A dedicated believer in the power of access to books, Dr. Molly Ness saw a need and created the organization End Book Deserts. A 501c3 organization, End Book Deserts promotes and highlights people and organizations who are meeting
the needs of providing books to children who live in what is known as book deserts. Never heard of a book desert? You may not have heard of the term, but you probably can guess its meaning. We are delighted that Dr. Ness took some
time to discuss the state of book deserts in America and how we can all contribute to ending book disparities.
What exactly is a 'book desert,' and how did the term gain momentum?
Dr. Ness: As defined by the International Literacy Association, book deserts are “Underresourced or underserved areas and homes with little access to written materials." The term was coined by Unite For Literacy in
2010 and popularized in 2016 by Susan B. Neuman and Naomi Moland, who used it in the title of an article published in Urban Education about their study on how the lack of access to printed reading material among low-income and
poverty-stricken neighborhoods impacts early childhood development—research that builds upon a similar study Neuman conducted in 2001. I've also come to consider book deserts to include overlooked and underserved populations of
children - for example, children living in the foster care system, in juvenile justice, with incarcerated parents, with deployed parents, etc.
Some people would find it hard to believe that book deserts exist in America, but they do. What parts of America do you see as the most prominent book deserts and why?
Dr. Ness: The presence and pervasiveness of book deserts in 2021 is staggering - 45% of our nation's children live in neighborhoods that lack public libraries and stores that sell books, or in homes where books are
an unaffordable or unfamiliar luxury. 67% of the schools and programs in our nation's lowest-income neighborhoods can't afford to buy books at retail prices. As a result, 32 million American children lack access to books in their
homes, schools, and/or communities. I'm particularly concerned about our nation's rural book deserts, which face the complications of a lack of public transportation and the vast geography of our rural communities.
How can we eradicate book deserts?
Dr. Ness: Fortunately, there are numerous literacy advocates - at the grassroots level up to major nonprofit organizations - who work to get books into children's hands and build a reading culture. Almost 50 of these
people and programs are featured on the End Book Deserts podcast, and we can look to their innovative work as exemplars. It's also important to understand that the problem is more complicated than merely distributing books - and
that these efforts must be included with longitudinal, community-based efforts that build reading culture, provide choice in relevant and engaging texts, and showcase the importance of literacy to community stakeholders.
How does End Book Deserts help programs & organizations striving to eliminate book deserts?
Dr. Ness: End Book Deserts began in 2019 with the aim of drawing attention to the challenge of book access - the podcast was created to shine the light on the people and programs working to ensure that all children
have access to books. In my work, I found that these literacy advocates lacked a professional community or overarching professional organization that connected them beyond their own work. People would say, "I feel like I'm operating
in a silo, and I want to collaborate with and learn from my colleagues across the country." That call for a larger community was the springboard for the 2021 End Book Deserts conference, which so far has 800 attendees. There is
strength in numbers, and the more that literacy advocates come together in solidarity, the more we can move the national agenda forward.
What are some tips for creating a book donation program?
Dr. Ness: I believe that effective book donation programs are innovative in meeting people in the hearts of their communities - the more that we can get books to children at the doctor's office (like Reach Out and
Read), in hair salons (like Barbershop Books), in school buses, in vending machines outside of playgrounds and WIC centers and Boys and Girls Clubs (like Soar With Reading), and at food banks (like Bernie's Book Bank), the more
we send the message that literacy is valued, reading is an everyday act, and books are essential components in child and family development.
Learn more about ending book deserts and a list of organizations and programs by state at www.endbookdeserts.com. Join others interested in ending book deserts at the
End Book Deserts 2021 Virtual Event, August 8 & 9. It's free, and registration is now open at www.endbookdeserts.com/event.