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Washington DC named as
America’s most literate city

A report by Dr Jack Miller,
Central Connecticut State University

12 January 2011: The US capital Washington DC has been named as America’s most literate city. A study by Dr Jack Miller, President of the Central Connecticut State University, measures culture and reading resources in America’s largest cities. This study focuses on six key indicators of literacy: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and Internet resources and examines cities with populations of more than 250,000.

| Trends | Internet | International | Public libraries |

Looking back over eight years of the America’s Most Literate Cities rankings and focusing on the data that drive the rankings, President Miller sees worrisome concerns. The decline of newspaper readership and the continuing erosion of book purchasing in America’s largest cities clearly represent concerns for two of the US’s most venerable literate practices.

“The decline in newspaper readership is stark,” Dr. Miller says. “At the beginning of this survey, in 2003, newspapers in America’s larger cities had a weekday circulation equivalent to 55 per cent of the population of the cities; Sunday circulation was 75 per cent . Now, on average, less than one third read a weekday paper and less than half read a Sunday paper.” Some of the largest declines occurred in Atlanta, Boston, Miami, and San Francisco.

Bookstores, Miller notes, are also disappearing. In 2003, on average, there were nearly nine independent booksellers per 10,000 people; that average is now just below six per 10,000. “In some otherwise strongly literate cities, the change is even more dramatic. Boston, for example, has gone from 9 per 10,000 in 2003 to 3 per 10,000; and Minneapolis, perennially in the top 3 of the overall rankings, has gone from 14 to 6 per 10,000.”

The slogan is “This changes everything,” but in the case of the Internet, perhaps not so much. Online purchase of books has indeed grown on average some 83 per cent across the surveyed cities since 2007, and e-readers are growing in popularity. But according to US Census data, book sales have almost certainly declined: in 2003 purchases from bookstores amounted to $16.2 million; in 2009, $16.7 million (includes online purchases).Those numbers also capture the trend of bookstores becoming more comprehensive and include purchases of everything--from books and magazines to CDs/DVDs, calendars, and lattes—and do not account for the changes in book prices. So while the purchase of books online may be having an impact on the viability of on-ground bookstores, it’s likely that a greater impact is exerted by the decline in Americans’ book-reading habits—a point confirmed by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA): “average annual household spending on books dropped 14 per cent [1985-2005] when adjusted for inflation.” To quote the NEA, the “unsettling conclusion” is “Americans are spending less time reading.”

As for the belief that online newspapers are the cause of the decline or the demise of print newspapers, that conventional wisdom appears largely overstated: according to a study published in Newspaper Research Journal in 2009, the size of a newspaper’s online readership is barely a quarter of its print readership. And even the recent Pew report showing that Americans are spending more time following the news notes that the per cent age of Americans reading print newspapers (31 per cent ) and viewing news online (34 per cent ) are roughly the same.

These trends raise real concerns about Americans’ literate behaviors. Miller’s survey also demonstrates that even an improving index of socio-cultural health should be a matter of growing national concern.

According to Miller, “It’s true that Americans are somewhat better educated now than they were at the outset of this survey. In 2004, we noted that on average, roughly 26 per cent of the population of our largest cities possessed a college degree or higher. Now, that number is over 30 per cent . But at the same time, America has continued to decline as the world’s college-educated leader: the US currently ranks 12th place among 36 developed nations, according to a recent report by the College Board. Other nations are passing us by.”

In response to this decline, President Obama has set a goal for at least 55 per cent of the population to have a college degree by 2020. How far we have to go is demonstrated by the fact that, at this point, among our largest cities only Seattle reaches Obama’s goal (at 56 per cent ), and only Plano, TX, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Raleigh, NC, Atlanta, and Boston are even relatively close. Cities such as Detroit, Toledo, Santa Ana, and Newark barely reach double digits and are especially in need of focused efforts. While suburbs tend to be the haven of college graduates, core cities are in real trouble and lag far behind

Public libraries
Of the data he has tracked over the life of the rankings, Miller finds that the one bulwark sustaining American literacy is the public library. “In terms of accessibility and usability, libraries remain vibrant. Even in these economically embattled times, many cities appear to be providing their citizens with rich resources for developing and maintaining literate behaviors,” Miller notes.

The across-the-board-average for library branches per person remains virtually unchanged. Circulation has actually increased from 6.8 to 7.17 per person during that time. Some cities, most notably St. Paul, Boston, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, increased in both number of branches and circulation, posting numbers three to five times higher than such other cities as Detroit, San Antonio, and Santa Ana.

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