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Every Library and Museum in America, Mapped

If you have ever felt overwhelmed by the ubiquity of McDonald's, this stat may make your day: There are more public libraries (about 17,000) in America than outposts of the burger mega-chain (about 14,000). The same is true of Starbucks (about 11,000 coffee shops nationally).

“There’s always that joke that there’s a Starbucks on every corner," says Justin Grimes, a statistician with the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington. "But when you really think about it, there’s a public library wherever you go, whether it’s in New York City or some place in rural Montana. Very few communities are not touched by a public library.”

In fact, libraries serve 96.4 percent of the U.S. population, a reach any fast-food franchise can only dream of. On a map, that vast geography looks like this:

Grimes built that map this past weekend during the National Day of Civic Hacking, using the agency's database of public libraries. Each of those dots refers to an individual branch library (and a few bookmobiles), out of a total of 9,000 public library systems.

Similarly, here are America's 35,000 museums, as the IMLS has been cataloging them over the past several years as part of its Museum Count survey:

That picture includes zoos, arboretums, historical societies, art galleries, aquariums and just about anything trying to teach people about a collection of... something. The survey is still a work in progress, but this represents the most comprehensive database of museums in America.

Libraries and museums are both so thoroughly, densely spread across the landscape, Grimes jokes, that you could remove the physical boundaries of the United States from a map and still recognize the country by the geography of the places where we go to borrow books and learn about the universe.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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