Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Classism in the Stacks: Libraries and Poverty

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Classism in the Stacks: Libraries and Poverty

Article excerpt

The ALA Council approved "Library Services for Poor People," Policy 61, in 1990, sixteen years ago. It should enjoy the same status as the "Library Bill of Rights," another ALA policy that establishes norms or standards for collection development and facilities use. But it does not. Unlike the immediately preceding policy on minority concerns, ALA units have never been canvassed on what they had done or would do to implement it. Hundreds of institutions have formally adopted LBR as their own policy and often frame and display it in the library itself. I know of no library that has similarly adopted and publicized the Poor People's Policy (PPP). Indeed, only weeks ago a library board candidate in Minneapolis pointedly asked the MPL director about such an adoption. The answer: The library's for everybody. Why focus on one particular group or demographic?

Right now, according to Worldcat, Street Spirit and Mother Warriors Voice, two outstanding vehicles for poor people's news, opinions, graphics, and poetry, are held by exactly four and eight libraries, respectively.

Within the past year or two:

In Denver, Colorado, an advocacy group for low-income communities charged that libraries in Denver's poorest areas are open fewer hours than those elsewhere, noting that fewer library hours contribute to learning gaps between low-income and more affluent students.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, twenty branches were slated to become "express libraries," open only from one to five daily and staffed solely by clerks. That plan, conceived without consulting frontline staff, friends' groups, or neighborhood associations, would-say critics-"underserve some of the city's poorest neighborhoods." (As a parenthetical aside: ALA Policy 61 advocates "equity in funding adequate library services for poor people in terms of materials, facilities, & equipment.")

Kansas City, Missouri, unveiled a new downtown library. It cost fifty mil- lion dollars to renovate a 98-year-old bank building. A Kansas City Star columnist applauded the attractive facility, but added: "It should be just as open and inviting to homeless people as the old downtown library was. People on the street had always sought shelter, read books and periodicals, used computers and napped at the old library until it closed in January.... The main branch was a midway stop for people walking from shelters east of downtown to the Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral for a free midday meal. Now the city's neediest people may be 'poverty profiled' and kept from the new library. Officials also are proposing a 'compassion campus' near shelters to keep homeless people away from downtown's new library and upscale condominiums and loft apartments. The compassion campus could include a homeless day center and soup kitchen. But people I talked with were outraged by plans to limit their freedom. One homeless man said the irony is people like him would be excluded from the area they've helped rebuild. Homeless people often are picked up as day laborers rehabbing old buildings for new occupants."

That same writer does an annual trek to some twenty libraries, dressed in an old army coat, black knit cap, faded jeans, and a frayed shirt. During his latest investigation, he found that "many libraries aren't keeping up. Branches could use some of the wealth sunk into the new downtown library. There were never enough computers. Libraries help bridge the digital divide between rich and poor. I also found," he said, "that the downtown passers-by should be the occupants of a 'compassion campus.' For yet another year, they treated me badly because of how I was dressed. They need to see everyone regardless of appearance as a human being. What's happening now adds to the misery of the homeless. 'Anybody can become homeless,' said Cindy Butler at the Grand Avenue Temple. 'Everybody falls down sometimes.' She's right. Everyone needs kindness and warmth, especially at libraries."

Shortly after that report, another columnist commented wryly on KCPL's "customer behavior expectations," brochures "handed out by library security at the entrance" and intended "to thin the new library's down-and-out ranks. …

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