A depressing opinion article in the New York Times last week highlighted a study showing low access to books among poor children in Philadelphia, as well as a nonprofit organization called First Book that tries to put new books in poor children’s hands.
The study shows that there aren’t many books for sale near poor children in Philadelphia, and that if there were a lot of families couldn’t afford them. It also demonstrates that even when there are school and public libraries around, they have many fewer books than such libraries in Philadelphia’s wealthier parts of town.
In other words, a lot of time and expense went into proving that poor kids don’t have as much of anything as rich kids. This kind of thing might be truly surprising to tenured professors at big research universities, but not to anyone else.
A paragraph from the report shows just how blinkered much literacy research is:
Research in early literacy, however, has tended to focus on the immediate setting – the relation of family characteristics, book reading habits. instructional features in the school, and their impact on children’s early literacy development – not on the larger contexts, both formal and informal, that may affect events within the immediate settings. For example, it is assumed that middle-class parents’ book reading habits with young children are a key factor in children’s early literacy preparation, and not merely a proxy for all the other events and activities that involve children in literacy in the larger community. Similarly, it is assumed by school districts, as well as society at large, that individual schools in high-socioeconomic status areas produce children who excel in school achievement. But rarely is it recognized that these children generally have higher skills to begin with due to advantages outside school, and not on what the school necessarily provides.
If it’s “rarely recognized” that children from richer families have higher skills because they have more advantages outside school, then the researchers haven’t spent much time watching rich kids or poor kids. Rich kids have camps and vacations and museums and tutors and parents who push them to succeed in the ways rich people find valuable. Poor kids have television and street gangs.
Though I applaud any groups, including librarians, who try to get books into the hands of children, studies of poverty and education are mostly pointless, because they diagnose problems that won’t be solved, even if they possibly could be solved.
Philadelphia is a good example, but many other cities could stand in, such as Baltimore or Detroit. Large pockets of such cities are wastelands of poverty, the kind of poverty most of us don’t see unless we go there, and we don’t go there.
It’s easy to talk about all the opportunities for education in Philadelphia. There are plenty of museums, one Ivy League university, a large midlevel state university, a lot of historical buildings, monuments, and organizations. I enjoy conferencing in Philadelphia because there’s a lot to do, and in a relatively compact area.
Go to North Philly, and you find block after block of destitution, drugs, and crime. One neighborhood in North Philly was this list’s 16th most dangerous neighborhood in America. High school graduation rates hover at 50-60% in much of the city, and much less in certain schools.
What does this have to to with libraries? Not much, I suppose. Libraries usually don’t go out of their way to put books in the hands of children. The children have to come to them. Even then, the books are only borrowed, when a good predictor of children’s literacy is access to a home library.
The founder of First Book “saw that children’s eyes lit up when they were given a book of their own, particularly a new book with an attractive cover.” I wonder how many new books with attractive covers there are in libraries in poor sections of Philadelphia.
Libraries can’t be the problem, but they’re not part of the solution, at least not in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Free Library map of locations shows three libraries open near that dangerous neighborhood. They’re not open in the evenings, and only two are open Saturday during the day, and none of them have book drops, according to the website. I assume that means that not only do you have to check out books during business hours, but return them as well.
The study mentioned Chestnut Hill, a wealthier part of town, and its branch of the Free Library is open until 9pm two nights a week as well as all day Saturday, plus it has a book drop.
One city, 50+ libraries, unequal access. The gap increases when wealthy suburbs are compared with inner city or rural libraries and schools. The difference in opportunities between that dangerous North Philly neighborhood and, say, one of the wealthy Main Line suburbs is staggering.
Or it would be, if enough people cared, but they don’t. What’s the point of more studies that point out the obvious?
Oh, sure, you care, of course, and I care, but not enough to start an organization like First Book, or enough to organize politically, or anything else that had any potential to be effective.
It wouldn’t be effective anyway. We elect politicians who don’t keep their promises because they can’t. There’s no political will to really help the poor anyway, even if we knew effective ways of doing so. A permanent underclass exists, contained and forgotten by most of us.
What can librarians do about all this? Nothing at all. Some of comments in the Times suggested libraries as a solution to literacy problems, but the libraries are already there, for now. Libraries are mostly for middle class people to indulge their leisure reading habits, though, so when it comes to the very poor, you can build a library, but they might not come. People who don’t read don’t use libraries, and neither do their children.
Maybe the ALA can make a new READ poster or something to make us all feel better.