Let's Talk About It: (Not So) Equal Opportunity Library AccessMay 05, 2015
Kelly Jensen posted a fantastic piece over at Book Riot yesterday that discussed why some well-intentioned initiatives to get kids reading are almost completely useless for children in poverty.
One of her major arguments was that giving children free access to e-books might sound nice on paper, but it's essentially meaningless for that one-third of the population living at or below the poverty line that doesn't go online at all. (Note: These statistics come from adult survey respondents, but I'm willing to bet that children of parents who don't go online don't have significant access to computers themselves. For more about child/teen Internet access, Jensen linked to this Guardian article.)
I almost gave myself whiplash from nodding along to Jensen's points, and it got me thinking about yet another significant segment of the population that gets screwed over when it comes to accessing library resources: the homeless.
During my senior year in college, I interned for the National Runaway Safeline, a crisis hotline for runaway and homeless youth based in Chicago. Over ten months, I spent countless hours on the phone with children and teenagers looking for a place to sleep, a place to eat, or a safe place to get out of the cold. From my training there, I know for a fact that some libraries across the country serve as Safe Places; these are locations where runaway and homeless youth can go to find support and resources, such as information about shelters and food banks. However, I don't know how many of these libraries offer resource (e.g., book/computer) access to the chronically or intermittently homeless. I'd wager the number is pretty low.
While I couldn't find a statistic for this, I do know that every library card I've ever registered for came with a prerequisite; I had to present a piece of mail or some other document that attached my name to a permanent address. While on its face this may seem like a low hurdle to clear, it completely precludes homeless adults and children from accessing library services. (For context: On a given night in January 2013, more than 600,000 people in the United States were homeless, with nearly one-quarter of them children under 18.)
Reflecting on my time at the hotline, talking to kids who had nowhere (or nowhere safe) to sleep at night, I can damned near guarantee that at least a handful those kids would have jumped at the chance to get a library book. The American Library Association released a toolkit for how libraries can better serve homeless individuals; one of the testimonials in particular struck me as I was writing this post. When asked what he would want librarians to know about him, a homeless youth responded:
“And it’s always good to be able to have a safe space to relax and just open a book and just let the words take you. And having a place you can do that safely, without being harassed or attacked or any of that is extremely ideal, and extremely beneficial to the reader and pretty much everyone involved.” —pg. 4, Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library EngagementSometimes these kids—and adults, too—want to do something besides just survive out there; libraries can make this a reality.
I know some of my readers work in libraries, and I'd be especially interested in hearing about this issue from your end. Clearly, I don't understand all the inner workings of libraries. I know why cards matter—accountability for missing materials, calculating collection utilization and other statistics, etc.—but it's also painfully clear that they can be difficult to obtain and, thus, bar some people from accessing library resources. Have you ever had to deal with this, and, if so, what did you do?
And, as always, I welcome thoughts from anyone else who'd like to weigh in!
How can we ensure equal opportunity library access?