Almost 7 Million Americans “Unserved” by Public Libraries

According to 1996 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (with some corrections from a few state library agencies), 6,908,844 Americans in 24 states live beyond the legal service area of any public library—roughly the equivalent of the entire Washington, DC, or San Francisco metropolitan area. These individuals are “unserved,” as there is no public library legally responsible for meeting their needs for reading matter, information, and access to the “information superhighway.” Reasons for this situation, include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • In many U.S. counties, there are only municipal libraries, and no provision is made for countywide service that covers residents of unincorporated areas.
  • Some units of government (e.g., counties, cities, towns, townships) that are not part of larger units of service (e.g., library districts, county library systems) cannot afford to support libraries.
  • A few local governments have even closed public libraries due to fiscal problems.
  • Beyond such circumstances, which explain the actual absence of any public library service, some public libraries are so inadequate in terms of local support, staffing, hours of service, or the like, that they are not recognized by the state library agency as a public library.

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