Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Libraries, Literacy, and the Poor

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.



  1. Way Barra says:

    For ye have the poor always with you, so why bother?

    AL 26:11

  2. First, libraries ARE already there. This is testament to the failings of the public library. Second, the MOST IMPORTANT factors to a child’s success in life are 1)genetics and 2)Parents’ socioeconomic status.

    Reading “Freakonomics” and “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids” one sees that the evidence shows that things like summer camps, or diet don’t really play that big a role in future success.

  3. Randal Powell says:

    I agree with Spencer about genetics and socioeconomic status being involved, but I think that we need to differentiate “fluid intelligence”, which is the genetic ability to juggle several layers of data simultaneously, from “crystallized intelligence”, which is earned through experience, reading, and thinking. Crystallized intelligence is where libraries and self-study come in.

    I think that libraries can make a difference to a poor community, but only if the libraries are serious places. I assure you that public schools are beyond all hope, but I haven’t given up on libraries yet. These kids need to have a place to go where they can learn and think; they are not only going to be competing against the middle and upper class kids in the United States, but against everyone in the entire world.

  4. @Randal,

    I think you might want to go ahead and give up on public libraries. We need to think about what we’re going to replace them with. I mean, a library keeping banker’s hours is USELESS, and should be killed so something else can rise up and replace the service with more success.

  5. Not sure what the solution is here. It seems to be insinuated that libraries in poor areas should stay open later and provide greater access simply because they are in poor areas. But if people aren’t using the facilities in the first place, then that is just a waste of time and money. And even if people are using the facilities, how dangerous is it in these bad neighborhoods not just for library patrons but for library staff as well? Who wants to hang out in the ghetto after dark anyway?

  6. I think that to assert that “Libraries are mostly for middle class people to indulge their leisure reading habits……People who don’t read don’t use libraries, and neither do their children” shows a lack of awareness of the changing character and mission of today’s public libraries. I work in a system where our public computers were used over 35,000 times last month and where a huge portion of the questions I answer at the reference desk are not from middle class patrons with reading questions, but from users with computer questions, many of which have to do with composing and submitting resumes and applying online for jobs.

  7. Tina, what does 35,000 uses of your public computers have to do with children’s literacy? Does the “changing character and mission of today’s public libraries” mean that libraries are now computer centers and are no longer in the literacy business?

  8. As we learn in the study of early childhood literacy, librarians, with limited time to spend with children, can only play a much smaller part than parents in encouraging development of the six early literacy skills that prepare children to successfully learn to read. I have about 30 minutes a week to spend with children in my early literacy story time. But libraries are now computer centers AND places to read and get books, AND places to study and collaborate. While their parents are on the computers, lots of those children go over to the childrens section and look at books. These days, if funding were available, an inner-city library that not only has a better book collection but more public computers might serve the community better than one with a larger book budget.

  9. Charles-Louis de Secondat says:

    The answer to the dilemma is that it isn’t a library problem, it is a city problem. It is possible to clean up neighborhoods and improve student performance as a city, not as a library. It requires money, time, willpower and exceedingly good partnerships developed between the city and the community. Libraries can be a small part of that, but they are powerless without support. Fortunately, people don’t like slums, especially when they are living in them and there has always been the incentive to change for the better.

    You can’t put up librarians in a negative light in this regard. It is not their fault nor their responsibility as they are not in a position to be an effective change agent. Quite often, they are fighting against the grain when it comes to funding from the wealthier sections of town where people may not feel the need to share. I have a few friends working at inner city libraries and I know that their lives aren’t easy and they should be applauded for reaching the few kids that do come in.

    What concerns me more? That the continued budget declines throughout the US makes library systems have to choose between closing small, non-used libraries or big, affluent and used ones. Everyone knows which way the coin falls in this scenario.

  10. @Tina

    Our computers are used all day every day- but much less often for job applications than games, facebook (even myspace still), etc.

    Why don’t we just put computer labs in small storefronts throughout the area and staff them with tech people, or people like the Apple store has, for way less money. Surely that would meet that need at less of a burden.

  11. “I think you might want to go ahead and give up on public libraries. We need to think about what we’re going to replace them with.”

    I don’t know whether you’re a librarian or not but this kind of blanket statement is extremely insulting to people who are working hard to make public libraries better and it reflects the dangerous ignorance that’s being used to justify slashing public library budgets at a time when they could be doing the most good.

    It’s fair to criticize the FLP for its hours and book drops but it’s not as though we’re making no impact at all. The library just underwent a major study to examine its real impact on the community and you can find the results here:

    Again, criticism leveled from a place of ignorance can easily turn into harmful rhetoric that belittles the good work that the library is doing each and every day.

  12. public librarian says:

    My comments:

    1. The libraries in the poorer communities probably had less circulation than those in the wealthier communities. Staffing and hours are determined by circulation, hence the cuts in hours and probably staff.
    2.Fewer staff members means less outreach to kids in school, parents at neighborhood events, etc., so fewer people are aware of the benefits of the library.
    3. Many card holders probably owe too much in fines, so can’t use their card to check out books.
    4. How convenient are the branches in the poorer neighborhoods? Are they close to transportation, parking, etc? Do they have adequent security so that people feel safe?
    5. Philly probably buys on a system-wide basis, so the branches should be getting some new books even if not as many as the busier branches.
    6. Are the poorer branches offering programs relavent to the community – computer classes, resumer classes, etc?
    7. The poorer branches may not have book drops because the book drops had been vandalized in the past, and it was safer to eliminate them.

  13. Maria Kramer says:

    @Kimber, re: “It seems to be insinuated that libraries in poor areas should stay open later and provide greater access simply because they are in poor areas. But if people aren’t using the facilities in the first place, then that is just a waste of time and money.”

    A library being open late in a poor area means that young people have a place to hang out that is safe, or at least, safer than the streets. Just being able to exist without fear is a huge benefit to a child. A library can also serve as an “enriched environment” for young people, with access to toys, games and craft supplies the kids normally wouldn’t have access to, as well as the usual books and internet.

    I would also like to point out that, if people aren’t using the library, the library needs to step up with marketing and relevant programs and services. Poor people don’t go to libraries because they think libraries have nothing to offer them. It’s our resposibility to demonstrate that this is not the case.

  14. What we actually could use on the computers are some tech people or volunteers with more time to help the very technologically uninitiated. For the rest, I like to believe that, more than Apple-type people in kiosks, trained librarians have a mission to help people succuessfully navigate today’s challenging information environment, and that environment now includes print media and computers, as well as digital library materials accessed on electronic readers and other handheld devices.

  15. Gabagoo says:

    Why do public libraries have to maintain a physical presence everywhere? My hometown, Seattle, had bookmobile service that served the elderly, handicapped, and disadvantaged kids, but they are getting rid of it. Not trendy enough. And, it is a focus of facilities over service.

  16. @Jeff,

    It wasn’t personally insulting you. I was simply making a statement (and I believe a true one) on the state of public libraries. They are dying. They need to be replaced with better services/different services. They need to be reassessed and something else to take their place. Small storefront computer labs, neighborhood bookswaps, community centers, etc.

    Also, I AM a public librarian who works in economically depressed areas. I live what this article is talking about EVERY DAY. This isn’t something libraries can fix- at least not in their current state. There needs to be, ,at least, open discussion as to what can address these problems where the library has failed MISERABLY- without being offended or feeling personally insulted.

    The fact is, you can work really hard to save a sinking ship and go down with it or you can figure out how to save all the people without saving the ship.

  17. Soren Faust says:

    I am a public librarian in the Baltimore City (Enoch Pratt) system. Our system is exceptionally active in the community, both affluent and poor. Our funding is as good as one can expect in this economy; and, our offerings, such as children’s programs, business and financial literacy programs, along with cultural events are excellent and continually praised by the community of Baltimore.

    The public library, our library, however, can only do so much. It has always been this way, in fact. You can have 20 book mobiles cruising through poor areas, but if the parents in those areas are not readers, don’t own books, and see no real benefit in learning for its own sake, then the library can only do so much to fill in the gap and help solve the problem of illiteracy. I read recently that Detroit suffers now from a 50% rate of illiteracy. That’s astonishing and hardly something the public library system can handle on its own.

  18. As obvious at may seem that poor kids have less stuff then rich kids, it’s important to document that are repeat that. It helps overcome the bogus meme that the problems of poor kids are just because their parents are lazy, or their teacher’s ineffective, etc.

  19. Desiree Sotomayor says:

    I agree that public libraries will almost always have nicer selections & hours in more affluent areas, though I really do want to believe that we have the potential for reaching out to those in need and connecting them with valuable resources. Here is where aspects like community partnerships, understanding the user population’s needs and innovative programming are so important. I was very impressed with the Free Library of Philadelphia’s H.O.M.E. page cafe, which provides employment opportunities in the library for formerly homeless individuals (

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