By Justin Grimes
Statistician, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation at IMLS
Public libraries play an important role in any community, but when that community is small or geographically isolated, the role they play as an essential community anchor institution comes into full view. Having grown up in Appalachia, I know firsthand the impact that public libraries can make in rural communities.
But when I say rural, what does that mean? What does it mean to be a rural library? What defines “ruralness”? This is an interesting question we must answer when exploring rural issues because the term “rural” can mean different things to different people. The federal government itself has multiple definitions of rural, depending on the program. The United States Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, and Department of Health and Human Services all have different methods for determining “rural” areas. Although this may seem trivial or overly complicated, it is important because the way things are classified can impact where, how, and to whom assistance is provided.
So how does IMLS define rural libraries? Since 2008, IMLS has used a method developed by colleagues at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in collaboration with the Bureau of the Census that breaks down geographic areas into four major categories: city, suburb, town, and rural. Each of these areas is further divided into three subcategories. Under this locale code scheme, rural is defined as any area outside of a U.S. Census defined urban area – which is defined as an area of high population density.
IMLS chose this classification scheme for a variety of reasons:
- It provides a more detailed, granular classification of geographic areas as opposed to other simpler classification methods.
- It better aligns our efforts with other federal agencies and their data, i.e., Department of Education, U.S. Census Bureau.
- It capitalizes on modern advances in geocoding technology.
Check out the map below to see how the United States looks under this locale code classification.
When IMLS needs to determine a public library’s locale code we first convert the street address of a public library into a geographic coordinate system to determine its longitude and latitude. A geographic coordinate system allows us to represent every location on the planet as a set of numbers and letters (i.e., longitude and latitude). We then use geospatial data from the U.S. Census to determine a public library’s proximity to U.S. Census-defined urban areas. This allows us to classify all 8,956 public libraries and all 16,415 public library outlets (that are not book mobiles). Seems like a lot of work, but don’t worry about me; most of this process is done automagically in a matter of minutes.
So just how many public libraries are located in rural areas according to this method? There are 4,190 public libraries located in rural areas or approximately 46.8% of all public libraries. Given that only 19.3% of the population lives in a rural area which itself covers 95% of the total land area in the United States, this is pretty impressive. This means that thanks to the ubiquitous nature of public libraries they are able to serve an amazing 96.24% of the total U.S. population!
If you would like to read more about rural libraries, check out our full report on “The State of Small and Rural Libraries in the United States,” and if you’d like to learn more about how IMLS collects data, check out the Public Libraries Survey documentation.