Education Opinion

Access Denied

By Donalyn Miller — April 23, 2011 4 min read
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At the Miller house, Saturday is cleaning day--dusting, mopping floors, sorting through the mail, and invariably, putting away stacks of books. We have ten bookcases in our tiny house--all full. Overwhelmed by the task of conquering the book piles, I sent a message to my Twitter friends today asking, “How do you organize your home book shelves?” Answers ranged from the honest, “I try by genre, but it all ends up random in the end,” to the intellectual, “Dewey Decimal, baby,” to the decorative, “I organize my books by color.” Our twelve year-old daughter, Sarah, sorts her books by genre, then alphabetizes them by author. It seems that the systems we employ to organize our books reflect the diversity of readers and the books themselves. Among the librarians, teachers, and authors who chimed in, we all have more books than we can manage, but it occurs to me that many children could not answer my question at all because they don’t own any books.

During the paycheck-to-paycheck days of our early marriage, Don and I saw books as our one luxury. I remember walking every Saturday to the used bookstore down the street from our first apartment. We never went out to eat, we rarely bought new clothes, we rode the bus, but we always managed to scrimp and save enough money for a few books. Looking at our glutted bookshelves, I can still see some of the treasures we bought--paperbacks of Frankenstein, Don Quixote, Brave New World, and every Stephen King book we could find. Everyone measures their prosperity differently, but I consider myself successful because I can buy our daughters and granddaughter all the books they want now.

While I promote book ownership and encourage parents to buy books for their children, I know that families cannot afford books when they struggle to put gas in their car or pay the rent. Should poor or disadvantaged children be deprived of access to books due to their circumstances? School and public libraries often provide children the only book access they have, but these sources may disappear in light of the looming financial crisis.

School districts and local governments across the country face brutal budget cuts. Our district is no exception, and I noticed that the Tier I and Tier II cuts in our proposed budget for next year include substantial reductions in library staff and spending for library books. Additionally, public libraries are cutting staff, reducing book purchasing budgets, or closing their doors forever. Closing libraries is a short-sighted measure at best and has long term consequences for communities. Looking at the numbers, closing libraries actually costs society more money than it saves.

Congress, while eliminating access to books for millions of children by slashing funding for libraries and literacy programs like Reading Is Fundamental, proposed the Access to Books for Children Act this month. According to The American Republican website, “This amendment to the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 directs the Department of Agriculture to make grants to local agencies to provide vouchers to women participating in the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children (WIC) for the purchase of educational books for their infants and children. Limits to one $5 voucher the maximum amount any one woman may receive, regardless of the number of her infants or children.”

While acknowledging the importance of early literacy programs and access to books in the wording of this bill, giving poor families a voucher that will not purchase one paperback book is an ineffectual replacement for meaningful library and book donation programs that provide free book access to millions of Americans.

Let’s not underestimate how important this access is. Whether or not they have access to books in homes, schools, and libraries significantly affects children’s literacy development and academic success, and there is overwhelming research to prove it. In the latest issue of Reading Today, the International Reading Association’s bimonthly newsletter, IRA President, Patricia Edwards, insists that, “Children in poverty need more access to reading materials...However, recent data indicate that while the ratio of books to children in middle-income neighborhoods is approximately 13 books per child, the ratio in low-income neighborhoods is 1 book per 300 children.” In a recent interview with Danny Brassell, Dr. Stephen Krashen (my literacy hero), insists that providing healthcare, food, and access to books to children would erase the achievement gap.

In order to ensure that all children have the ability to reach their potential, we must provide free access to books and low cost book ownership to families. Some suggestions:

Increase awareness among colleagues, administrators, and policy makers about the need to provide children with access to books.

Share with parents the importance of book ownership and visiting the library.

During the summer months, open school libraries or offer long-term loans from school and classroom libraries.

Enroll children and their families for library cards.

Invite public librarians to PTA and staff meetings to describe library services and programs.

Sponsor a school book swap or book drive to collect books for children to take home.

Write your congressperson and insist he or she supports libraries and literacy programs.

Donate your money, your books, or your time to programs that provide book access.

Investigate grants and funding sources to purchase more books.

When selecting gifts for children, buy a book.

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.