This study attempts to capture one critical index of our nation's social health - the literacy of its major cities (population of 250,000 and above). This study focuses on six key indicators of literacy: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and Internet resources.

This set of factors measures people's use of their literacy and thus presents a complex and nuanced portrait of our nation's cultural vitality. From this data we can better perceive the extent and quality of the long-term literacy essential to individual economic success, civic participation, and the quality of life in a community and a nation.

As I've mentioned before, the ranking is necessarily an interpretation of data. What matters most is not whether the rank ordering changes but what communities do to promote the kinds of literacy practices that the data track.

A Look Back, 2003-2007

The release of the 2007 America's Most Literate Cities survey coincides with renewed widespread interest in reading and literacy. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently published a “disturbing story” indicating that, at all levels, Americans are reading less and reading less well, and that this behavior correlates with declining measures of the health of our society.

Looking back on five years of data, I find that these new studies are borne out by some of the five-year trends in these surveys of America's most and least literate cities.

One of the most disturbing trends is that while Americans are becoming more and more educated in terms of their time spent in school and their education level accomplished, they are decreasing in terms of literate behaviors. This is particularly obvious in our lack of support of bookstores and the constantly diminishing circulation of newspapers. Forty-three of the 59 cities studied have a higher percentage of high school graduates than they did five years ago, and 46 of the cities have a higher percentage of college graduates, so clearly the trend across the country is for people to stay in school longer and achieve a higher grade level of accomplishment. Nevertheless, every city in the study declined in Sunday newspaper circulation save one--St. Paul, Minnesota--and only four--Cleveland, Indianapolis, Louisville, and St. Paul--had consistent increases in weekday circulation. So while Americans are becoming more and more “educated,” they are reading newspapers less.

We are also supporting local bookstores far less often. Not a single city in our survey has more independent bookstores now than five years ago. Fifty-seven out of 60 cities reported fewer retail booksellers in 2007 than in 2003; in several, the number of booksellers per capita dropped by half of what was reported in 2003. At the macro level, the market does seem to reflect the “alarming” story that the NEA reports.

There are, however, a few bright spots in this year's study indicating that reading practices in some areas have improved or at least stayed the same while they have definitely changed in nature. Per capita publication of magazines in the United States increased in 87 percent of the cities studied. Libraries are staying even, with the number of library buildings, volumes in the collection, and circulation of books and other materials staying about steady in terms of the number of cities advancing and declining. Consistent improvements have occurred in the number of branches per capita in Boston and El Paso, Texas. Portland, San Francisco, and St. Paul have moved well up in circulation per capita, and Boston, Detroit and San Francisco have consistently increased their library holdings.

The internet explosion has also clearly taken effect with substantial growth of reading online. Almost all the cities have more free internet access points. More people are reading newspapers online and buying books online than in previous years.

So with five years of data and a retrospective look, what are some of the trends in terms of specific cities? First, there are some perennial winners. Minneapolis, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Washington, D.C. have appeared in the top 10 in every year the study has been conducted. Close behind them are Atlanta, Cincinnati, Portland, and the rising star of literate cities, St. Paul, Minnesota.

St. Paul has moved up in the rankings every year from 11th to 9th to 5th to 3rd. It is the only city in the United States in which Sunday newspaper circulation has increased per capita and one of very few in which weekday circulation has increased. St. Paul's library system is good and improving: it is one of the few cities which improved in all three variables of branches, volumes, and circulation. Public access to internet communications has increased substantially in every year the study has been conducted. St. Paul has had a large increase in the publication of professional journals and an even more impressive increase in the publication of magazines. The city has held its own in very declining markets for bookstores. And St. Paul has the fifth highest percentage of the population with a high school diploma and the tenth highest with a college bachelor's degree. So St. Paul is certainly a bright spot.

Dr. Jack Miller,
Central Connecticut State University