Equality and Equity of Access: What's the Difference?

The ideal of equal access is fundamental to American democracy.

Prepared by Nancy Kranich; Based upon Jorge Schement, "Imagining Fairness: Equality and Equity of Access in Search of Democracy," in Nancy Kranich, Libraries and Democracy, Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 2001: 15-27. For the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee; March 3, 2005


The ideal of equal access is fundamental to American democracy. The 18th-century notion that all (men) are created equal, before God and before the law, set up the powerful expectation that every citizen deserves the same opportunity to influence the course of democracy, and to benefit from the fruits of a good society. Consequently, the notion succeeds or founders depending on the experiences of citizens in gaining equal access to the means of participating in the discourses that guide governance. But when a society is stratified into poles of advantage and disadvantage, with the inevitable consequences of privilege and exclusion, the promise of equal access to the discourses necessary for democratic participation rings hollow. Fair access, then, may take on a different meaning in each citizen, but its essence remains the interpretation of "fairness" as equal access and opportunity. Correspondingly, access to channels of communication and sources of information that is made available on even terms to all-a level playing field--is derived from the concept of fairness as uniform distribution, where everyone is entitled to the same level of access and can avail themselves if they so choose.


When some are excluded or lack the knowledge, income, equipment, or training necessary to participate fully in public discourse, they must overcome obstacles to access in order to ensure fairness. In other words, fairness also demands remedies to redress historic injustices that have prevented or diminished access in the first place: for, just as there can be no fairness without equality, there can be none without justice. That is, in order to maximize opportunities for access experienced by certain groups, a good society commits resources in order to level the playing field. When libraries offer literacy programs, when schools offer courses in English as a second language, and when foundations target scholarships to students from poor families, they operationalize a belief in equity of access as fairness and as justice. Similarly, rural telecommunications cross-subsidies, and the E-Rate, establish their political legitimacy by appealing to equity of access as fairness and as justice.

Equality vs. Equity

Policies that stress fairness as uniform distribution tend to succeed with Americans because they appear to entitle everyone; and, thus, reinforce Americans' dominant construction of fairness as equality. Conversely, policies aiming to achieve equity face recurring challenges as "unfair." Affirmative Action, Lyndon Johnson's attempt to overcome generations of discrimination and injustice against women and minorities, became the law of the land without achieving the approval of Americans who saw it as "unfair" because it appeared to favor some over others; and, thus, to negate the more commonly understood concept of fairness as equality and as uniform distribution.

The Challenge Facing Librarians

In the 21st century, librarians will achieve access for all only by fusing the concepts of fairness as uniform distribution with fairness as justice. If access policies concentrate solely on the objective of equality without reference to equity, their achievements will be flawed because those struggling to catch up will fall farther behind. After all, we entered the 21st century concerned about a "digital divide" resulting from a cluster of gaps that leave some Americans on the down side of the Information Age. Nonetheless, if access policies concentrate solely on the objective of equity by targeting groups who need special programs to improve their opportunities for access, they will reap the backlash of the many who resent such programs as "unfair."

In the upcoming debates over access, librarians will need to position their programs within the range of what Americans consider as "fair." The E-Rate should serve as an exemplar for it incorporates the value of fairness as equality and as uniform distribution by inviting all libraries to apply for the discount, with the implication that it serves all Americans; but it also supports fairness as equity and as justice by increasing the discount for poorer libraries. The writers of the library subsidy clause won the support of the broader public by offering a policy that stressed equality and folded within it a commitment to equity. The lesson? Librarians must first communicate the message that their libraries are open to all and available to everyone, even to those with no interest. Granted, such a stance seems overly easy to uphold, since it reflects traditional values among librarians, but it is essential and must be constantly reinforced. To neglect this message invites the charge that libraries are not equally available to all; and, therefore, not deserving of support because they are "unfair." Beyond equal access, they must simultaneously pursue strategies seeking to effect equity. Targeted programs, such as literacy training or services in languages other than English, must be fully integrated into the library's larger mission and communicated as such; because, sooner or later, programs that stand apart will attract criticism as an "unfair" use of public funds. Thus, in so far as policies aim to achieve equality of access, they must also assimilate more narrowly focused policies that aim to achieve equity; for, ultimately, there can be no equality without justice.