Libraries and Social Equity

…public libraries actually distribute income from the poorest to the more affluent strata of the community.  ~Frederick and Serena Weaver (from an article in Library Journal, 1979)

When I hit this quote in my library marketing textbook, I actually read it the other way around at first!  Apparently, Weaver and Weaver argue that because the poor rarely use the public library and because public libraries are supported from taxes, the working poor are paying for libraries that benefit the nonpoor.  Of course, if our tax system were more progressive, it would be the wealthy who were paying most.  But it does give me pause, since I think of my work with libraries as helping to foster social and economic equality.

The text goes on to suggest that in order to not transfer wealth from the poor to the rich, we might charge users for library service, perhaps charging more for services that upper classes use relatively more often.  Most libraries would be reluctant to do this, I think, because we are so dependent on political support from those upper classes.  Do we prostitute ourselves?

The text is Andreasen and Kotler, Strategic Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations, 6th ed., Prentice Hall, 2003.

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3 Responses to Libraries and Social Equity

  1. thedonofpages says:

    I’m dubious. The affluent have their own home libraries, and don’t need public libraries as much. We do have a progressive tax system, so the affluent pay more per person than the poor. We offer study material for career advancement, job listings, and talks on how to use library resources. Unlike public schooling, visiting the library is optional. If the poor choose not to visit, we shouldn’t feel guilty.

  2. The comment “charging more for services the upper classes [upper classes?] use more often” begs a question in my mind about how this particular distinction was determined. The implicit suggestion is that the affluent have different needs and that the services required to meet those needs have a higher value: that is, should cost more. I’m wondering what those services might be. Would an underprivileged, uneducated, but intelligent woman be refused reference services or computer privileges because she could not afford to pay for them? Wouldn’t this just help prevent her from transcending the very boundaries that keep her where she is? Doesn’t this kind of thinking lead to the same thing? Why do we maintain the ideaology of, and continue to use the language of, affluence (power) and poverty (powerlessness)?

  3. quotesqueen says:

    It does read as though there’s a distinction between services needed by the poor and the more affluent, but I think the application would have to be to charge for services above the basics. I think basic services (reference service, computer access, etc) must be free to all. I know some libraries charge a rental for bestsellers if you want them quickly, or you can get on the hold list and wait your turn for free (like the proposed pay lanes on busy highways, such as 400). Still, that hardly seems in the spirit of the public library.

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