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Office of News and Information
Johns Hopkins University
901 South Bond Street, Suite 540
Baltimore, Maryland 21231
Phone: 443-287-9960 | Fax: 443-287-9920

April 18, 2008
CONTACT: Phil Sneiderman

Student Seeks Links Between Libraries and
Neighborhood Poverty

Undergrad Studies Baltimore Neighborhoods and the
Book-Lending Centers that Serve Them

To learn more about the nature of Baltimore's patchwork of neighborhoods, which range from affluent areas to blighted, crime-ridden communities, a Johns Hopkins undergraduate decided to start at the library. More precisely, Iris Chan chose to use the city's library system, made up of more than two dozen branches, as the focal point for a study about how economics, education, public safety, transportation options and other factors come together within the neighborhoods that surround these branch libraries.

"I wanted to look at the connections between poverty and geography," said Chan, whose study was supported by a university research grant for undergraduates. "It's not that either one causes the other, but I wanted to see if there is a back-and-forth interaction between the nature of poverty and where it is located."

Chan's work was among 45 Johns Hopkins student projects that were honored recently during the 15th annual Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards ceremony, hosted by Kristina Johnson, university provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

Iris Chan and Erica Schoenberger
Iris Chan made library branches (here in Waverly with sponsor Erica Schoenberger) the focal point of her study about the nature of Baltimore's neighborhoods. Photo by Will Kirk

Chan, a senior public health and Writing Seminars major from Bethesda, Md., came up with the research proposal after taking an environmental history course taught by Erica Schoenberger. Schoenberger, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, agreed to provide guidance and to serve as Chan's faculty sponsor in the university's Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards program.

The funding enabled Chan to spend part of last summer gathering data about the neighborhoods surrounding most branches of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library system and about the libraries themselves. Chan compiled figures on the employment and educational background of each neighborhood's residents, the percentage of homes occupied by their owner, the number of households with their own vehicles, the number of bus stops in the neighborhood, homicide occurrences and library usage. She also visited many of the branches and conducted an in-depth case study at the Waverly branch near Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus.

When she completed her report, what emerged was a complex portrait of how Baltimore libraries play an important and varied role in the neighborhoods they serve. Some provide expanded programs for parents of young children and for teenagers. Some offer a relatively safe, cost-free place where youngsters can spend time when their parents cannot supervise them. At some branches, Chan found, adults use library computers to search for work or to fill out online job applications. "I learned that possibly the most important thing a public resource like this can do is to be flexible to the needs of its patrons," she said.

One thing she did not find was a strong connection between the affluence of the neighborhood and the quality of its library.

"I think Iris' study came in with much more interesting results than I had anticipated," said Schoenberger, her faculty advisor. "In a way, it's the lack of a strong correlation between socio-economic factors and the quality of the neighborhood libraries that was particularly interesting. Baltimore has this reputation of being such a divided city, but in this one index, it appears the city's not doing so badly."

While conducting her study, Chan had to acquire new skills in mapping and data collection. In a few instances, she ran up against government staff members who refused to provide crucial information that she had hoped to utilize. But Schoenberger pointed out that encountering real-world roadblocks can be enlightening to students who are accustomed to traditional textbook and classroom learning. "I think this was a really good educational experience for Iris," she said. "This really got her out into the streets, and she did well."

While many undergraduate research opportunities at Johns Hopkins involve students who join a faculty member's existing lab project, Schoenberger noted that the library study was initiated by Chan herself. "Iris came to me with this idea and said she really wanted to do it," the professor said. "She just needed someone to give her some help. That was very special."

Although Chan plans to look for work after graduation, her long-term goal is enroll in a graduate school program that focuses on public policy or urban policy studies. Her undergraduate project was helpful preparation. "I surprised myself at how deeply I got buried in my research while I was working on it," she said. "It didn't bore me. I'm fascinated by going to libraries."

Since 1993, about 40 Johns Hopkins students each year have received Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards grants of up to $3,000 to conduct original research. Some have published their results in professional journals or presented them at scientific conferences. The awards, funded through a donation from the Hodson Trust, are an important part of the university's mission and its commitment to provide research opportunities for undergraduates. The awards are open to students in each of the university's four schools with full-time undergraduates: the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Whiting School of Engineering, the Peabody Conservatory and the School of Nursing.

Color images of Iris Chan and Erica Schoenberger available; contact Phil Sneiderman.