Long Live the Library

I was lucky. As the youngest of four children, I had the fortune of learning from my brothers, all of whom are pretty smart guys. That’s no slight to my parents – it’s just that, if my brothers knew I wasn’t reading enough, they’d beat me up until I picked up a book. Years later, I’m grateful for this insistence, this sense of urgency.

Unfortunately, many kids aren’t so readily provided with that same sense of urgency, that appreciation of knowledge.

In the recently published book, Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance: Poverty, Literacy, and the Development of Information Capital, Professors Donna Celano and Susan Neuman explore the knowledge gap that exists between students coming from low and high-income communities. Rather than focus on the already well-documented effects of crime on children, the book instead looks at the lack of access that low-income children have to knowledge-inducers, like computers or positive role models.

Representing more than a decade of research, Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance started out when Celano and Neuman were presented with a grant from the William Penn Foundation:

“We were asked to look at the changes that happened in Philadelphia’s branch libraries, when they were renovated. And what happened is, they were renovated with new technology, with computers and internet, and then a whole bunch of newer books. We started out looking at what happened to the neighborhoods when this technology first came. We focused on two different neighborhoods: One was Chestnut Hill, which is a more affluent neighborhood, and the other was the Badlands – which is really Kensington,” said Celano, in an exclusive interview.

Giving Our Children a Fighting ChanceAs they started their investigation, they immediately came to a startling realization: kids in Kensington had almost no book suppliers to choose from. “If you were a child in the Badlands neighborhood and you wanted to read something, there were very few places to read. There were very few school libraries, there weren’t any stores that really sold books,” explained Celano, a Professor of Communications at La Salle University. “From the get-go we found that children from both of these areas had very different environments that would affect their ability to gain information.”

Celano described the different uses of the libraries – more than the highly-publicized inefficiencies of the school systems – as a leading culprit in the struggles of low-income children. Celano’s self-proclaimed “ecology of inequality” studied the lack of computers available to kids in places in Kensington, combined with the way in which those same kids utilize the resources that are available. That is to say, too often these precious resources are squandered, as children have no one to teach them about the educational access that computers can provide. And with a shortage of computers in low-income areas, this lack of productive online time becomes a real problem. “I theorized that the children in Chestnut Hill all had computers in their houses, because they’re above a median income level of $75,000. I think it’s like 95 percent of the people who have internet access. But when you go below $35,000 [income], it’s the opposite; 55 percent don’t have internet access,” she told me.

While children turn to community centers, libraries, and after-school organizations, these institutions, much like their schools, are often ill-equipped to handle the high volume of kids that turn up. Professor Celano gave perhaps the most startling, unnerving statistic of all: Areas like Kensington average about two computers for every 100 kids. “We’d go to the public library, which is the only place that the kids can do their research reports, and you’d see them waiting in line for three hours to get on a computer for 30 minutes,” Celano described. “Then when the 30 minutes were up, they’d have to get up wait in line for another three hours to get back online.”

Their research also led them to the issue of role model figures for children. Going into a Chestnut Hill library, Celano saw “lots of parents, or grandparents, or nannies sitting there reading to the children, or helping them get onto a computer at a young age, and showing them what to do.” She described scenes of parents teaching their 3-year-olds basic computer skills. But in Kensington, adults were notably harder to spot in the libraries. Oftentimes, according to Celano, this is because the adults themselves aren’t capable of either reading or using the computer. As a result, there are few adults left to read with these low-income children, or teach them computer skills.

Worst of all, Celano fears that this gap in knowledge, as she puts it, will only widen more. “What happens in the end is that the more affluent kids just zoom ahead. Especially in the digital age. There’s just so much knowledge coming at us. So if you start at a lower level, you’re not going to gain knowledge as quickly. There’s just going to be this huge gap continuing to develop,” said Celano.

While Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance deals primarily with outlying the problem, rather than mapping out a solution, Celano believes there is a need to update the educational philosophy to become more knowledge-based. In her view, schools focus too heavily on teaching skills – math and linguistic applications to help students succeed on standardized testing. “But, we need content-rich curriculum,” she went on to say. Because so many of the low-income students don’t have access to essential environmental factors like books, computers, and role model figures, the onus is now on the schools to make kids want to learn, not just to test well. Of course, in Chestnut Hill, this is less of an issue: “The thing is, the more affluent kids have both. They have a lot of knowledge and they have good skills.”

Celano and Neuman are hopeful that their book can help open people up to these different childhood environments. “What’s interesting is that there’s not much in this country that we all agree on. But we agree on this one,” Celano said, talking about the public’s open desire to improve the education system. “I just don’t think they know the difference between the two environments.”

Hopefully, their book helps shed some light on these differences.