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America's Most Literate Cities Not Necessarily the Wealthiest

America's Most Literate Cities Not Necessarily the Wealthiest
Reuters

As hard as Seattleites scrunched up over their coffee and Jonathan Raban novels, they couldn't prevent Washington, D.C.'s legion of wonks from stealing the title of 2011's Most Literate City in America.

That honorific comes courtesy of Central Connecticut State University's annual ranking of how cities with populations above 250,000 are performing, reading-wise. The ranking, put together by university president Jack Miller, takes into account a diverse shelf of factors: education level, number of bookstores, access to libraries, periodical readership and, because no one can ignore it these days, web traffic.

This is the District's second year on top of the heap. Seattle, however, has been more consistent, coming in first or second place every year since 2005. While the final resting place of Kurt Cobain took top slot in 2011 for bookstore fecundity and educational attainment, D.C. pushed ahead with its plethora of page views and unique visitors to local media websites, newspaper circulation and number of magazines and journals. Nevermind that the journals have names that make you want to pass out with boredom, like the CommLaw Conspectus and AAUP Policy Documents & Reports – whether they're interesting is a matter for another study.

More notable findings for 2011: The top four cities remain the same from 2010, with Minneapolis and Atlanta scoring third and fourth, respectively. St. Paul, Minnesota, and Portland, Oregon, are both out. Bakersfield, California, is the least literate city in America at No. 75 on the list, although it gets the grand prize for craziest homemade cannon owners.

For the first time in the survey's history, study author John W. Miller took into account the correlation between literacy and a city's wealth. He found none:

Using US Census data for income in the relevant cities, I learned that wealthier cites are no more likely to rank highly in literacy than poorer cities. For example, Cleveland ranks second lowest for median family income (among the AMLC cities) and yet, thanks to its great library system (ranked #1 in the AMLC) and strong newspaper (#6) and magazine (#5) circulations, it is ranked 13th most literate in the survey.  On the other hand, Anchorage, AK is ranked 5th in median family income and only 61st in literacy.

Other notable cities that exemplify this finding are St. Louis, which ranks 70th in median family income but #8 in literacy; Henderson, NV (#7 in wealth and #53 in literacy), San Diego (#8 in wealth and #33.5 in literacy. While poverty has a strong impact on educational attainment, its impact on literacy is much weaker.

These findings suggest that a city’s quality of literacy has to do with many decisions that go beyond just how wealthy and highly educated is the population. Even poorer cities can invest in their libraries. Low income people can use the Internet. Low income cities can produce newspapers and magazines that are widely read throughout the region.

That's good news, anyway. Below find the top 10 literate cities for 2011:

1.  Washington, D.C.
2.  Seattle
3.  Minneapolis
4.  Atlanta
5.  Boston
6.  Pittsburgh
7.  Cincinnati
8.  St. Louis
9.  San Francisco
10. Denver

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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