books.

This is striking, and then consider what deserts might look like in the poorest neighborhoods where social infrastructure is weak and even in wealthy communities, where for any number of reasons, kids aren’t exposed to, or able to, access books.

Librarians have long been about addressing such gaps with creative outreach. Recently, SLJ ­covered a pop-up library in Denver that is a great example of innovation in response to systemic scarcity. More, and at scale, is clearly needed, but we can make an impact, especially if working together across library type to quench the thirst for books that kids need to thrive.


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Rebecca Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (rmiller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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