The Chicago Tribune reported that three of the nation's best libraries are in the Chicagoland area. One is in Arlington Heights, the other two in Schaumburg and Naperville. No Chicago libraries made the list.
The three libraries that did make the list have budgets that vary from $5-10 million, and have extensive hours that go from the morning to the late evening. The Arlington Heights library boasts 2.6 million circulations annually. Libraries in the suburbs seemed to be prized possessions and assets to those in the suburbs, but that's the opposite of how the city feels about the Chicago Public Libraries, which were first on the chopping block for the city's budget cuts.
The cuts to Chicago library staff and hours (libraries were open one less day a week, but later reopened to normal schedules), saved the city $8 million, but harmed the vulnerable populations that need the open, public spaces that libraries provide.
Public libraries are some populations only access to computers and the Internet, and many of those that have access at home still go to libraries because they find librarians are a great resource for tech or research assistance.
Public libraries are also very important to teenagers with half of the people who use public library facilities being between the ages of 14-18. These are school aged children who have to use public public libraries to do their homework because 1) they don't have computers or Internet at home or 2) their schools don't have a library.
Both situations are likely. The number of people below the poverty line increased in Chicago over the past year, and about 25 percent of Chicago Public Schools do not have libraries. Even students who do have computer/Internet access at home, STILL go to libraries for the librarian's assistant. The students going to libraries are seeking out something that they don't have in their day to day lives that will help them further their education efforts whether it be hardware or people.
The larger issue affecting lack of access is poverty, but lack of libraries and librarians in public schools is a part of the issue as well. Studies prove that schools with an adequately staffed library have students who score better on tests. Not only are the librarians there to point out good books and to help with class assignments that involve research, they are also there to explain to students new forms of media and technology, which help the kids grow academically.
Now guess which schools face the most budget cuts that leave them without libraries or librarians? Yup, you got it: schools in poverty stricken areas. Guess which kids suffered the most when library hours and staff were cut in Chicago? Once again, it was those who came from disadvantaged families of the poorer neighborhoods of Chicago.
Neighborhoods with high poverty rates have lower test scores. Education is affected by lack of access to resources. Libraries and their staff (both in schools and out of schools) are part of those resources that can help bridge the achievement gap between rich and poor students. Working-class children hear 10 million words before they enter kindergarten compared to the 30 million that kids with professional parents hear. That initial vocabulary gap is predictive of reading comprehension in high school (Beth Fertig "Why Can't U Teach Me 2 Read?"). The gap is developed in part by lack of access to literary materials, which libraries provide free of charge, and probably continues because of the perpetual inaccessibility of libraries to the inner-city. I'm sure Schaumburg has great test scores that are in part due to its great main library and school libraries. Let's make it a city goal to have good libraries, and our students (and their test scores) will benefit from the plentiful access to educational resources.
Check out my other posts on education: