Mind the Opportunity Gap | Editorial

Libraries function as neighborhood powerhouses and a national network, with the potential to fuel local initiatives and deliver widespread impact. They are key to creating an equitable society, but only if they are at the table.

The growing gap between rich and poor in almost every aspect of life is distressing, and while libraries are poised to play a key role in creating a more equitable society, they are too often overlooked and underutilized as possible partners in this effort. Libraries function as both local powerhouses and a national network, with the potential to fuel community-by-community initiatives and deliver widespread impact. That is, of course, if they are adequately funded and involved in critical conversations with other local and national leaders.

If you haven’t seen it yet, take some time with “Closing the Opportunity Gap” [PDF], a recently released report from the Saguaro Seminar, a project of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, led by Robert D. Putnam, author most recently of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Putnam is well-known and often referenced in a public library context: the concept of the library as a “third place” became commonplace in response to his groundbreaking 2000 book Bowling Alone (both books, S. & S.). The Opportunity Gap report, brought to my attention by Connecticut’s Hartford Public Library CEO Bridget Quinn-Carey, offers various recommendations of working groups convened in response to the findings of Our Kids.

As a librarian reading the range of strategies proposed, I see library connections throughout—such as fostering stronger early learning, enriching the neighborhood experience, supporting families and parents, and helping drive workforce development.

Libraries can also level up the quality of our schools. This is, of course, true where there are school libraries, as the efficacy of school library programs has been well documented. Unfortunately, as a forthcoming report from the National Education Association (NEA) promises to detail, the opportunity gap is exacerbated by reduced access to quality school library programs in high-poverty communities. The NEA recently released the “Library/Media Centers in U.S. Public Schools: Growth, Staffing, and Resources Executive Summary," with the full report expected later this month. It will be essential reading.

Putnam spoke at the 2001 American Library Association (ALA) annual meeting, where it was clear that in his consideration of “community social capital,” he had basically overlooked libraries. (See Nancy Kranich’s essay “Libraries Create Social Capital” for SLJ’s sister publication Library Journal.) Regrettably, that seems still to be the case. Libraries are absent from “Closing the Opportunity Gap.” Given that the core work of libraries has focused on addressing many of these gaps, it’s important to ask why. It’s critical to reflect on just how to involve libraries in such strategic local and national conversations, for the sake of libraries as well as the betterment of our communities.

Libraries should be in the mix, even central players, since they are already working on these issues. Mind you, this is not about library advocacy. That’s a byproduct of being effectively connected to this work. Rather, the goal is to figure out how to help scale solutions to address these pressing gaps using one of the most pervasive and effective institutions in our culture: our libraries. The issues described by Putnam will not be resolved by any one institution or approach. We must challenge ourselves to think afresh about how libraries can help address the opportunity gaps in our dialogue with allies in other sectors and speed the work of being part of a broad-based strategy to create a more equitable society.

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Rebecca T. Miller Editor-in-Chief rmiller@mediasourceinc.com

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