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Disparities in public libraries' service levels based on neighborhood income and urbanization levels: a nationwide study

Sei-Ching Joanna Sin

ASIS&T 2008 Annual Meeting (AM08 2008)
Columbus, Ohio, October 24-29, 2008


Information inequity is a central concern in this information age, and many recognize the public library as a key player in bridging such inequity. Using Public Library Survey and Census data at the census tract level, this study moves beyond the extant focus on inequity in digital information to examine more than 9,000 public library systems across the United States. It evaluates disparities existing in public library systems' service levels, and the extent to which these variations are associated with neighborhood socio-economic characteristics, such as income and urbanization levels. Descriptive statistics and Gini coefficients indicate significant variations across library systems. Results of the multiple regression analyses show that library systems in lower-income or rural neighborhoods offer a lower level of service per capita compared to their counterparts in higher income or urban neighborhoods. Library systems in lower-income or rural neighborhoods tend to have shorter hours, less staff and programs, and smaller collection size regardless of the formats (e.g., print, audio-visual, or electronic format). Among the ten service variables tested, the number of public access Internet terminals is the only variable that did not have a statistically significant relationship with neighborhood income. In light of these prevalent disparities in service levels, the study suggests a need to fundamentally evaluate the current library funding mechanisms. It also suggests that public library and information behavior studies should include information environment variables to further investigate how individuals' information decisions might be affected by this structural information inequity.

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