Tag Archives: poverty

Libraries: Vectors of Solidarity

For the last fifteen years, the United Nations has marked International Human Solidary Day on 20 December. The goal of the day is to celebrate the place of solidary as a fundamental and universal value that should underlie relations between peoples.

As this blog argues, libraries are vectors of solidarity – a way in which those who pay taxes and otherwise invest their energy today, can bring benefits to people, current and future, who would otherwise miss out.


Solidarity with the present

First of all, when a society decides to build and support libraries, it is demonstrating solidarity with those among its members who would otherwise struggle to access information, education, research and culture.

Clearly the most obvious form of redistribution of wealth comes in the form of benefits or other payments to those who are less fortunate. However, high-quality universal public services, supported by taxation, have a similar impact, providing things that people would otherwise need to pay for, or have to forego.

Libraries are no exception here, helping to ensure that everyone enjoys the basic set of rights to which they are entitled, even if they do not have the resources to buy them privately.

Of course, libraries may be equally used by all members of the community (both those paying more tax, and those paying less) – indeed, this universalism helps ensure that there is no stigma to using their services.

However, their relative importance is often greater for those with fewer possibilities to access books, get online, or participate in learning otherwise.

To turn things around, if those who are rich enough to pay larger amounts of taxation withdraw their support, it will be those who are less well-off who suffer most in terms of reduced opportunities to benefit from what libraries can offer.

This is of course also an argument for why it is so important to combat tax evasion and avoidance, in order to allow for the services (including library services) that benefit society as a whole.


Solidarity with the future

Yet libraries are not only about providing a means for the more fortunate in a society to help the less fortunate today. They also help demonstrate solidarity with future generations.

An immediate example is in the contribution libraries make to combatting child poverty.

As highlighted in our blog for World Children’s Day, libraries are strongly engaged in providing skills and services that can help break the vicious circle that can often lead poor children to become poor parents.

The existence of libraries, supported by the taxpayer, also benefits the future by building a culture of reading, bringing forward new researchers and creators, and promoting key digital skills.

There is also solidarity in what libraries do to ensure that future generations can access the knowledge and heritage of today, thanks to preservation and conservation work.

And perhaps most pressingly, there is the work of libraries in promoting action on climate change, and the activities of IFLA’s Environment, Sustainability and Libraries Section, focused on encouraging people to invest time and energy now, for the good of those to come.


As a well-circulated blog from the University of Warwick recently pointed out, closing libraries can be seen as classist – an attack by the better-off on the perceived ‘undeserving’ poor.

As this blog argues, and following on from the University of Warwick piece, It follows that a healthy library system is a sign of a society that cares about equity and solidarity, not only towards those who are less fortunate today, and tomorrow.

Leaving No Child Behind: The Importance of Investing in Library Services

World Children’s Day is the anniversary of signing both the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.

It is an opportunity to focus on ensuring that the rights and interests of children are understood, and incorporated into decision-making at all levels.

This year’s theme is a Better Future for Every Child, concentrating on the impacts of inequalities on children, and the need to combat child poverty. It draws, in particular, from the economic and social divides exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which demonstrated how different factors can interplay to lead to worse outcomes.

This focus also recalls the fact that the experience of poverty in childhood is too often associated with negative outcomes later in life, such as higher unemployment or lower incomes, poorer health, and beyond.

This link begins early, with poverty all too often correlating with lower literacy and other skills leading to less good education performance. This can risk reinforcing poverty over time, with poor children turning into low-income parents, whose own children then face the same challenges.

In the long run, putting an end to child poverty means increasing income levels. A key way of achieving this is by breaking the link between economic poverty and other negatives, such as low literacy and wider educational outcomes.

The strength of this link can come from a variety of factors: there may be fewer resources available at home, parents may be less able to help with homework and language development, families may participate less frequently in cultural events that can develop a taste for reading, and children may not have a space or quiet for learning.


Library interventions combatting educational inequality

Clearly, schools have a key role to play in tackling this situation, with skilled teachers with adequate resources helping ensure that children from poorer backgrounds genuinely do have the same chances as their better-off peers.

Complementing these, however, are great library services for children, through both school and public or community libraries, drawing on their unique potential to support learner success.  This role that libraries play is well documented (here and here, to give just two examples).

A first contribution comes through the wider work of libraries in giving access to materials that help develop ideas and expand horizons, something that may be particularly important for young people growing up without access to a wider range of experience.

They can run programmes focused on poorer communities, such as KidsREAD in Singapore, targeted at improving the English language skills of young people who risked falling behind otherwise, and run by the National Library Board. Similarly, Kids on the Tab in Kibera, Kenya, worked through libraries to complement the schooling of children from poor areas, contributing to much improved exam results, which in turn open up new possibilities. Libraries can also be useful venues for promoting programmes aimed at encouraging better educational outcomes, such as the MathsWhizz programme in Kenya.

A particularly important activity can be summer reading clubs, addressing the fact that over the long break, children without opportunities to learn and develop literacy skills at home risk falling behind their peers, leading to lower performance and frustration when they return. Holiday breakfast clubs can serve a similar purpose, while also tackling food insecurity. Homework clubs also help children who may lack a quiet space at home to work.

Libraries also play an important role in supporting school-readiness, ensuring that children are able to engage properly when they start formal education. A number of countries have adopted initiatives based on or similar to Bookstart, for example Boekstart in the Netherlands, Kindertreff in Switzerland, Start Life with a Book in Czechia, and Better Beginnings in Australia. They typically involve the provision of age-appropriate materials from a young age, and then ongoing support, including in cooperation with doctors, in order to keep an eye on language development.

While these are often universal programmes, a key goal is to support those families which may not have other opportunities, or children with difficulties that may hold them back at school (such as disability, anxiety, or attention deficit).

Connected to this, libraries (both school and public) can support family learning, helping to engage parents in the effort to develop children’s literacy skills, and potentially brining direct benefits to them as well. Furthermore, they serve as community convening spaces, and bring in an important experience of supporting personalised learning, as underlined by the Urban Libraries Council.

Even outside of specific service offers, research demonstrates that children from poorer background report relying far more on libraries than their richer peers.

IFLA’s Library Stat of the Week series drew on data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to show how children who don’t have a room of their own, have parents with lower qualifications, or who come from foreign language or immigrant backgrounds tended to have greater levels of dependence.

Further research using the same data just for the US has echoed this point, noting that even if levels of usage are the same, this usage will be more important for children who don’t enjoy access to space, resources and connectivity at home. Work in the UK underlines the same, focusing on the reliance of poorer children on public libraries.

They also help by providing internet access and equipment that families may not be able to afford, or simply extending opening hours (both providing a space for young people, and allowing parents to take on full-time work).

Indeed, in situations where children face insecurity and deprivation at home and outside, libraries can act as places of retreat and safety, both in richer countries, and in others facing serious endemic violence problems, such as Brazil and Colombia. Village and mobile libraries can extend possibilities to access information and technology to rural areas, which often also face higher levels of child poverty, as in India and Burkina Faso, or those which are remote, such as the Galapagos.


From potential to practice

However, the continued existence of education inequality, to the detriment of young people from poorer backgrounds, makes it clear that there is a lot still to do.

To some extent, there is work to do within our field, drawing on existing good practices. For example, as the Literacy Trust in the UK notes, it is important to reach out, given that there may be a reluctance to use libraries in some circumstances. Libraries’ reputation as a quiet place, only for the more highly educated, can represent a barrier to overcome. There is a risk that the people who need library services most simply don’t take the opportunity.

Libraries need to be able to reach out to poorer children where they are, rather than relying on traditional tools such as brochures, with cooperation with schools offering a powerful possibility in the case of public libraries at least, as underlined by the Urban Libraries Council.

There may even be an opportunity, as libraries open up following the pandemic, to do things differently and to engage people who previously never participated in library activities. For example, creating small public libraries in people’s homes in Foshan, China, helped increase outreach to families in deprived areas who would not otherwise come to existing institutions.

The way in which services are provided also matters. It is important not to create stigma around using services targeted towards children on low incomes, as underlined by the Child Poverty Action Group.

Skills also matter, a point also underlined by the Urban Libraries Council, and which lies at the heart of the Library at School programme in the Netherlands. So too does the ability to evaluate the impact of the work of libraries on educational outcomes among children facing poverty.

However, for our institutions to be able to fulfil their potential, they also depend on adequate resourcing and support. Yet all too often, it is poorer schools that aren’t offering school library services, a point made by the UK Children’s Laureate recently, but which has been known for over a decade.

As she set out: Millions of children, particularly those from the poorest communities worst hit by the pandemic, are missing out on opportunities to discover the life-changing magic of reading – one that OECD research suggests is a key indicator in a child’s future success. How can a child become a reader for pleasure if their parents or carers cannot afford books, and their primary school has no library, or that library is woefully insufficient?

Some have worried that cuts to library services happen quicker in less well-off areas, with impacts both on collections, and on spaces and staffing. In both cases, under-investment risks leading to unrealised potential to support investment in combatting inequality in education and literacy.


In conclusion, this year’s World Children’s Day provides an important reminder of the need to act on education and literacy as part of wider efforts to combat inequality and poverty among children. Libraries – both school and public – have a strong and proven role in doing this, drawing on their unique strengths.


Yet with significant challenges remaining, often exacerbated by the pandemic, these good practices need to be taken as a call to action, both within our field, but also – and perhaps more importantly – to the governments and others that determine what resources libraries have, and how they can work.

Library Stat of the Week #40: School children without a room of their own or an internet connection rely more on libraries than their peers

Last week’s Library Stat of the Week started to explore the data available from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (OECD PISA) regarding libraries and inequalities.

Based on a series of questions about the type of use that students (15 year olds taking part in the test) make of libraries, and how often, the PISA 2009 database provides an index of use of libraries.

By looking how different groups, on average, score on this index (running from -1 (no use) to +1 (extreme use)), it is possible to get a sense of whether there is relatively more or less dependence on libraries, according to different characteristics. As such, this provides valuable insights into how the benefits (or pain) of investment in (or cuts to) libraries may fall.

Following on from looking at differences in library usage between 15-year olds who have a 1st or 2nd generation immigrant background, as opposed to ‘native’ students, this week looks at two indicators of disadvantage – whether children have a room of their own at home or not, and whether they have household internet access or not.

Both of these are not only signs that a student may come from a less well-off background, but can also have a direct effect on their ability to benefit from education. The possibility to read and study quietly, and to make use of all that is available on the internet, are powerful.

We start by looking at differences between students who do, and do not, have a room of their own.

Graph 1a: Difference in Library Use between Students Without, and With a Room of their Own

Graph 1b: Difference in Library Use between Students Without, and With a Room of their Own

Graphs 1a and 1b do this for each country for which data is available, giving a figure for the difference in the index of library use between students who do not, and do, have a room to themselves. A bar to the right shows that students who do not have such a private space make more use of libraries than students who do, while a bar to the left shows the contrary. The longer the bar, the bigger the difference.

Overall, it shows that in OECD countries, students who do not have a room for themselves score 0.15 points higher on average on the library usage index, while globally, the figure is 0.07. The biggest differences are to be seen in Scandinavian countries, as well as the Netherlands and Germany.

In 38 countries, students without a room of their own make more use of libraries than those who don’t. In 19 countries, it is the other way around, while in 3, there is no difference.

Graph 1c: Difference in Library Use and Average PISA Reading Scores

Graph 1c looks at whether there is much difference in this level of reliance on libraries depending on overall average reading scores. As in last week’s post, there appear to be two groups of countries – with richer countries which tend to score higher in blue, and developing countries tending to score lower in green.

Within each group, however, there is little correlation between the level of reliance on libraries by students without rooms of their own, and overall reading scores. In other words, it seems not to matter much whether a country is a high or low performer overall – those who are disadvantaged continue to make strong use of libraries.

Graphs 2a and 2b replicate the analysis in Graphs 1a and 1b, but rather comparing scores for library use between students who do not, and who do, have internet access at home.


Graph 2a: Difference in Library Use Scores between Students Without and With Home Internet Access

Graph 2b: Difference in Library Use Scores between Students Without and With Home Internet Access

The differences here are even stronger, with an OECD average difference of 0.23 and a global average of 0.17, illustrating that globally children without home internet access rely more heavily on libraries than those who don’t.

In 48 countries out of 59, libraries appear to be more important for children without home internet access than for those with it, while only in 11 do children with internet access at home make more use of libraries than those who don’t. Interestingly, the countries with the highest differences in usage are different to the ones which come top when looking at students with rooms of their own.

Graph cc: Difference in Library Use and Average PISA Reading Scores

Graph 2c then repeats the same logic as Graph 1c, looking at whether there is any reason to believe that the connection between lack of a home internet connection and library use is stronger or weaker depending on overall literacy scores.

The result – as in the case of Graph 1c – is that there is no clear connection, either in the group of lower performers or the group of higher performers. In other words, it does not matter much how well a country performs overall on literacy, library use tends to be higher among students without an internet connection at home.


The overall conclusion of this blog is that the evidence indicates that, in general, students who face barriers to benefitting from education due to their home environment tend to rely more on libraires. The corresponding argument is then that when library services are cut back, the pain will be higher for those who already have fewer resources or options.

Next week’s post will look at another dimension of inequality – the highest level of education achieved by parents.


Find out more on the Library Map of the World, where you can download key library data in order to carry out your own analysis! See our other Library Stats of the Week! We are happy to share the data that supported this analysis on request.

Library Stat of the Week #16: Globally, having more public libraries is linked to lower inequality

Libraries have an important function in societies in promoting equity.

For those who do not have the resources to access books or who cannot afford a strong internet connection or hardware, they are a free (or low-cost) alternative.

For those who could not benefit from a good education, they provide another route back into learning.

Increasingly, libraries have expanded services – consistent with their overall mission – to find other ways to help members of society at risk of information poverty.

Given this, it is worth trying to understand what we can learn from statistics about levels of inequality in the world, and how these relate to libraries, using data from the Library Map of the World.

This post – the first in a sub-series – looks at some initial indicators of the relationship between different indicators of inequality or income distribution and the presence of libraries in a country.

While this is certainly a proxy, we will use the number of public or community libraries per 100 000 people as a measure of how well served a population is.

To understand inequality, we can take two approaches – one of the standard measures of income inequality – the Gini Coefficient – and then the percentage of the population living under national poverty lines (both using World Bank figures).

These allow us both to get a sense of how income is distributed across a population in general (i.e. how ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’ it is), and then what share of the population struggles to survive from day to day.

Graph comparing number of libraries per 100 000 people and the Gini coefficient

Looking at the Gini Coefficient first, as the above graph shows, there is generally an inverse relationship between the number of libraries per 100 000 people and the coefficient (a higher coefficient indicates higher inequality), indicating that the more libraries there are, the fairer a society is.

Interestingly, this relationship is less clear at the regional level, with the exceptions of North America and Europe, where there is a clear link (although obviously with North America, the sample size is small!). Globally, it becomes clear – sadly, that Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean seem to be characterised by both low numbers of public and community libraries (on the basis of the data we have) and higher levels of inequality.

Graph comparing number of public and community libraries per 100 000 people with the share of the population under the national poverty line

Turning to the share of the population under the national poverty line (see the graph above), there is a similar inverse relation between the number living in poverty, and the number of libraries per 100 000 people.

Again, this tendency is also reflected in Europe, where an extra 10 public or community libraries per 100 000 people is linked to a fall of 1.1 percentage point in the share of the population living in poverty.

Clearly, as ever, correlation is not necessarily causation. It is likely to be the case that societies that invest more in libraries also invest more in other measures to tackle inequality. In other words, more libraries can be a symptom of a more pro-equality stance, rather than the reason for this.

Nonetheless, it stands that more libraries remains linked to higher equality and lower poverty.

To explore further, given that different countries take different approaches to the number of libraries they have (fewer, bigger ones, or more, smaller ones), we’ll look at the links between the number of library workers and indicators of equality and poverty.


Find out more on the Library Map of the World, where you can download key library data in order to carry out your own analysis! See our other Library Stats of the Week! We are happy to share the data that supported this analysis on request.

Break the Cycle: Tackling Information Poverty as a Means of Eradicating Income Poverty

Break The Cycle

Poverty is complex. While it is often measured in simple income terms (i.e. a household is living on less than 60% of the national median or a fixed sum), its roots – and effective responses to it – have many dimensions.

For example, poverty is often associated with poor health, with the relationship going both directions.

Those living on little money may not be able to eat well, if at all. They may not be able to afford healthcare to deal with simple conditions early. But in turn, people in poor health will find it more difficult to find work or earn a living, and face higher expenses for drugs or treatment.

The same can go with poor housing or criminality for example. Bad conditions make it more difficult for people to find work or other sources of income. But then, low income can make it harder to find a place to leave, and increase the risk of being drawn into crime.

Information Poverty and Income Poverty: A Vicious Circle
Access to information is a particular concern for libraries. Too often, income poverty goes hand in hand with information poverty.

Information poverty has been defined as the ‘situation in which individuals and communities, within a given context, do not have the requisite skills, abilities or material means to obtain efficient access to information, interpret it and apply it appropriately. It is further characterized by a lack of essential information and a poorly developed information infrastructure’.

Just as with health, housing or criminality, the relationship between information poverty and income poverty also risks going both ways.

People without the money to buy internet connections or hardware, without access to means to develop the skills to make use of information, without the perspectives to want to go further will suffer from information poverty.

Yet when people lack access to information, they are cut off from possibilities to adopt new technologies, to innovate, and simply to take better decisions for themselves and those around them.

This can condemn people to information poverty.

Breaking the Cycle: The Role of Libraries
The mission of libraries is to fight against this – to break the link, and rather ensure that information is part of the solution to poverty, not part of the problem.

Access to information opens up opportunities, and supports people in improving their lives. And unlike hand-outs or top-down policies, it also empowers people to find their own paths.

Much of IFLA’s work on development has focused on this contribution, notably in the 2017 Development and Access to Information report, produced in partnership with the Technology and Social Change Group at the University of Washington.

There are examples of how libraries are helping small farmers adopt new techniques which boost productivity, of people in rural Indonesia receiving vital health advice, and of women in Chile being able to find out about employment and bustiness opportunities.

Libraries, as neutral, welcoming centres can also be particularly well placed to reach out to people who may feel unwanted in a commercial setting, or afraid to visit more formal public buildings.

Through providing information – and the spaces and skills to understand and use it comfortably – they are helping to break the link between information poverty and income poverty.


The fight to eradicate poverty will need to be as complex as poverty itself. Yet access to information clearly has a major role to play in this effort.

Libraries, as a key part of any country’s or community’s information infrastructure, are already hard at work.


* Britz, Johannes J. (2004), To Know or Not To Know: A Moral Reflection on Information Poverty, Journal of Information Science, Vol 30, Issue 3, pp192-204, https://doi.org/10.1177/0165551504044666