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 large-scale 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.

Dr. Jack Miller,
Central Connecticut State University


America’s Most Literate Cities Ranked;
Libraries Remain Vibrant but Other Literacy Trends Are Cause for Concern

For this year’s survey report, President Miller points out that the data behind the rankings reveal some trends in Americans’ literate practices which cause concern.

Worrisome Trends
Looking back over eight years of the America’s Most Literate Cities rankings and focusing on the data that drive the rankings, President Miller sees worrisome concerns. The decline of newspaper readership and the continuing erosion of book purchasing in America’s largest cities clearly represent concerns for two of the US’s most venerable literate practices.

“The decline in newspaper readership is stark,” Dr. Miller says. “At the beginning of this survey, in 2003, newspapers in America’s larger cities had a weekday circulation equivalent to 55 percent of the population of the cities; Sunday circulation was 75 percent. Now, on average, less than one third read a weekday paper and less than half read a Sunday paper.” Some of the largest declines occurred in Atlanta, Boston, Miami, and San Francisco.

Bookstores, Miller notes, are also disappearing. In 2003, on average, there were nearly 9 independent booksellers per 10,000 people; that average is now just below 6 per 10,000. “In some otherwise strongly literate cities, the change is even more dramatic. Boston, for example, has gone from 9 per 10,000 in 2003 to 3 per 10,000; and Minneapolis, perennially in the top 3 of the overall rankings, has gone from 14 to 6 per 10,000.”

Impact of Internet
The slogan is “This changes everything,” but in the case of the Internet, perhaps not so much. Online purchase of books has indeed grown on average some 83 percent across the surveyed cities since 2007, and e-readers are growing in popularity. But according to US Census data, book sales have almost certainly declined: in 2003 purchases from bookstores amounted to $16.2 million; in 2009, $16.7 million (includes online purchases).Those numbers also capture the trend of bookstores becoming more comprehensive and include purchases of everything--from books and magazines to CDs/DVDs, calendars, and lattes--and do not account for the changes in book prices. So while the purchase of books online may be having an impact on the viability of on-ground bookstores, it’s likely that a greater impact is exerted by the decline in Americans’ book-reading habits--a point confirmed by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA): “average annual household spending on books dropped 14% [1985-2005] when adjusted for inflation.” To quote the NEA, the “unsettling conclusion” is “Americans are spending less time reading.”

As for the belief that online newspapers are the cause of the decline or the demise of print newspapers, that conventional wisdom appears largely overstated: according to a study published in Newspaper Research Journal in 2009, the size of a newspaper’s online readership is barely a quarter of its print readership. 1And even the recent Pew report showing that Americans are spending more time following the news notes that the percentage of Americans reading print newspapers (31%) and viewing news online (34%) are roughly the same.2

These trends raise real concerns about Americans’ literate behaviors. Miller’s survey also demonstrates that even an improving index of socio-cultural health should be a matter of growing national concern.

US Better Educated but No Longer World Leader
According to Miller, “It’s true that Americans are somewhat better educated now than they were at the outset of this survey. In 2004, we noted that on average, roughly 26 percent of the population of our largest cities possessed a college degree or higher. Now, that number is over 30 percent. But at the same time, America has continued to decline as the world’s college-educated leader: the US currently ranks 12th place among 36 developed nations, according to a recent report by the College Board. 3Other nations are passing us by.”

In response to this decline, President Obama has set a goal for at least 55 percent of the population to have a college degree by 2020. How far we have to go is demonstrated by the fact that, at this point, among our largest cities only Seattle reaches Obama’s goal (at 56 percent), and only Plano, TX, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Raleigh, NC, Atlanta, and Boston are even relatively close. Cities such as Detroit, Toledo, Santa Ana, and Newark barely reach double digits and are especially in need of focused efforts. While suburbs tend to be the haven of college graduates, core cities are in real trouble and lag far behind.

Public Libraries a True Bright Spot
Of the data he has tracked over the life of the rankings, Miller finds that the one bulwark sustaining American literacy is the public library.4 “In terms of accessibility and usability, libraries remain vibrant. Even in these economically embattled times, many cities appear to be providing their citizens with rich resources for developing and maintaining literate behaviors,” Miller notes.

The across-the-board-average for library branches per person remains virtually unchanged. Circulation has actually increased from 6.8 to 7.17 per person during that time. Some cities, most notably St. Paul, Boston, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, increased in both number of branches and circulation, posting numbers three to five times higher than such other cities as Detroit, San Antonio, and Santa Ana.

American Literacy on the Global Stage
The trends Miller has discovered point to a general decline in Americans’ critical literate practices. As the NEA has argued, these declines “have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications” for the quality of life in our nation.

How well America fares against some of our most significant international competitors will become more apparent as Miller develops his forthcoming study and book on American literacy on the global stage.

The first America’s Most Literate Cities study was published in 2003. Research for this edition of the study was conducted in collaboration with the Center for Public Policy and Social Research at CCSU. The complete rankings are available online at: www.ccsu.edu/amlc2010. For more information about the 2010 rankings, call: 860-832-0065; or email: AMLC@CCSU.edu

1. Hsiang Iris Chyi and Seth C. Lewis, “Online Newspaper Sites Use Lag Behind Print Editions,” Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 2009.
2. “Americans Spending More Time Following the News,” Pew Research Center, September 12, 2010.
3. College Board, “The College Completion Agenda 2010: Progress Report”
4. Magazine readership also appears healthy since the number of magazine published in the AMLC cities has increased. But this measure captures a very broad definition of “magazine” (including, for example, want-ad books for used cars).