Nonprofit Pop-up Libraries: Good…or Sort-of Good

By Erynn Herman (PhD Student at UMass Boston, OSC Track).

On September 20, 2013, CBS Philadelphia published an article called South Philadelphia Nonprofit Creates Pop-Up Libraries For High School Students. It was meant as a human-interest piece narrating an issue we are becoming increasingly familiar with – the slashing of public school budgets. In this case, it resulted in the closure of several Philly high school libraries. The article caught my eye because of the innovative idea of pop-up libraries from a nonprofit organization called Mighty Writers. The organization decided to collect donated books from the community and is now displaying them outside its three city locations after school where students can pick them up. How creative!

However, after getting over my initial excitement about this inventive idea, I started thinking more critically about how this solution might actually make a difference. I asked, is this a good, rational decision for the organization? Or is this a case of bounded rationality where, in the name of benevolence, the organization offered a mediocre solution simply because it was attainable? As its name denotes, Mighty Writers is an organization Tim Whitaker, a retired journalist, founded to ensure Philly-based children learn to write legibly. Writing vs. reading – does that not constitute mission creep?

Good? I decided to look into it more. On its website, Mighty Writers’ mission reads: “to teach Philadelphia kids (ages 7 to 17) to think and write with clarity so they can achieve success at school, at work and in life.” Under this definition one could rationally conclude that literacy is a means of “thinking clearly” and, further, that literacy is an important prerequisite to both writing and a successful work life. And beyond the technicalities, if Mighty Writers didn’t step in, who would? It is a nonprofit organized for the purpose of creating social value. These alternative libraries certainly fulfill that goal. Finally, there are other virtues of pop-up libraries as a solution. They are innovative in a way only a flexible, entrepreneurial organization could achieve. In addition, because the books are donated and the pop-ups are located at current Mighty Writers locations, the added monetary and human resource costs are minimal.

Sort-of Good? On the other hand, one could interpret the pop-up libraries as an insufficient fix to a massive problem. This is how Marjorie Neff, a local school principal, saw the issue. She is quoted in the CBS Philadelphia article saying, “the long-term problem can only be solved with adequate funding.” It’s easy to see why Neff considers the pop-ups a sub-optimal solution. It is unclear how long Mighty Writers can (or even plans to) maintain the program when it does not directly address its central mission. Moreover, there are limitations to the pop-ups as a long-term substitute to a public school library. For example, to high school students researching specific topics, a limited selection of books may not satisfy their needs. For these reasons, it seems the pop-ups are merely a band-aid that may or may not help even in the short-run.

While I applaud the initiative and resourceful problem solving of Mighty Writers, in my opinion the pop-up libraries qualify as an incremental solution and Mighty Writers as one of many well-intentioned nonprofit organizations that expand their scope to address problems that don’t fall squarely within their mission. I predict the pop-up program will eventually be dissolved when either: 1) it becomes clear Mighty Writers has to make tradeoffs between its core mission of writing and sustaining a program supporting literacy, or 2) a superior solution comes along from another, more dedicated agency. I also wonder whether an alliance with the Philadelphia Public Library system may not have been a better answer to fulfill mid-term library needs, while allowing both organizations to stay on mission.

What do you think? Good or sort-of good?

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3 thoughts on “Nonprofit Pop-up Libraries: Good…or Sort-of Good

  1. An evaluation of a degree of “goodness” in what amounts to a “making the best of” situation alone seems to miss an opportunity to re-direct, especially in using the power of the press or in critical analysis, to quote Marc here, “… an important labor issue here that has gone unmentioned. What typically closes libraries, including the ones in Philadelphia, is rarely a lack of books or facilities. It’s funding for salaries that mainly causes libraries to close or hours to be reduced.” Do we expect that for every slash in public programming there will be an “innovative” non-profit who can assemble some vestige of a service? Does a solution, like Mighty Writers, ultimately address the primary source of the problem? No. Does that make their work and effort “Sort-of-Good” or “Good”? It does, only to the extent it aids Philadelphia kids who may be a able to personally leverage material to expand their education. As a potential longer term model for literature access to children, I would hope that a discourse would be redirected to the labor and political roots at the base of issue.

    Thanks for posting! Interesting topic and good to know how different communities are handling these regressive public service breakdowns.

    • Nick’s comment introduces, at least to my thinking, another layer. Is the core mission of Mighty Writers a band-aid solution to an educational system that fails to equip students to write well? Or is it a great supplement that builds on the foundation learned in school and moves learners from adequacy to mightiness? That could also create a virtuous cycle where students who “become mighty,” likely enhance classroom learning for everyone else. Perhaps this binary either/or line of questioning misses the point. Even if a school has the capacity to teach subjects well that doesn’t ensure all students will feel compelled to learn.Mighty Writers might create another avenue or delivery option that will compel and engage some students.

  2. Examining “gradations of goodness” provides a useful reminder about the need to critically consider social solutions and not give any initiative a pass simply because it has good intentions. The soft thinking that accepts all marginal goodness allows for mediocrity and worse. It can impede greater progress as you note. Of course, we also can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. This is why careful reflection, like what you provide here, is so important.

    Let’s consider pop-up libraries as a category for a moment. There are some pop-up book and library concepts that capture the imagination and seem quite wonderful. These interventions mainly put books in unexpected places, are clearly not intended as an alternative to a library. They all try to transcend capitalism by encouraging people to take books at while and replenish the stock. There’s even a movement called “little free libraries.” http://littlefreelibrary.org/ and here is an example that repurposes unused telephone booths http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/nyregion/ny-designer-puts-lending-libraries-into-pay-phone-kiosks.html?_r=0

    Yet, you rightly note that the Philly pop-up effort is no substitute for a good school library (school disparities being what they are it would be worth knowing the quality of the shuttered libraries). A more rigorous analysis would be needed to understand the extent to which the pop-up concept placates stakeholders into believing that pop-ups are a reasonable alternative or whether they are seen as a modest means of getting more pleasure reading into the hands of youth at a time of known crisis. It’s possible that media attention could heighten awareness of the travesty of shuttered libraries.

    There’s an important labor issue here that has gone unmentioned. What typically closes libraries, including the ones in Philadelphia, is rarely a lack of books or facilities. It’s funding for salaries that mainly causes libraries to close or hours to be reduced. Many cities and school districts expressly forbid volunteer librarians to jump into the fray, even when they are ready and willing. Common sense and labor history suggest that if you staff something decently with volunteers, it’s unlikely that the higher quality paid positions will return. Yet, when you see nice libraries, full of great resources, that are shuttered despite (volunteer) available labor to run them, it’s clear that there are competing moral concerns. There is plenty of nonprofit scholarship that looks at how to manage volunteers but I’m unaware of work that examines how to think about when and how volunteer labor might appropriately supplement or displace paid labor. That may be interesting terrain for exploration.

    The questions related to mission and mission creep seems less convincing here. Simply put, there is a strong case to be made that passion and capacity for reading aids writing skill and expressive proficiency. You acknowledge as much. So, perhaps the organization should more eloquently make the case that these things are inextricably linked. I’m also reminded that sticking too tightly to a specific interpretation of mission can overlook the way somewhat ancillary activities can sometimes positively reinforce primary activity. I’m reminded of the wonderful 826 organization, that has a very similar mission to Mighty Writers. Each 826 organization adopts a whimsical theme (pirates for San Francisco, robots for Ann Arbor, time travel for LA, space for Seattle, spycraft for Chicago, super-heroes for NY, bigfoot for Boston, unnatural history for Washington D.C.) and then runs a store front in each city intended to create visibility and enticement for the writing programs. http://826national.org/stores/
    Organizations of all kinds can reasonably sponsor tactical loss-leaders provided that they can show how they support core activities and can be justified operationally. Yes, it’s important to stay alert for mission creep (and to revisit the intent of mission regularly too) but how well tended or wild and wooly the interpretation of mission is seems like it depends on a more complete accounting of the effort, return, and intent of activities that may seem a bit afield from core mission.

    For a brief moment, the reference to writing legibly made me think that the organization sought clarity of penmanship not expression. I am comforted that’s not the case. If the aim of Mighty Writers was to to cultivate the next generation of calligraphers, I’d be in full agreement that hustling for books was not the way to go (full respect for “font diversity” notwithstanding).

    Thanks for this insightful, thought provoking post.

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