We’re not all poor, uneducated, politically backward, racially divided or OK with our situation. So there.
But the ugly truth is Alabama does rank low in an astonishing list of metrics, too many to list here, many of which Alabamians are well accustomed. Nevertheless, here’s an off-the-radar one worth exploring:
Alabama ranks last in the United States in per-capita annual visits to the library.
We’re 51st, according to Statemaster.com, which compares data from the U.S. Census and other governmental listings. (D.C. is better than Alabama, too.) On average, Alabamians go to the library only 2.3 times a year.
If I told you Alabama ranked first in poverty, that would grab your attention.
If I told you Alabama ranked 51st in education, you’d care, right?
If I told you Alabama ranked first in violent crime, or first in unemployment, or first in births to teen mothers, or 51st in affordability of college education, or 51st in job-creation, you’d at least feign outrage.
But 51st in annual visits to the library?
It’s true, and it has a deeper meaning.
Remember, reliable estimates show that as many as one-quarter of Alabama residents are functionally illiterate. For them, reading is difficult — which makes activities such as filling out a job application, either online or on paper, a frustrating task. For them, the thought of checking out a library book for pleasure doesn’t compute. The American public education system has failed them.
In that respect, it’s no surprise that fewer Alabamians make annual visits to the library than do residents of any other state. It is what it is.
But statistics aren’t one-dimensional; they have nuance. And modern-day libraries aren’t merely depositories of books and periodicals. They are community meeting places. (Don’t believe it? Spend an afternoon at the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County.) They provide Internet access. They offer services in genealogy, historical research and job searches. (The American Library Association describes them as “technology hubs.”) They are irreplaceable parts of our cities, havens of learning and information. We’d be far less than whole without them.
Apparently, Americans agree. They love libraries. In fact, research released this week by the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows, in Pew’s words, that the “vast majority of Americans ages 16 and older say that public libraries play an important role in providing free access to materials and resources, promote literacy and a love of reading, and improve the overall quality of life in a community.”
Pew tells us that: 61 percent of Americans aged 16 and older have a library card; on average, library use increases with age and household income levels; families with children use the library more than those without; and blacks and Hispanics aged 16 and older are more likely to say that libraries are important to them.
Then there is Alabama.
Don’t see this as a quaint love letter to libraries. If reading and comprehension are vital for daily life, and if a quarter of Alabamians are functionally illiterate, and if there are numerous public libraries in Alabama — there were 223 in 2010, according to the state archives — then there is something inherently and unmistakably wrong with our scenario.
Put another way, the reasons why Alabama ranks so low in library usage and the reasons why so many Alabamians are functionally illiterate are intertwined, pretzel-like. It’s not causation, but they do affect one another. Blame it on whatever you like — funding for public schools, differences between rich school districts and poor ones, even the South’s historical place on the nation’s education ladder. The result is the same.
States with low rates of illiteracy and high rates of library usage aren’t guaranteed better existences. Other factors, politics and economics, mostly, play a role.
But if you want to improve Alabama for the next generation, then improve Alabamians’ ability and desire to read. Any librarian will tell you that.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.