Americans are actively interested in issues affecting their quality of life and how that quality varies from place to place. People want to know how their community compares to others on a broad range of dimensions including crime rates, taxation levels, segregation levels, public health services available, and environmental quality, to name a few. The U.S. Environmental Protective Agency evaluates and reports on air quality by cities. Ladies Home Journal ranks the best cities in the United States for women on such issues as crime, lifestyle, and health factors. Forbes ranks cities by the best life quality for singles including factors such as the number of nightclubs and job growth.

People and businesses considering relocation are anxious to know how their current communities compare with potential new locations. Local governments and Chambers of Commerce pay careful attention to reports of studies on quality of life and use them in both promotion and improvement plans. One of the greatest topics of interest is educational or intellectual quality of life.

U.S. News and World Report annually evaluates colleges and universities on a broad range of variables. State education agencies release achievement test scores for all schools in a state, while the U.S. Department of Education monitors schools "needing improvement" and "persistently dangerous schools." These studies mainly assess the performance and behavior of in-school students and their schools at the primary, secondary, and post secondary levels. They are largely related to quality of schooling.

The purpose of this study is to assess a collection of important factors related to literacy and literate behaviors. This study rates the most and least literate cities in the United States. The focus is not to examine school achievement test scores, although such scores are undoubtedly correlated with many of the factors measured here. Rather, this study analyzes factors directly relating to the literacy of communities and their populations.

Whether these quality of life analyses are "accurate" is not so much a point of fact as it is of interpretation and operational definition. Obviously, communities that score highly on given indicators tend to be supportive of the research methodology, while those who are not highly assessed question the variables selected and their measurement. The point is that the "accuracy" of reports depends on acceptance of the operational definitions of the factors measured. For example, the value of the U.S. News and World Report study of colleges depends on acceptance of graduation rates of students, opinions of university presidents, and admission rates as important indicators of academic quality. Similarly, the value of this literacy study depends on acceptance of newspaper circulation, numbers of bookstores, and educational attainment levels as indicators of literacy. The 13 variables measured and their combination into five ranked factors form the operational definition of literacy.