Public Libraries: A Great Equalizer

Posted on October 24, 2019

by Ryan D

Editor’s note: This is a guest submission from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency. It is written by Chelsea Buckwalter.

Where you grow up has significant influence on your opportunities in life. These opportunities, as well as access to education, food and even tree cover can vary greatly based on your state, city or neighborhood. Studies have shown that many resources — both public and private — are distributed unequally across our neighborhoods, which means lower income households often face barriers to accessing high quality amenities. What’s one public institution that defies this logic? Libraries.

Due to their rich programming and accessibility, libraries have become an integral part of housing initiatives across the country. In Ohio, the recently released state Qualified Allocation Plan incentivizes the placement of affordable housing developments in close proximity to a library. In other states, libraries are experimenting with incorporating affordable housing into their structural design. Local libraries can act as a buffer to the inequitable access of resources dictated by the neighborhood in which you live.

Partly due to the large number of locations, a quarter of Ohioans live within one mile of a library, and half of Ohioans live within two miles of at least one library.

Ohio has more than 700 libraries throughout the state and is ranked fifth in the nation for its number of libraries. Partly due to the large number of locations, a quarter of Ohioans live within one mile of a library, and half of Ohioans live within two miles of at least one library. This is true for urban and non-urban regions. Although libraries tend to be concentrated in urban and suburban areas, nearly half of Ohio’s libraries are spread out across rural parts of the state.

Breakdown of libraries in USR typologies

Since low-income communities and communities of color have traditionally faced the greatest barriers to accessing resources, it is important to look not only at where libraries are located, but also who is living nearby. Are libraries accessible to all members of the community, regardless of race or socioeconomic status? In Ohio, of those who identify as a person of color, over 40 percent live within one mile of a library and 78 percent live within two miles. When looking at poverty levels, of those in Ohio who are considered to be living below the poverty line, 37 percent live within one mile of a library and 70 percent live within two miles. This shows that libraries in Ohio are easily accessible to a diverse group of people.

Racial breakdown near libraries

Poverty breakdown near libraries

The equitable distribution of libraries throughout the state is important because libraries are a key resource that can help communities of all types, particularly vulnerable groups: children, aging adults and low-income families. Living close to a library means access to a number of free benefits including education and job resources, health care information, and after-school homework programs. Additionally, libraries are frequently cited as important “third spaces” that strengthen communities and function as places outside the home or office where people can gather. At least a dozen library systems in Ohio have taken steps to ensure more equitable access for the communities they serve by fully or partially eliminating overdue fines and fees, another possible barrier to low-income communities.

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