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?