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The schools that need libraries the most

A few months ago, fellow Lolly’s Classroom blogger Randy Ribay made a compelling argument about why schools still need libraries and the wonderful librarians who keep them running smoothly. I agree wholeheartedly with his conclusion that “a school without a library is like a body without a soul.” Further, I believe that lack of access to a high-quality school library is often symptomatic of a far-larger problem: unequal access to books.

Frequently, it is under-resourced schools serving low-income students and families that are unable to offer extensive libraries to their students. I’ve never been to a school serving affluent families that didn’t have at least an adequate library featuring several hundred titles; more often than not, I’ve found such libraries to be lavish and occasionally larger than the library that served the town in which I grew up. In contrast, in my experiences in schools serving lower-income students, I’ve encountered libraries that are crowded and where books often need to be discarded simply because there is no space for them; libraries where a choice has to be made between housing technology and keeping books on the shelves, and libraries that have a librarian on staff for just a single day of the week.

These inequities in school libraries are particularly troubling because they mirror the unequal access to books that occurs at a household level. Children who grow up in low-income households usually have fewer books at home and, as a result, can take part in fewer literacy-based activities on their own. The cost of books can often make them prohibitive; one study suggested that a staggering 42% of American children do not own any books of their own (Bornstein, 2011). Lacking access to books can have huge consequences for effective literacy development; children who do have books tend to have more positive attitudes toward reading, spend more time reading, and develop stronger performance in literacy activities.

Too often, we assume that all children must have access to books at home; it took me several months to recognize that one of my students wasn’t doing his reading homework because he didn’t have books at home and was too shy and embarrassed to take me up on my offer to send books home with anyone who wanted them. Access to a library — a place where all students can access books — can help to mitigate some of the potential stigma around being one of just a few students borrowing books from a teacher.

As you read this, you may be thinking to yourself that students can access books at their local public library if they do not have an adequate school library. However, in addition to having reduced access to books at school, students who live in a low-income community are likely to have only limited access to high-quality books outside of school. Town and city libraries that are located in high-poverty neighborhoods often have smaller budgets and collections, and are often open for fewer hours during the week (Neuman & Celano, 2001).

Thus, school libraries have a critical role to play in all communities, but especially in high-poverty areas, as they have the potential to be a powerful equalizer in terms of access to books, an essential part of ensuring every child gets a strong start in literacy.

What can be done to improve school libraries? Access Books provides an inspiring example of activism in library equity in the greater Los Angeles area. The organization collects book donations and then provides volunteers to renovate library spaces in schools. Additionally, you can advocate for funding for libraries and librarians in school, town, and city budgets or volunteer your time to work in a library where extra support might be needed.

All children deserve access to a vibrant, exciting library at the center of their educational experience. As Harold Howe once said that “what a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it feels about education.”



“Access to Books.” (2013). Scholastic.

Bornstein, David. (16 May 2011). “A Book in Every Home, and Then Some.”

Neuman, S.B. and Celano D. (2001). “Access to Print in Low-Income and Middle-Income Communities: An Ecological Study of Four Neighborhoods.” Reading Research Quarterly 36(1), pp. 8-26.

Reading is Fundamental. (2010). “Children’s Access to Print Material and Education-Related Outcomes.”

Nicole Hewes About Nicole Hewes

Nicole Hewes is currently serving as an impact manager at a public elementary school with City Year New Hampshire. She previously taught second grade in rural Maine for two years and received an M.Ed in language and literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.



  1. Belinda Cline says:

    Hi. I am a mom of three children. As a former teacher books are near and dear to my heart, but my kids are now older teenagers and don’t need the books we own. I would love to donate our books to a school that needs them. They have been read but other than that they are in great shape. Our books are for various from kindergarten through to high school. Between them they had favorite authors or genres. I would have to figure out a way to send them but need help finding where they can go. Please help me with this. I would appreciate knowing other children would be enjoying them. We live in New York, and my area libraries don’t want them. Children should be able to read whenever they want, I would love to help with that. Hoping you contact me soon. Thank you.

  2. Nicole Hewes says:

    Hi Belinda,

    Thanks for your comment and your interest in donating some books to help a library! I would encourage you to try reaching out to local schools to see if they would be interested in accepting donations. If you don’t find any interest there, I’d suggest donating them to Books For Kids:, an organization that helps to create libraries for kids using donated books.

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