“I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” (Ray Bradbury)
There are unfortunately haves and have nots. It is an inconvenient truth. As much as Americans tend to maintain the image of the self-made man or woman, i.e. the person who worked hard and became successful, the statistics show that upward mobility is increasingly a fantasy in the US. Rags-to-riches stories, while inspiring, are increasingly rare according to socioeconomic data.
In today's economy, access to information is essential. Knowledge truly is power. Libraries offer a place where those who cannot afford to buy books, who cannot afford a computer and internet access, or who cannot pay for tertiary education can access the information, ideas, and skills essential in a knowledge economy. Libraries are hubs of accessibility.
Children born into poverty are known to have less access to reading materials. Krashen (2004) noted that they tend to live in neighborhoods with few bookstores (if they could afford the books) and under-resourced libraries, and they attend schools with poor classroom and school libraries. Children born into low-income households often start formal schooling with a "word gap", in part due this limited access. Hart and Risley (1995) found that 3-year-old children from welfare families had an average vocabulary size of 525 words, compared to 746 words for children from working-class families and 1116 words for children from professional families! Recent research from Stanford has shown that 18-month-old toddlers from disadvantaged families already have a vocabulary gap of several months.
Libraries can and do make a world of difference. The key is access. Krashen, Lee and McQuillan (2012) make a compelling case for the positive effects well-resourced school libraries in addressing the negative the effects of poverty on student learning. For disadvantaged adults who want to work hard and change their lot in life (the American dream), public libraries are essential sources of information, both printed and electronic. For low-income parents of small children, libraries may be the only place to access books to read aloud to children, a major step in children's linguistic and educational development.
Yet for all this, people in poverty often have the worst library resources. More affluent families with the ability to purchase books and ebooks and internet access often have the best, even if they don't really utilize them. Even great ideas like BookMooch require internet access of some kind.
Let's make sure books get into the hands of those who need them. Let's make sure children (who do not choose the families they are born into) aren't punished for simply being born into the "wrong" family. Let's make sure communities and schools have libraries, good libraries. Donate books you don't need. Work to start libraries in communities without. In an age of budget cuts and discussions about how to spark job creation, let's not be so short-sighted as to deny the resources people need to prepare themselves to be the entrepreneurs and visionaries and job-makers of the future.
“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” (Walter Cronkite)
Hart, B., and Risley, R. T. 1995. Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
Krashen, S. 2004. The power of reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, and Westport, CONN: Libraries Unlimited (second edition).
Krashen, S., Lee, S.Y. and McQuillan, J. 2012. Is the library important? Multivariate studies at the national and international level. Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 8(1): 26-36.