Leveling the Field: Libraries and Income Inequality

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Confronting inequality is integral to the history of libraries and remains at the heart of library service today. The same materials, programs and services are available to anyone who walks through the library’s doors, no matter the size (or existence) of their wallet. Yet librarians’ commitment to equity requires greater action, particularly during a sustained period of rising income inequality as we are experiencing in the United States. Across the country, in libraries of all types, librarians are taking that extra step.

Some of the services are familiar. Libraries offer early literacy programs to prepare young children for school. They provide computer and internet access, and many offer mobile hotspots. They bring bookmobiles to communities that don’t have library buildings or where residents cannot access the local branch. They provide individual and group resume development and job seeking assistance. They offer information and technology resources to small businesses and entrepreneurs. They collaborate with other organizations to deliver integrated services such as meals and access to health care and social services. The buildings themselves are warming centers in the winter, cooling centers in the summer, and safe havens for children and adults alike.

Lately, there has been a surge in libraries that modify or eliminate fines for overdue materials. One unique twist on this can be seen at the Yolo County Library, where innovation and compassion intersect in Pay it Forward, a program that allows residents to donate money towards the fine of another patron. What began as an informal act of kindness on the part of a few library patrons is now an official system that reflects the community’s embrace of shared resources and access for all.

As awareness increases about the significant and lasting impact of income inequality, libraries have found ways to engage their communities in dialogue, furthering their role as the community living room. When Portland (OR) Community College launched Meaningful Conversations, PCC Librarian Rachel Bridgewater created Lib Guides to provide context that enhances and extends the conversations. In May, as the community discussed income inequality, Bridgewater curated resources that examine local and national implications, as well as what how income inequality impacts students pursuing higher education.

Last fall, Skokie Public Library introduced Civic Lab, a “pop-up space” designed to provoke conversation, reflection, and interaction around significant and timely topics. Income inequality was selected as one of the six topics addressed in the program’s launch. Intended as a community building tool in this diverse suburb of Chicago, Civic Lab is supported with scheduled events, a special display of materials, reading lists, and library staff who facilitate, engage, and explore ideas side-by-side with their community.

How does your library confront income inequality? Let us know! E-mail: futureoflibraries@ala.org.

Learn more about how libraries are innovating in response to societal trends on the Libraries Transform website.

Visit ALA's Center for the Future of Libraries for an indepth view into the impact of societal trends on libraries.

Center for the Future of Libraries

The Center for the Future of Libraries works to identify trends relevant to libraries and the communities they serve; promote futuring and innovation techniques to help librarians and library professionals shape their future; and build connections with experts and innovative thinkers to help libraries address emerging issues. Learn more at www.ala.org/libraryofthefuture.

 

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