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A Guide for Researching Rural America

By Evan Frankl, Reference Librarian at Fordham Westchester Library

Highsmith, Carol M. Large working farm in rural America [graphic]. [between 1980 and 2006]. Library of Congress

Did you take the subway today? Have you always lived in an apartment building? Did you wait too long, just to get on an overcrowded elevator? Do you sometimes fall into the all too common thinking that all 333 million Americans live this way?

Many of us do live this way. The United States is a highly urbanized nation. However, the last U.S. Census defined over 17% of the population as rural. Though the Census Bureau does not actually define “rural,” rural areas include all geographic areas that do not meet either of the two following definitions of “urban.”

  1. “Urbanized Areas” have a population of 50,000 or more.
  2. “Urban Clusters” have a population of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000

Stop a moment – How do YOU define rural? Is it a close match to the Census definition? Though the rural population is a minority, it still accounts for over 57 million people in this large country. Try to visualize the population of seven densely packed New York City’s – then spread those millions over the thousands of small towns and farms that make up the majority of the geography of the United States.

The 2020 Population Distribution in the United States and Puerto Rico map portrays the distribution of population in the United States and Puerto Rico based on the results of the 2020 Census of Population and Housing.

New York City and Los Angeles, as our two biggest cities, share many of the same socioeconomic and cultural trends – and problems. This is the field of Urban Studies – understanding that each city is unique, but that urban areas share common trends.

Parsons, WV and Pinedale, WY are both towns of under 2,000 residents nearly 2,000 miles apart. [Actually, Parsons is legally a city. – Wait, a city in a rural area? A city with a population of 1,327?] Each “town” is also unique, but shares the socioeconomic and cultural trends and problems facing Rural America.

Living, or studying, in the largest city in the United States, it is easy to forget these places and their problems. That is one reason why the American Rural Studies research guide has been created.

American Rural Studies research guide

Tip #1- It’s not that far away!

Rural America is not “all the way over there,” it’s part of our home state. 10 state counties are defined as rural and one is defined as 100% rural. All of Hamilton County, in northern New York State, has fewer residents than the student body population of either our Rose Hill or Lincoln Center campuses.

Tip #2- Similar but different!

Drug abuse, poverty, unemployment, lack of medical care, failing schools, underprepared teachers. Are we talking about New York City or rural Nevada? Yes! Both share the same problems, but it is safe to assume that the plans to address these problems in the big cities will not work in Rural America. That’s why rural social organizations and research institutes exist – not just to find out what works, but what works THERE.

Tip #3- There’s diversity out there!

If your vision of Rural America is an all-white town, where everyone goes to a white clapboard church on Sundays – your vision was never fully accurate, but today is outright mistaken. A large, and growing, part of our rural population is African-American, Native-American, and Hispanic/Latino. You probably will not find nouveaux cuisine on Main Street, but you are as likely to find an immigrant family operating a Latin restaurant, as you are to find a fast-food outlet on the outskirts of town.

Starting Your Research

  1. Which issue of rural life are you researching? Try subjects such as:
    • Education, Rural–United States.
    • Housing, Rural–Government policy–United States.
    • Rural churches.
    • Rural population—Drug use.
  2. Look at books/e-books focused on the history of rural communities in New York State vs. other specific rural communities vs. overviews of Rural America. What are the common threads? What makes rural New York distinct?
  3. The Library has numerous periodicals and journals devoted to these topics, including:
  4. Read the latest policy ideas and programs from the experts:
  5. Read for the flavor of Rural America…
    • We have selected approximately 25 fiction print and e-books from the past 10+ years that cater to different reading tastes. Look around and enjoy.
Highsmith, Carol M. Small sheds such as this, near Danby, New York, usually don’t use much electricity, if any at all. So its solar panel seems out of place. [July 18, 2018]. Library of Congress.

Do you have an idea to add to this Research Guide? Do you have a personal experience that isn’t represented here? Do you know of new books, videos, or podcasts that should be promoted? For any of the above, please contact me!

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