Friday, April 30, 2010

A study of the optimum distance between a library and a school

They're closing a number of schools in Providence, and I've been discussing with people how this might affect the libraries near the schools. Mount Pleasant, my humble library, is walking distance from two public elementary schools, two Catholic schools, one public high school, and one private high school. Of course, "walking distance" depends on the length of your legs and your walking tolerance, which depends on how often you are transported by minivan.

I once had a volunteer (pity her) take the NCES list of schools in Providence and map them, along with the public libraries, so I could figure out what schools were my responsibility.

[View Providence Schools in a larger map]

So when I look at this map, I see that the kids who walk to my library are all coming from schools within .5 miles of the library. And this made me think, what else is within a half-mile of the library? What other places might people walk from or to? When I do a "community scan" for the library, I typically look at the Mount Pleasant and Elmhurst neighborhoods as defined by ProvPlan. And certainly we serve that wide of an area. But I bet we get the most contact with people in that half-mile circle.

And having a few schools in that half-mile circle can have a big impact on the makeup of people in the library between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. On the positive side, you get first generation library users, kids whose parents don't use the library, coming in regularly and potentially doing outreach to their own parents. This helps us expand our pool of users and is especially effective in bringing in more people from immigrant populations.

On the flip side, you have kids using the library as a cover--telling their parents that's where they're going, when really, although they might pop in, they're using the library as a base from which to carry out other operations. That gets dicey. Especially when their parents are under the impression that the library is supervised and their children are being closely watched, entertained, and protected.

Still, I love having schools nearby, because for me, the benefits in terms of potential outreach opportunities outweigh the behavior problems that necessarily follow when kids bring their drama with them after school. So I feel for the libraries who have schools nearby closing, and I wonder where those school populations will end up, and if that will also increase the number of kids at other libraries.

So would you rather be a "destination library," or one that was walking distance from schools, community centers, half-way houses, homeless shelters ... if you were going to pick up your library and move it, or build a new one, where would it go?

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