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A Call for "Affirmative Access" in Library Service

by Jane Ball Shipley and Christopher Shipley

The public library is often the only place a resident of an impoverished neighborhood can access the Internet and its wealth of information. Placing computers beyond their reach moves impoverished citizens completely off the digital map....If the Pratt Library adopted the principle of affirmative access, it would never close a library in an impoverished neighborhood.

The debate about affirmative action highlights our need for strategies that will enhance access to education and jobs in communities free of prejudice and poverty. These strategies must include decisions about access to the educational services found in libraries. Basing such decisions on the impact of various demographic factors can lead to "affirmative access" and promote equity.

It was timely and appropriate, then, that Carla Hayden, the President-Elect of the American Library Association and Executive Director of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, outlined her philosophy about access to library service in a National Library Week interview ["Pratt chief takes issue to national stage: Hayden says she'll push for equal library access as head of national group," by Jamie Stiehm, The Sun, April 8, 2003]. Unfortunately, left unchallenged, Dr. Hayden's philosophy will likely hinder rather than support efforts to help those populations most threatened by the debilitating effects of racism and poverty.

When Dr. Hayden argues that "equality of access equals equality," we couldn't agree more. The problem is she believes she promoted equality by "spreading the losses among poor and middle-class neighborhoods" when she closed five libraries in 2001. She based this decision on her claim that "socioeconomic status should not be a factor… when it comes to using public libraries."

We propose, on the contrary, that socioeconomic status is the most important determinant of library use and access and that a seemingly "equal" loss can have a devastatingly unequal impact on different groups of people.

Do residents of an impoverished neighborhood possess a similar ability as residents of a middle-income neighborhood to replace or compensate for the loss of library services? For example, do residents of each neighborhood routinely own cars to drive to another library or have money to spend in bookstores? Are residents of each neighborhood equally likely to have a private stock of books in their homes? Or to have access to quality schools (public and private) whose resources match the intellectual promise or needs of their students?

The answers are clearly "no." Closing a library in an impoverished neighborhood has a more devastating effect than closing a library in a middle-income neighborhood. Residents of impoverished neighborhoods where Dr. Hayden closed libraries no longer have access equal to that of the middle-income citizens whose neighborhood library she also closed. It is a dangerous fiction to presume or pretend otherwise, because the resulting unequal access will feed the malignant inequality we all agree is the problem "equal access" seeks to defeat in the first place.

Dr. Hayden's discounting of socioeconomic status also hinders her "passionate" goal of "narrowing the 'digital divide' among households that are computer-literate and those that are not." Socioeconomic status is a major locator of a household's position in the digital divide, and the public library is often the only place a resident of an impoverished neighborhood can access the Internet and its wealth of information. Placing computers beyond their reach moves impoverished citizens completely off the digital map.

Perhaps to minimize the loss of neighborhood libraries, Dr. Hayden reports "We're expanding our reach where now you don't have to go to the library, the library can come to you." Dr. Hayden is not referring to Pratt's sole bookmobile, which makes a single 45-minute stop at 16 locations once every two weeks during school hours. She means librarians will answer questions over the phone or on-line. But what of our most vulnerable citizens--those who live in deep poverty with no computer or phone? How effectively can Pratt come to them once it has moved out of their neighborhood?

Dr. Hayden's decisions and actions, then, are likely to achieve results that oppose her stated goals. Instead of ignoring the most important determinant of "equality of access," Baltimore's public library should strive to provide "affirmative access" to the citizens it serves. Affirmative access recognizes the impossibility of a public library system adequately serving an urban population, a significant portion of which is trapped in a deadening and destructive cycle of poverty and hopelessness, unless its policies acknowledge the crucial impact of "socioeconomic status" on that population's needs. If Pratt adopted the principle of affirmative access, it would never close a library in an impoverished neighborhood.

Where affirmative action creates opportunities for individuals by expanding the criteria for admission to colleges or for offers of employment, affirmative access empowers individuals by insuring access to free educational institutions, like public libraries. Affirmative access puts that person in charge of creating his or her opportunities. Hasn't that always been the chief good (and goal) of the public library„to offer us a place we might go to improve ourselves, by ourselves? Isn't that, after all, the American promise?

The writers, husband and wife, are longtime book-loving community activists who live in Charles Village.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on May 7, 2003.
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