Poverty, Poor People, and Our Priorities

Poverty, Poor People, and Our Priorities is an article written by John Gehner for a periodical called Reference & User Services Quarterly. The article was published in the Winter 2005 issue.  It was assigned reading for Dr. Maret’s Information and Society class, taught at SJSU.

I read this article while I was flying to Las Vegas last week.  Gehner’s article was easy to read and well-documented.  He discussed American Libraries’ responses to the poor and compared them to those in Great Britain.  Gehner’s main point seemed to be that the US claims to care for the poor when reality says otherwise, but Britain has the methods and programs in place to really care for the poor, especially regarding their information needs. 

Gehner notes that it is often difficult to tell how much or how little is really being done within American Libraries for the poor.  He writes that “documentation of poverty-focused service remains anecdotal … To date, only one book explicitly treates library services in the context of poverty” (Gehner, 117).  This leads me to wonder how we, as library professionals, can say that we’re reaching out to the economically disadvantaged if we haven’t studied them, or haven’t documented what we’ve tried in the past?  These themes seem to run throughout the article.  They touched off a number of thoughts and reminders of some concerns that have been expressed to me.

The author bases a great deal of his American research on a 1999 GIS study that compared poverty with library access (Gehner, 118).  This study found that there was “a noticeable under-representation of library outlets in extreme poverty areas” (Gehner, 118).  In a way this makes sense, after all, extremely poor areas do not (generally) have the tax base necessary to sustain a library.  However, a nonexistent tax base is not the only reason libraries are scarce in these areas. Gehner mentions that most libraries operate independently of one another, and are not held accountable by any state, regional, or national library coordinating group (118).  This tells us that these libraries do not have a reason to be in those areas.  They do not have funding to justify a library’s existence, and they do not have an oversight board forcing a library to open in these poverty stricken areas.

Even if an area is able to come up with the funding a library needs, there is no guarantee that the money will be spent the way a community hopes.  Priorities are often given to updating a collection with the new and popular even as old favorites desperately need replacement.  Newer technologies are purchased, even though customers ignored the old stuff.  This is a complaint I’ve heard repeatedly from colleagues throughout the country.  It has probably inspired a bit of cynicism and resulted in a tightening of the tax payers’ purse strings.

So, let’s say that a library does open in one of these desperately poor areas.  Let’s say that some benefactor decides to fund the opening and operation of a brand new library.  Who decides what materials and services that library offers?  How do they make those decisions?  Do they even take the (eventual) users’ opinons and expressed needs into consideration?  I’ve heard of some cases where the decision makers do listen and respond to survey results.  But I have also heard people complaining that the library never has what they want or need, and they should have never filled out that “stupid” survey.  

Looking back over what I wrote, I can tell that this article really brought me down.  I don’t like being told (even by someone I’ve never heard of) that libraries are liars.  I don’t like being told that we don’t serve those who need it the most when I know otherwise.  Depending on your location, a library will offer literacy training, law advice, tax advice, computer training, research assistance, resume workshops, job fairs, and ESL assistance, just to name a few.  All of this is offered FREE. 

Maybe we aren’t doing as much as we should with what we have – I know I often wonder why we don’t comparison shop for our office supplies.  But a lot of that isn’t something that I can fix right now.  So, how can I, as a mere library clerk, do more to assist the poor in my community?  Is it even possible for me to do something at my current career level or do I have to wait until I can make major changes?  This is something to think about for the future.  Any ideas you have would be welcomed.


  1. I came across your blog on Technorati. Nice site layout. I will stop by and read more soon.

    Mike Harmon

  2. My library system held a seminar entitled Bridges out of Poverty for its employees. It was enormously helpful, because it addressed one of the primary reasons why libraries fail to connect to users who live in poverty. The book Frameworks for Understanding Poverty offers a lot of information regarding the way people living in generational poverty view education and the library different from those in the middle class.
    As a part-time library clerk/assistant, I find that there are a lot of ways to assist the poor in the community. Mostly it is through removing barriers to library use–offering alternative ways to pay down fines, providing different ways to show address information for getting a library card.
    I have lots of ideas about this, and it sounds like a fascinating article. I read a similar one on homelessness and the library–connected more with mental health care.

  3. I’ll have to check the book out – -thanks for the suggestion!

    I noticed that some libraries are moving away from offering alternatives to paying fines (such as working them off, or donating materials). Instead, they’ve decided that sending delinquent accounts to collections is the answer. That may be the case, but I think it cuts back on our flexibility and may diminish the public’s perception of the library.

  4. Thanks for blogging about my article! It’s flattering to know that it is being used in the classroom.

    As you say, many libraries certainly *do* serve low-income people effectively and in a variety of ways (http://hhptf.org/article/400/skokie-public-library-helps-low-income-people). The bigger problem is the lack of sustained attention and funding, broad national vision, communication, and effective models … perhaps the U.S. will start inching forward as Canada and the UK take the lead. See, for example: http://librariesincommunities.ca/resources/Community-Led_Libraries_Toolkit.pdf

    My other beef, which you’ll find listed in ALA’s Policy 61 (aka the “Poor People’s Policy”), is a lack of self-representation … I mean, how often do you find low-income people invited to sit on library boards or other decision-making bodies?

    One cautionary note: scholars in the field of education have published many pointed, critical articles about Ruby Payne and her “Framework–” in the last couple years. (This is another article I’ve been long overdue in writing.) Paul Gorski, at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., is but one scholar. See his paper “Savage Unrealities” here:
    http://www.edchange.org/publications.html And these essays, available through TCR: http://www.tcrecord.org/search.asp?kw=ruby+payne

    If you’d like to rap more about these issues, please email … and best wishes to you in your library pursuits!

    John Gehner, Adult Services Librarian
    The Urbana Free Library
    Urbana, IL

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