One of the “Common Beliefs” in the AASL Standards for the 21st-Century Learner is “Equitable access is a key component for education.” The accompanying paragraph explains it further:
“All children deserve equitable access to books and reading, to information, and to information technology in an environment that is safe and conducive to learning.”
I know most of you have created in your library “an environment that is safe and conducive to learning,” but how are you doing with the first part?
We tend to interpret the Common Belief statement as meaning that librarians are staunch protectors of intellectual freedom and resist attempts to censor books and overly filter websites. While that belief is embodied in the statement, we are quite possibly overlooking another important element in that statement. Access to books and particularly information technology varies extensively from school to school and from district to district.
The digital divide keeps getting wider. Librarians who work in urban, rural, or tribal lands schools recognize this disparity every day. They don’t have the resources and, in the case of rural and tribal land schools, the lack of broadband is an additional hardship. ALA is cognizant of this growing challenge and is preparing to respond.
A “Resolution on Equity for All to School Libraries Community,” prepared by a school librarian member of ALA Council is being finalized to bring to a vote at ALA Annual. Among the issues in the “Whereas” statements notes there is an “inequity of resources in school libraries with widening of gaps between collections in affluent districts versus those in low income areas,” and “there is a widening of the digital divide in areas where state coalitions of digital resources are losing funding.” There are a number of others, but this serves to show the national recognition of the seriousness of the problem.
The Resolution then proposes several actions be taken by ALA. In addition to instituting a variety of advocacy measures to address different aspects of the issue, it also includes urging “Congress to address equity issues while developing the ESSA legislation rules regarding funding and school libraries.” If the Resolution passes it also wants ALA to “establish procedures to enable state associations and affiliates to influence state legislation requiring adequate funding and appropriate staffing in school libraries in schools at all levels.”
Assuming after some revision, since this is from a draft, ALA Council approves the Resolution, will this make a difference? The answer is yes and no. It always matters when a national association takes a firm position and as in this case addresses significant harm being done to one group of students. On the realistic side, ALA can’t control what Congress or state legislators decide to do.
However you can make a difference. By being aware of Resolutions such as this one, you can contact your legislators. Your state association can organize an email, Twitter, and phone campaign. You can bring it to discussions you might have with your administration. This is a resource. Using it strategically is up to you.
There is one more aspect of inequitable access to information not specifically addressed in this Resolution, but one you should keep in mind. Even within many affluent districts there are pockets of poverty and hidden homelessness. We expect students to come to school prepared and to have done their homework, but for too many that is an impossible task.
If the family has stopped getting Internet –or never could afford it—the only access students might have to your online databases or sites the teacher expects them to view, is on their phones. If there is no Wi-Fi at home, they need to go where it is available. Starbucks is not the best place to do homework, and not every child can get to the public library.
As librarians it is our responsibility to serve all our patrons equitably. Talk to the Guidance Counselors to get a better sense of the scope of the problem. Try to get funding in the form of a grant or from the parent association to keep the library open after school for a few hours several times a week. You should be paid for this, but you might contribute your time as a service to your students. Not everyone will be able to take advantage of it, but those who can will have access to your online and print collection as well as your computers and printers.
Equitable access is a core belief of our profession. We take strong stands to ensure that we have the well-informed citizenry necessary for a democratic society. We all need to do our part.