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The Car-Free in Nashville Chronicles: Using the Library, or Life in a Book Desert

June 30, 2012

This is the first in a series about my experiences being car-free for a year. I see it as health-related in the sense that our automobile culture is hard on the planet and exposes us to pollutants, and our reliance on driving affects where and how we live, how we move, what we eat, what information and services we have access to, and many other aspects of our lives. However, individual posts may or may not focus on health implications, and some will be fairly specific to the environment of Nashville, TN. I hope this is useful to people considering their use of cars and others with the potential to affect how cities organize themselves around transportation.

As a librarian, access to libraries and library materials has been an interesting issue for me in my year+ of being car-free. My closest Nashville Public Library branch, which is quite small, is roughly 2 miles away. It’s an easy trip if you can hop in your car, and probably not so bad on a bicycle, although I haven’t tried that. One issue for biking *or* walking is of course transporting your materials back home, making either option less than ideal.

It’s a challenge to try to take public transit – here, the only option is the city bus via Nashville MTA (unless you pay for a taxi), and the online trip planner suggests that getting to the nearest branch by bus would take from 30 to 40 minutes, one way. 30-40 minutes, to end up 2 miles from my house. Depending on which way I chose to go (one route requires more walking, another requires going all the way downtown first and two buses), it would cost $1.70 to $3.40 one way. Alternately, I could spend 30 minutes on one bus to go downtown and then just walk to the much bigger and nicer Downtown branch.

I think if you had small children in tow, or other demands on your time, period, spending an hour or more just to get there and back (not counting actual time at the library), is a pretty sizable deterrent. On weekends, some bus routes only run once per hour, so you’d have to really time it carefully and hope the route is running on time (not at all a given), or you might end up spending even more time. In addition, one must pay bus fares, which can be a bigger hurdle than people who don’t worry about money might expect.

Google’s walking route estimate to my closest branch also clocks in at just under 40 minutes as well (at about a 2.5-3mph pace), and walking is free (if you’re physically able and it’s not 109 degrees like it was here yesterday). I haven’t attempted this yet – the branch doesn’t typically have a lot of selections I’m interested in, and I’d have to plan in advance to get hold items delivered there. Walking to Downtown is a less reasonable option – although it would supposedly take a little less than an hour, it’s a less desirable walk that I believe is missing sidewalks in several places.

Now, I don’t blame the Nashville Public Library system for this situation. They are cash-strapped and doing the best they can. The problem is not the library system – it’s the limited public transit system, and our utter reliance on cars to move around. The system is set up assuming that people in various areas of town can simply drive to the nearest branch, or can and should tolerate the time, cost, and inconvenience of not driving. Nashville is a car-centric city, and while recent talk has been about implementing some improved options, those have mostly been in the service of getting car-owning business folk to move between downtown and another expensive area to spend their money for lunches and post-work entertainment – not for moving less fortunate folks among the central social services a city provides or fulfilling basic needs.

Thankfully, the Nashville Public Library *does* make some services and materials available remotely. They provide OverDrive, an ebook borrowing system that is not perfect, but is certainly better than having *no* reading materials available. OverDrive, though, does require access to certain privileges – an internet connection, and an electronic device (Kindle, iPad, smart phone, etc.) on which to read the ebooks. Likewise, they provide some electronic access to audiobooks, music, databases of all sorts of information, and online language learning. These are extremely valuable services for those who can access them, and I appreciate very much that the library provides them.

The fact of the matter, though, is that the current online collections don’t come close to rivaling the print collection available in our system. There are plenty of books I’d like to read that aren’t in OverDrive, and while the library has been receptive to my suggestions and added a couple of online titles, they can’t do much when OverDrive simply doesn’t work with a certain publisher and so doesn’t have certain books. Additionally, if one doesn’t dig a little deeper, it would be easy to think that most of the available titles are fluffy romances. That’s fine if you like that sort of thing, but readers should remember to browse or search in the site for other types of materials – non-romance fiction and serious non-fiction is available if you look for it rather than just stopping on the front page. I will say, though, that there are very, very few titles available on feminist or other social justice issues.

As a librarian, I wonder about ways to improve the situation. Obviously funding for libraries is key – they can’t provide more and better materials without cash. Better public transportation is another key issue. One thing I’ve been thinking about is the idea of small free book stations – like Free Little Library, a BookCrossing zone, or other free book swap spots that act as a band-aid for book-starved communities. I’ve been wondering whether a local convenience store – one that recently worked with the city government to start carrying more fresh produce, another key ingredient for healthy communities – would be willing to let me set up a free book stand inside or in the parking lot. I haven’t figured out the best thing for me to do in *my* community yet, but I’d love to hear what you are doing in *yours,* including thoughts from folks in similar situations and ideas from other librarians. We’ve talked before about car-free life in a food desert – perhaps it’s time to start talking about car-free life in a book desert, and how to make it better.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. BikinginAustin permalink
    July 1, 2012 10:05 am

    I look forward to reading your series on being car-free for a year. I had a similar idea, but with many caveats – I will only do it for a month, I will only do it once it starts to cool off in the fall, and I have to exempt my daily commute to work, which is too dangerous, too hilly, and too far to bike to. Even this very truncated plan is made possible only by the fact that I chose to live in a very central location – grocery stores, library, doctor’s offices, church – all are within a 20 minute bicycle ride. If I lived out in the suburbs, there is no way I could manage this. The reality is, though, that not everyone can afford to live central, even if they wanted to. Densification is key.

    • July 1, 2012 12:17 pm

      Thanks for reading and for your comment. I absolutely agree – there are a lot of things that have to be in place to make this workable. Last year, I wrote about some of the privileges that make it possible for me to at least try, and they’re not insignificant. The longer I go without a car, the more I realize just how poorly our cities are designed for moving around in non-car ways, and just how much it takes to overcome that lack of planning for pedestrian life. For example, I was fortunate enough to be able to buy a relatively low-cost house not too far from work, but that is not something everybody can arrange, and it’s not something a lot of folks in the escape-to-the-suburbs mindset even consider.

  2. jilldomschot permalink
    July 2, 2012 12:09 pm

    I just came here from Katherine’s blog. I hear you on this issue of wanting to be car free and living in a food or book desert. In many places I’ve lived, I had easy access to just about everything in 10-30 minutes by foot. I used to take my small children out in a stroller w/ a big net basket for books or groceries and walk everywhere, rain or shine (stroller also had a rain fly). Now that I live in a rural area, it would take me hours just to walk there and back to the grocery store. This saddens me. The library is a little closer, but would still take about 45 min one way. Of course, I use e-readers, but it isn’t the same as leaving the house. I really, really want to be a walker again. Ah, well. Life choices. The walking lifestyle seems dependent on location (I’m not much into biking, which is faster, but brings about whole different issues if you have small children).

    Just read your response above, and I have to agree w/ you that most cities aren’t designed for walking. Supposed disability-access sidewalks often aren’t wide enough for even a stroller! And that’s assuming there are sidewalks and good crossing areas, etc. Having been rurally locked for years now, I’ve forgotten the sometimes not-so-good side of walking everywhere. Many cities end up playing catch-up w/ sudden big surges in population and try to quickly work out car traffic flow problems.

    • July 2, 2012 12:26 pm

      You are absolutely right about the accessibility of sidewalks – I have been trying to make a point of calling it in to the appropriate agency whenever I see a sidewalk obstructed by brush, vehicles, or other issues.

      Rural areas are definitely a challenge, too – my parents live in an area where the grocery store is 15-20 minutes away by car and there are no sidewalks at all or any public transportation options – they absolutely don’t have the same choices I have about how to get around.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


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