The following commentary was posted by Isabel Espinal on the Progressive Librarians Guild list (12/06/06) as part of a discussion about service to low-income people, particularly African American and Latino families. It is reprinted here, with minor edits and with her permission.
How can librarians respond [to poverty]? Good question. I thought of just a few things. Maybe others can think of more:
1. Strengthen the libraries in communities where poor African American and Latino families live.
From my experience working in public libraries in Connecticut, it seemed that libraries in poor neighborhoods were often the least well funded and the most vulnerable to be cut. Sometimes the reasoning was low circulation—sort of saying those people don’t read so why waste money on libraries there. The logic seemed crazy to me because to me those are the libraries that are most needed. They should be the last to be cut.
Well-to-do people (who abound in Connecticut) and even middle class people can afford to buy their own books and computers. Poor people can’t. When I worked in Connecticut (and I’m not saying all Connecticut libraries do this nor that they still do this), I got frustrated with the model that rewarded libraries with high circulation by giving them more resources, while punishing libraries with low circulation.
I also was frustrated because the staffing model that was in place in many libraries made it difficult to get out of the vicious cycle. There was not enough, if any, staffing for outreach work, which is time-intensive work.
It seemed libraries too often just sat there waiting for people to come in who oftentimes did not know the library even existed, nor that it had anything relevant, nor that it would welcome them. Or the library just wasn’t open when working people were not working. So no wonder there was low circulation.
In poor communities, and in all communities, the library has a special role as a place. I work at a university now that has a very successful Learning Commons. It’s interesting in many ways but one thing that strikes me is the turn around in the thinking of some librarians who a few years ago thought we needed to think of all users as remote users and downplay our investment in the library as a physical place.
Well, that day might be coming, but right now one thing the Learning Commons is telling us is that it’s still important to invest in places that people can go to to access resources. Not only that but to expand the hours—we are now open 24 hours five of the days of the week. And circulation has gone up by 84% since the Learning Commons opened.
So what does this have to do with poor people and specifically poor African American and Latino people? Well, I think it would be great if three were Learning Commons in libraries in every poor Latino and African American community.
2. People who are not poor are not well informed about poverty and are often deliberately misinformed by certain politicians.
I think libraries can play a role in providing information about poverty and poor people to everyone, but especially in a context of informing citizens whose votes will affect policies that can alleviate, eliminate, or on the other hand reproduce and even extend poverty.
I think libraries in affluent and middle class communities can do a lot to bridge the information and misinformation gap. And this can take on a more active approach than just collection development, which is important.
But there could be displays around certain dates—I know that Kathleen de la Peña McCook’s blogs like A Librarian at the Kitchen Table highlights various observance days that libraries can participate in.
Human Rights Day, December 10, is a perfect example with its logo this year : “Fighting Poverty: A Matter of Obligation not Charity.” Libraries can also make it a point to invite speakers and authors who address issues of poverty and in particular of race, culture, and poverty. From all angles.
The policy angles are important, but I think for many white (and even non-white) middle class people, they need to hear stories of what it’s like to be poor and black or Latino in America—they have no idea. So library book discussion groups would also be a venue for addressing these issues.
3. What are the information and library needs of poor black and Latino people?
These need to be asked, explored, and addressed. They need to be a priority for libraries.