Audre Lorde, the late poet–activist and former school librarian, once wrote: “Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose the time and the arena and the manner of our revolution, but more usually we must do battle wherever we are standing.”
Those words seem especially prescient now as we look across the country at the libraries that have struggled most during this period of widespread library defunding and service reductions. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue, there has long been an unmistakable correlation between communities that navigate high rates of poverty and those that limit spending on libraries, a correlation antithetical to the baseline understanding of why libraries exist and what they can offer users, and one that over time cannot help but feel negligent—if not willful.
As I write this, I am compiling research notes on the role of libraries in interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline, as I am more than certain that if we were to identify the communities across the country with the highest per capita rates of incarceration, we would almost universally observe limited investment in school and public libraries in those same zip codes.
This investigation led me to an August 2019 broadcast of a WOSU Public Media story, “The Decline of School Libraries,” featuring Liz Deskins, former school librarian and adjunct professor at Kent (Ohio) State University; Koby Levin, reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit, a nonprofit that covers education news; and Mary Keeling, former president of the American Association of School Librarians. Noting that the disappearance of school libraries is happening in front of our eyes, the story cites research findings that “one in five school librarian posts was eliminated between 2000 and 2016 across the country.”
Each speaker reiterates the point that this policy of library disinvestment hurts low-income students, and all students more generally. Then why have these decisions been made? Levin’s answer is straightforward: “It’s about money.”
In his 2005 Jean E. Coleman Library Outreach Lecture “Classism in the Stacks,” librarian Sanford Berman reflected on the responsibility libraries have to eliminate rules that further disenfranchise the poor. Berman roundly called out “the hostility—or at least lack of sympathy—toward low-income people [that] manifests in various barriers and kinds of discrimination” and can lead to a library services orientation that ultimately ends up “valuing middle and upper classes more highly than people at or below the poverty level.” To disrupt antipoverty policy, “everyone’s priority should be getting public libraries financed more generously and continuously,” Berman recommended.
Advocacy as disruption? Yes! What if we revolutionize the way we fund and equip our libraries in order to confront head-on the inequities that we often decry on our protest posters and in our institutional committees? What if our lowest-income neighborhoods become home to our most well-funded and well-staffed school libraries? What if universities that serve the highest percentage of first-generation college students shift a larger portion of their budgets to their libraries? What if library trustees become adamant that their mayor or city manager help them respond to rising high school dropout rates by establishing a standalone public library for young adults in a shopping center facing low tenancy? What if we connect the dots between library and community disinvestment and position our advocacy efforts to counter them both?
I believe we can. What’s more, I believe we must.