It’s a fact that will strike fear into the heart of any avid reader: There are places in the United States — one of the wealthiest nations on the planet — that have no real access to books, even for students. They're called book deserts.
Concentrated in inner cities but sometimes afflicting rural areas as well, these are communities with no bookstores, few or not-often-open public libraries, and a dearth of school libraries.
It's a sad truth that many public schools no longer have libraries. According to one teacher in Los Angeles, 83 percent of L.A. middle schools don’t have a librarian and aren’t allowed to keep the library open with volunteers. (The schools only have 98 librarians for 1,309 schools!) Most charter schools don’t have libraries due to funding.
Obviously, that's not the only part of the country that has issues connecting people to places with books. The Unite for Literacy's Book Desert maps project uses data about book availability to illustrate where the need for books or electronic access to books is greatest. Here's an example:
Unite for Literacy has created maps to indicate where the book deserts are. (Photo: Unite for Literacy)
I assumed, wrongly, that all schools were required to have libraries. At my school, we had “how to research” classes in our school library, which was a sizable, yet cozy space staffed part-time by a librarian who doubled as a naturalist at our school and also led hikes and birdwatching walks. He was a retired man who loved books and the outdoors in equal measure. In our school, if the librarian wasn’t working, a teacher would often use the library for classes, quiet reading time or special projects — so we were there quite a bit. And, yes, this was a public school.
In my town of 4,500 people, we also had a very good public library. (In addition to the library, I was known to haunt WaldenBooks at our local mall for cheap fiction and horror, as well as the tobacco store for Mad magazine and some truly awful comic books.)
It’s almost impossible to imagine my childhood without all these places to find great (and even not-so-great) reading material. And yet, in a time of 25-cent books on Amazon, book giveaways — not to mention a huge emphasis on reading comprehension, reading being a huge part of what all those controversial standardized tests are examining — millions of kids don't have meaningful access to reading material.
And if you're thinking that ebooks are a solution, imagine how easy or common it is for a young kid's e-reader to be broken or stolen and consider that most poor neighborhoods lag behind in Internet access. Plus, Internet access and electronic reading devices are expensive. Paper books are virtually indestructible, unlikely to be stolen, and very, very cheap.
As our education systems are challenging kids with tougher tests to improve reading and writing skills, it's ironic that at the same time, the community isn't providing them with books. How can we expect kids to improve their reading skills if they don't have the tools? That doesn't make sense at all.
There are some smart initiatives to address book deserts, like the innovative book vending machines in Washington, D.C., funded by JetBlue Airways and of course, bookmobiles. But it seems like properly funding libraries in schools would be a straightforward solution to this issue, at least for kids.
This issue has further-reaching implications than standardized tests. Every single writer I know spent childhood as I did, surrounded by books, comics, magazines and reference materials — meaning the likelihood that someone who doesn't love books, reading and writing will ever become a writer is very slim. That means the children who are aren't able to develop that love of language won't share their stories, their perspectives, and their experiences with the world. That makes us all poorer.
And that breaks this writer's heart.
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