Classism in the Stacks: Libraries and Poor People

Sanford Berman delivered the Sixth Annual Jean E. Coleman Library Outreach Lecture in June 2005 at ALA’s Annual Meeting in Chicago. That address, titled “Classism in the Stacks,” has now been reprinted in various forums, including …

Counterpoise 9, no. 3 (Summer 2005)


Street Spirit (February 2006)

A sample:

Poor people don’t have the dollars to make influential campaign contributions. They can’t afford memberships in politically powerful organizations. They have no access to the mainstream media, no way to tell their stories. And given the thesis of the American dream, if they’re not prosperous, it must be their own fault, hardly the consequence of bad luck, racism, sexism, disability, downsizing, outsourcing, corporate greed, union busting, or an inadequate safety net. Worse, from the deeply ingrained Calvinist perspective, it’s God’s will. If they’re poor, that’s the way the deity wants it.

The hostility—or at least lack of sympathy—toward low-income people manifests in various barriers and kinds of discrimination. All together, the prejudice and what flows from it—the belief and the acts—can be called “classism”: favoring one class over another, valuing middle and upper classes more highly than people at or below the poverty level.

If librarians and others can first recognize their own attitudinal hang-ups, understanding what makes them view welfare mothers and homeless people, for example, unfavorably, and ultimately grasping that poverty—not poor people—is the problem, that poverty can be reduced if not ended, and that the most vulnerable and dispossessed among us are citizens and neighbors who deserve compassion, support, and respect—if we can do these things in our heads and hearts, then there’s a real chance to overcome classism.