Libraries: Clinics of the Soul?

First a shout out to Diane Mayr who posted the article I am about to swoon over on the NH Library Association Facebook page. If you’re a repeat visitor to Nocturnal Librarian you know one of the things I write about frequently here is my strong belief that libraries do not need to rebrand, reinvent, or repurpose. We don’t need to be called something else (I’m talking to you, “teaching and learning commons”) or asked to transform ourselves (sorry, ALA) because what we are is already awesome, and has been, and will be. If are just left alone to actually be libraries.

So when I read Alberto Manguel’s article “Reinventing the Library” in the New York Times, via the aforementioned NHLA post, I found myself nodding and saying, “yes, exactly.” Repeatedly. This should be required reading for people who make decisions about libraries’ continued existence and purpose the world over.

To give you a sense of why I loved every word, I will quote Manguel, although I also encourage you to read the whole beautiful article.

“It is in the nature of libraries to adapt to changing circumstances and threats, and all libraries exist in constant danger of being destroyed by war, vermin, fire, water or the idiocies of bureaucracy. But today, the principal danger facing libraries comes not from threats like these but from ill-considered changes that may cause libraries to lose their defining triple role: as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them — and as symbols of our identity.”

I’m with him, especially about ill-considered changes, but I’d urge Manguel and you, dear reader, to listen to this poignant piece on NPR about Benghazi (the place, not the political brouhaha) and hear a Libyan journalist remember how much he loves the library, now nearly inaccessible because of conflict. Anyway, back to Manguel’s point. We have a pretty bad-ass role already. Preserve, provide accounts of, and teach people to navigate our common human experience. He goes on:

“Most libraries today are used less to borrow books than to seek protection from harsh weather and to find jobs online, and it is admirable that librarians have lent themselves to these very necessary services that don’t traditionally belong to their job description. A new definition of the role of librarians could be drafted by diversifying their mandate, but such restructuring must also ensure that the librarians’ primary purpose is not forgotten: to guide readers to their books.”

In many places, Manguel may be right. I got so excited last week because TWICE at the service desk I actually got to recommend books to people. But libraries exist everywhere, and outside of cities, all over New Hampshire and wherever you live as well, libraries and their patrons are pretty much the same as they’ve ever been — people coming to check out books and to share what they’re reading, learning, and doing. When I talk with my colleagues around the state, it’s clear that the public hand wringing about the future of libraries is done by people who don’t go to small town libraries and are unaware that they are still serving a very important, highly valued, and dare I say, traditional role in their communities.

Back to Manguel:

“Librarians are not trained to act as social workers, caregivers, babysitters or medical advisers. All these extra tasks make it difficult, if not impossible, for librarians to work as librarians: to see that the collections remain coherent, to sift through catalogues, to help readers read, to read themselves. The new duties imposed on them are the obligations of civilized societies toward their citizens, and should not be dumped pell-mell onto the shoulders of librarians. If we change the role of libraries and librarians without preserving the centrality of the book, we risk losing something irretrievable.”

That phrase, “preserving the centrality of the book” is what really got me — no matter what else we’re called upon to provide, what makes a library a library? Books. You can’t have a library without books; if we were just computers  and wifi we’d be an internet cafe. Just a place to get warm, a shelter. Just a building for classes and mah jong and lectures and movies, a community center. But none of those other places have what we have. And most don’t even try to; yet paradoxically, we’re often expected by decision makers to offer a good bit of what those other places provide, as well as job searching, computer skills training, and sometimes even social services.

Manguel concludes, “If libraries are to be not only repositories of society’s memory and symbols of its identity but the heart of larger social centers, then these changes must be made consciously from an intellectually strong institution that recognizes its exemplary role, and teaches us what books can do: show us our responsibilities toward one another, help us question our values and undermine our prejudices, lend us courage and ingenuity to continue to live together, and give us illuminating words that might allow us to imagine better times. According to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, one of the ancient libraries he saw in Egypt carried above its entrance the words: ‘Clinic of the Soul.'”

I love Manguel’s view of what books can do, for the mind and for the soul, and I stand by libraries’ central role as places where there is unfettered access to books. Long live the centrality of the book.

Adult Summer Reading

I’ve had yet another article on the future of libraries on my desk for weeks; yesterday as I was dusting around it for the zillionth time I glanced through it and saw a few phrases that sapped my will to re-hash this topic (“management practices of the creative economy,” “the scale of disruption,” using the right metrics”). In the “five ‘right’ approaches for libraries” section of the article the author, Steve Denning, suggests librarians must consider “What needs could libraries meet that users haven’t yet even thought of?” On my desk at work I have another article of about the same age (published a couple of months ago) noting that the reason so many new library services and programs flop is that librarians need to think more like start-up entrepreneurs by ensuring what we offer actually fills an existing need, otherwise our patrons won’t know they need it and won’t come or use the nifty new thing. Yep, they directly contradict each other. Lovely.

I admit being a little fatigued by the “do this and you’ll succeed in taking your library into the future” arguments. So instead, let’s talk about something I’ve noticed that might be a profession-wide response to all this business philosophy gobbeldygook: Adult Summer Reading programs. For some time, the Collaborative Summer Library Program has included an adult program, tied to the themes for the children’s and teen’s programs. Maybe people have been embracing it for years, but this is the first summer I seem to see it everywhere.

Libraries large and small are handing out prizes to adults for reading books during the summer. Yes, there is much more to these programs. South Brunswick Public Library in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey is creating a community mural and includes a service project in its program, inviting people to send care packages to military members. Chapel Hill Public Library in North Carolina includes adults in its teen program, a simple way to be inclusive — but the feedback from our teens has been that they don’t want adults at their programs and in the teen area.

Dozens more libraries seem to just be handing out prizes. In East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, adults who read three books this summer get a “prize pack” and qualify for weekly drawings. Seattle Public Library is one of many incorporating a bingo card into the fun, challenging readers to read outside their usual tastes — here in New Hampshire, Hooksett Public Library created one that includes some library services, which is a clever marketing idea. A few of us at my library are considering these ideas for next summer, mainly because one of our regular patrons suggested it was unfair not to have prizes for adults.

But is it? Somehow this all seems silly to me. Do we really have to bribe grownups to read? I like the idea of bringing the community together to create a mural or to get behind a service project (something we are in essence doing, since our children’s summer reading program this summer includes donating items the local S.P.C.A. needs, and the adults in the the family are the ones buying and bringing donations). But I feel a little grumpy about the notion that the only way to get people excited about summer reading is to make sure there’s something in it for them.

Maybe a bingo card or a challenge to read a certain number of books or attend a certain number of programs  or try the library’s services is just fun and gets people in the doors. Certainly anything that increases circulation or cardholders is good. But what’s the world coming to that we can’t get people to come in unless we give something away, when the whole idea of a library is that it’s free and open to all in the first place?

Which brings me back to the same problem all these articles that pile up on my desks address: are libraries so preoccupied with offering new services and being maker spaces and tech hubs and “relevant” cultural institutions because people don’t get what our core mission is (connecting people with books and other reading material and information)? Or do people get our core mission until we start complicating it with all that other stuff?  I’m not sure anyone knows.

My grandmother became a librarian thanks to the New Deal. I can hear her saying, “It sounds like nothing but bread and circuses.” She wasn’t a luddite — she admired technology and all it could do. But she believed fervently in the power of books to educate and entertain, and she also believed that a thing done well was its own reward. I think librarianship could use a little less bread and circuses and a lot more doing “our” thing well. It’s harder to evangelize about reading than it is to invest in tablets or 3D printers or streaming media services. But it might be the thing that sustains libaries into the future.

A Maker Space Making a School Library

Much has been made of library maker spaces, which are part of the drive to be “relevant” by focusing on STEM. I’ve seen papers and essays galore on why STEM is Very Important for Public Libraries to Offer but I haven’t ever read about public library patrons asking for STEM. So is that relevance, if we tell the people what they want, instead of the other way around? As my last post indicated I’m not a fan of telling people, especially young people, what to focus on in their free time, hence my “” around relevant. On the other hand there’s a chicken and egg factor – if we offer it, will people discover they want it? That’s probably another blog post altogether.

You can take webinars and attend conference sessions on how to make maker spaces. I’ve always looked at them as sort of amped up crafts zones, places for creating techy projects mostly for fun, albeit educational fun. But an article in a library e-newsletter caught my eye this week because it featured a space where people were making what they really needed and wanted — a user-friendly library for their school.

At PS 721K, the Brooklyn Occupational Training Center for 14-19 year old special education students, shop teacher Charles Brown, who trained at Adaptive Design Association, helped students build furniture and accessories for their newly redesigned library. Previously, it wasn’t a space students with special needs could use. With the kind of heavy cardboard shipping boxes are made from, the students and their teacher created stools and book bins.

Photo: School Library Journal

If you look around ADA’s website you can see many more examples of adaptive furniture and kids engaging in “cardboard carpentry.” I think this is “maker” activity at its best. Seeing a problem or a lack and actually making something to fill that need seems like a much better use of time and talent than just making stuff so you can check the box on having a maker space.

That’s not to say maker spaces simply meeting the need for creative, fun activities for young people are a bad thing – if the community wants that. I just love the idea of “making” for good.


Free kids from reading lists and they thrive

A few summers ago here at Nocturnal Librarian I wrote about the tyranny of summer reading lists. I argued then that kids should be free to read whatever they want in the summer instead of being made to choose from a list, because reading is more appealing when we have the freedom to decide what we want to read. Turns out I was on to something. The Washington Post reports that a series of studies have shown that when it comes to countering “summer slide” — the loss of skills and knowledge during school vacation — the freedom to read anything they like is a tremendous boost for kids. Those granted this freedom performed better than kids who had to read what their teachers chose.

One paragraph from the story really caught my attention: “For one class, researchers ran a book fair, where each student picked 13 books to take home at the end of the school year. The fair featured a broad range of selections — fiction and nonfiction, classics and newer works — and students eagerly passed the books back and forth, reveling in the opportunity to pick those matching their personal interests while chattering with one another about familiar stories. (An adaptation of Disney’s “Frozen” was especially popular.) Many also chose works considerably above or below their reading levels so they could share with siblings.” The kids in this class were in second grade in Rochester, New York, and an eye-popping 96% of children from their school qualify for free or reduced lunch.

What struck me, besides the tragically high level of poverty? First, the scene: I can recall many a book fair when I was in elementary school, and how exciting it was to pick books knowing I could take them home and keep them. Second, the image of kids “chattering” and “reveling” not over tablets or computers or video games, but books. And third, that strong desire kids showed to “share with siblings.”

This affirmed for me everything I already know to be true about reading: it’s a joy, when it’s allowed to be. There was no book report or test looming after the fair, the kids just knew they could pick a whole armful of books to read. And they couldn’t wait to share their choices, with each other and with their families. Books are meant to be loved not just by one person, but many. The communal experience of hearing a story together, or reading aloud to other people, is a pleasure just about everyone in America experiences either in school or at their local library, if not in their homes. These kids were not only going to read to themselves over the summer, but to others.

I also wondered whether the researchers considered taking kids to get library cards? Or directing families to the summer reading program at their local public library?  Don’t get me wrong — I love that these kids got to own books, and I wish every kid could. But it seemed very obvious to me that libraries are schools’ best partner in helping low income families keep their kids reading during summer break.

Books on the Nightstand, one of my favorite podcasts, has a Summer Reading Bingo card on their site. I might try it. Or I might throw all suggestions to the wind and just read whatever strikes me this summer. What are your summer reading plans?

Supporting libraries

My husband sent me this great article from the New York Times, Denying New York Libraries the Fuel They Need.” Jim Dwyer provides some startling facts, like this: “The city’s libraries — the fusty old buildings, and a few spiffier modern ones, planted in all five boroughs — had 37 million visitors in the last fiscal year. . . . So the city’s libraries have more users than major professional sports, performing arts, museums, gardens and zoos — combined.”

Dwyer notes “No one who has set foot in the libraries — crowded at all hours with adults learning languages, using computers, borrowing books, hunting for jobs, and schoolchildren researching projects or discovering stories — can mistake them for anything other than power plants of intellect and opportunity. They are distributed without regard to wealth.” And yet, he goes on to explain, the city’s professional sports teams have enjoyed hundreds of millions of dollars in capital funding and tax incentives while the public library system faces a fight each year for adequate funding.

Here’s where I’d better remind you, dear readers, that my opinions are mine and not that of my employer, a public library.

That fight goes on in your town too — it’s known, in public sector parlance, as the budget process. In New York, it seems, libraries have to fight for their hours every year, as part of a carefully choreographed dance between elected officials who are haggling with each other for their preferred projects. I am guessing that process isn’t so different in your town, or mine, just on a smaller scale than New York’s.

Meanwhile it seems every year there’s some non-librarian academic expert who comes along and fuels the idea that libraries are obsolete. Public officials love this, and it does libraries a disservice during the budget process. The latest is John Palfrey. Palfrey’s book is called Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google and the Washington Post review is provocatively titled, “Do We Still Need Libraries?” Palfrey’s main point seems to be that libraries as we remember them from  our childhoods — and as I’ve noted in this blog before, in most towns across the country, they are still very much the same — must transform themselves into highly connected digital hubs, or die.

Palfrey should ask Dwyer to show him around the libraries of New York (or any neighborhood in America, I’d wager) and talk to the patrons who are using what he rightly notes are the backbone of egalitarian society. In our public libraries, where information is free and available to all citizens, people are reading or making readers of their kids. Mostly in print, which is still a better deal for libraries and the taxpayers who support them, because physical books don’t expire after a certain number of checkouts or a certain amount of time, as many library e-books do. When they open these books, people are discovering all the things that make us human, and what that means to them. They’re getting to know their neighbors. They’re becoming informed citizens.

Nostalgic and old fashioned? Ok, if you say so, digital experts. But in a society where there is almost nowhere to be quiet, study, or think, libraries offer that space. In a society where it’s hard, on a limited income, for retired people to meet friends and chat over the day’s newspaper, libraries offer that community. In a society where after school enrichment for kids almost always costs more than the working poor or even the middle class can afford, libraries offer that opportunity. In a society where the under and unemployed have almost nowhere else to access the internet, learn computer skills, apply for jobs, or print important documents, libraries offer those resources. In a society where the mentally ill, the disabled, the homeless, and the recently imprisoned are often unwelcome, libraries offer radical hospitality — we are open to all.

From information and books to early literacy, education and support for marginalized adults and new Americans, community and small town (or big city) culture, public libraries’ work is not diminished by people claiming that Google can replace your local librarian, or that libraries should “hack” themselves into “‘nodes in a larger network’ of organizations and must move toward ‘the digital, networked, mobile, and cloud-based library'” Palfrey envisions. And imagines private philanthropy will fund.

Space. Community. Opportunity. Resources. Books. These are real life, everyday services of public libraries. That we fund vast caverns where millionaires play sports and then leave libraries to fend for themselves every budget cycle sounds crazy because it is. That we think placing our hopes in some hypothetical network of charitably funded digital collections will improve upon what’s already going on in library branches all over America is silly. Build your fancy networks, go ahead, but in the mean time, don’t patronize the vital role of public libraries as “nostalgic” when for many ordinary citizens, that so-called nostalgia is actually a vital service they rely on.


Presence: breathing, sitting, getting out of the building

My life has been a little chaotic lately due in part to a family health issue. I’m fortunate that I work close to home, and close to the various appointments my family member has to attend. And I am able to be a little bit flexible by coming in early, taking shorter lunches, etc. But as you all know, library work, or any public service job, is not all that flexible because we have to be present to do our jobs. I’m a supervisor, so I have to be not just physically present but mentally present to the people who work for me. And to my peers and boss, especially as it’s budget and planning season for FY 2016. And to the public, who are the reason public libraries exist; as I’ve written here before, many of our patrons are seeking human contact as much as they are seeking books and information.

So, presence is key in all the parts of my life. I’ve been a somewhat haphazard student of mindfulness for many years, and I try to be a regular practitioner especially in times of high stress like I’m experiencing now. If you don’t know what it’s about, basically, being mindful is all about being in the present moment. I’m a better person when I’m practicing regularly. But I hadn’t considered that I might also be a better librarian when I’m being mindful.

I recently learned that the Law Librarians of New England spring conference is devoted to mindfulness. I was curious to see if this is a trend in our profession and discovered a number of interesting resources for mindful librarianship, including a webinar offered by University of Minnesota, a resource guide from the New England Library Association conference in 2011, and a Library Journal article from last spring about Sparq Meditation Labyrinth, which uses simple technology to project a light labyrinth and is in use in a number of college libraries.

My library isn’t formally integrating mindfulness into the workplace, but our city wellness program did offer an intro. class which I attended, I admit, in order to meet the requirements for reducing my insurance costs. Even though I’ve read a number of good books on mindfulness over the years (and am reading one to my teen daughter right now, called Sit Like A Buddha), the class was really interesting. I think this is a subject one can learn about forever and still not know everything about. And I know it helps me at work, at home, and anytime I remind myself, gently, to be mindful.

Another cool thing I did this week was attend a roundtable discussion sponsored by the Reference and Adult Services division of my state library association. Getting out of the building can be stressful — it means changing the desk schedule, arranging for coverage of necessary tasks, etc. But meeting with fellow librarians, especially in a format designed to share as much experience with each other as possible, is wonderful. The topic of our roundtable was The Community Driven Library. Among the many things I learned: Mahjong is big in several small town libraries nearby, all those extra mass market paperbacks from the book sale are perfect for stocking a town beach or pool, and there are several cake pan collections on loan in my small state. Besides getting good ideas, I connected or re-connected with colleagues and generally felt refreshed and reminded that I’m part of an awesome profession.

So, breathe, sit, be present, and get out of the building. You’ll be a better librarian for doing these simple things.


Joining in the praise

You may have seen the article, “In Praise of Libraries,” published in the Rotarian Magazine, making the internet rounds this week. Naturally I agree with much of what author Joe Queenan has to say about the importance and role of libraries. I thought I’d take a look at how my own public library holds up to his praise:

1. “The public library is the only civic institution in my community that is uncompromisingly successful. . . . Nobody in my town ever stands up and says he dislikes the public library. Nobody in your town does, either.”  In our town I’d have to say this isn’t true. I’ve had people tell me they don’t like using the library, and there are thousands of people who are quietly saying it by never getting a card.

2. “The public library is an indispensable institution that somehow manages to get taken completely for granted.” Yes, I’d venture that if we closed tomorrow, the public would be up in arms that there was no library, even those who have never use it.

3. “The public library serves many functions in a community. It is an adjunct to the public schools, a place where kids can do their homework. It is a day care center of sorts, where small children gather for story hour. It is a safe haven where senior citizens can pass the time in the company of others, where the unemployed can look for work. It is a place where the lonely can be less lonely, the bored less bored, the dejected less dejected, and the ignorant more enlightened. It is the one place in a small town where teenagers cannot possibly get into serious trouble.”  I’d agree with the majority of this paragraph. Save the last sentence.

4. “The public library has features that make it different from any other institution. It is public, in the true democratic sense of the word, and it is free. . . . The library’s philosophy is simple: Come one, come all.”  Yes. As you’ve read here at Nocturnal Librarian this is one of the things that keeps me going, as a librarian. Unfortunately, the fact that it’s open to all is one reason not everyone likes coming to the library. And it’s also one reason I contend that teenagers — or anyone — could conceivably find trouble if they wanted to in many public libraries around the country, including my own.

5. “The wide array of things that libraries offer means that they reach all levels of society. They make society better than it would be if left to its own devices. Libraries are a subtle, almost cunning, bulwark against the racial and socioeconomic segregation that society naturally gravitates toward, even when it does not do so out of malice. People congregate in libraries in a way that they do not congregate elsewhere. Because they are not bound by narrow class or economic or cultural strictures, libraries can cater to everyone.” I agree that we cater to everyone, and should do so. I agree in theory that we make society better by serving as an antidote to cultural, economic, social, and racial segregation. In practice, I think the same people who avoid each other’s company, or more likely, simply do not even truly realize each other’s presence, outside the library do so inside it as well.

6. “Libraries are both aspirational and inspirational.” Yes. Ideally, we are. When we try to live up to our mission, “to connect individuals with resources in order to enhance lives and build community,” anything can happen, anything is possible. This is the other thing that makes me happy to go to work every day.

7. “Public libraries are not judgmental in the way that other institutions are. They offer good books, but they also offer bad books. Lots and lots and lots of bad books. If you want wheat, they will lend you wheat. If you want chaff, they’ve got plenty in stock. Inside the library, it’s a free-for-all, culturally speaking.” Yes. You can find what you want to read, what you didn’t know you wanted to read, what you will be better for having read, and everything in between (and all combinations thereof).

8. “But the most valuable thing that libraries offer us is a path through the looking glass, a sense of wonder. American life is all about planning and regimentation and scheduling and efficiency. The public library is where serendipity reigns. It is the place where you throw out all the rules and wing it. I personally never go into the library and come out with what I went in for. . . .When I wander into the library, I might bring home anything.” Amen. Which is why I always recommend people browse our shelves rather than just looking at the online catalog and then finding specific books. But with roughly half our adult books in storage, that serendipity is not maximized at the moment.

9. Queenan quotes his hometown librarian, Maureen Petry: “We are a community center, yes, so we offer help with doing your taxes and applying for jobs and improving your English. But we can’t just be that. We can’t just be a service organization. We can’t lose sight of our identity as a cultural center.”  Preach it, sister. As I’ve written here at Nocturnal Librarian many times before, we can’t lose sight of what makes libraries libraries even as we try to meet all those other needs Petry mentions. We are a freely accessible place to be thoughtful and quiet and studious, to read, to learn, to discover. Books are at the heart of what we do. Championing reading, lifelong learning, and the value of culture is what makes us more than a community center.

10. And he adds, “Petry says you cannot underestimate the role of the library as a community adhesive. She believes that people become more appreciative of libraries as they mature.” I’d say that the first statement is one we should aspire to but I’m not sure my library is accomplishing; we’re not exactly an adhesive if a majority of our community are not library users. And her second statement is possibly true, and is one reason we serve so many older citizens. But I know many younger patrons, young families, young adults and teens, but also kids, for whom my library is a haven. They count on us for a physical place to be, for internet connectivity, for reading material, for human contact. And I believe they appreciate us.

11. Again from Petry, “It makes you feel that you are part of a community . . . . In the library, you get to feel that you are part of something bigger than yourself. It’s life.”  Yes. I certainly feel that way, and I think both our staff and patrons do too.

12. “The library is thus both the ultimate backstage pass and the rabbit hole we can follow Alice down. The library is not just the House of Knowledge. It is the House of Dreams.” Queenan is specifically referring to the fact that kids aren’t told what to read at the library. Which should be the case. But I think the point applies to everyone. At its best the library opens the door to knowledge and brings dreams within reach. But again I return to point 1 — people have to want to come use the library first.

We have the potential to be all of the things Queenan praises about libraries. We’re already some of those things, at least to the subset of citizens who come through our doors (or our virtual doors, but they have to come in and get a card first). We can be all of this, and we’re working towards that.

The Good the Bad and the Snowy

It’s snowed an awful lot here in northern New England in the past two weeks, as you’ve likely heard in news briefs. We’ve had feet of snow and the forecast is for snow today, snow tomorrow, snow right into the next day.  It’s a good time to read, all snug and warm inside. It’s not so great for slogging off to work, but we all manage.  Today my library is hosting an “Over the Rainbow Songfest” (we’re singing along to a film with Dorothy, Toto, et all, but our movie license forbids me from revealing the title). We’re hoping people are tired of staying in and will come out in costume to have a good time despite the white stuff falling from the sky.

In the library world, there’s been good news and bad this week. Close to home for me, in Brattleboro, Vermont, a janitor left millions of dollars to the benefit of others, including his local public library. Woot! In Great Britain it’s National Library Day and the Guardian‘s books blog is celebrating with shelfies.

In Wales, cuts threaten to reduce library services in Cardiff but people came out in large numbers this weekend to voice their support. Across America, there continues to be strong public support of libraries as well — 95% find them important, according to Pew — but municipal leaders do not necessarily reflect this value in their budgets. It’s budget season in many library systems, and as we all work to make our numbers as lean and workable as possible, we hold our collective breaths and also dream a bit of what we could do if funding reflected the love of libraries we share with so many of our fellow citizens.

That said, just as we manage to muddle through storms and carry on with the job at hand, we’ll carry on, in libraries large and small, the world over. I posted a review of When Books Went to War this morning on bookconscious; author Molly Guptill Manning describes how librarians came together during WWII not only to provide books to servicemen through a national book drive, but also to champion the books and author banned in Nazi occupied Europe and here at home. Librarians are resilient and books cannot die. I salute my colleagues in Cardiff and hope the tide will turn for them.

The flip side to serving the homeless in libraries

Over the holidays my son and I had lunch with friends and the subject of what I do at the library came up. I explained that librarians these days do a lot more than recommend books, help people with research, select materials, and organize information. I started with tales of printers gone wrong and other tech help stress. Then I pointed out that a large part of our job these days is helping the under-served access computers and welcoming those who are just trying to get out of the weather, without alienating the patrons who don’t really appreciate that.

One of our friends asked, “How do you convince people that it’s ok?” Without hesitation I said, “We don’t.”  I explained that we can’t change people’s minds, all we can do is treat everyone fairly and decently, welcome everyone. Usually it doesn’t feel like that’s going to change anyone’s mind, though, especially if some of our patrons make other patrons uncomfortable. Which is entirely possible — a couple of loud verbal confrontations happened between patrons during my last evening shift, and even though I’m used to this kind of thing, I admit those incidents made me uncomfortable.

There is a lot of talk about the role of libraries in serving the homeless. A colleague of mine, referencing the recent American Libraries piece on that topic, asked a good question last week: why don’t the professional journals ever address how to shift public perception of that work? Not the perception of homelessness and poverty in general — that is a societal issue. But the view that libraries shouldn’t really be quite so open to the unwashed, to people who talk to themselves, to people who are carrying everything they own, to people who seem to have nowhere else to spend the day, to people who just want to rest. I hear all the time that some members of our community don’t come into the library because it bothers them to see some of our other patrons. I have no way of measuring this, but there’s anecdotal evidence.

I’m hoping some of you will write and tell me how you handle this in your libraries and communities. If pressed to answer right now, I would have to say the role of the public library in serving those who don’t want to see “those people” —  the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the unemployed, the eccentric, the lonely — in libraries is the same as it is in serving anyone else. We can simply make it clear that public libraries practice a radical kind of welcome in America, in which every person can belong. We can champion our passion for making library resources freely available to the entire community as one of the privileges of citizenship and our dedication to making libraries peaceful spaces for reading, accessing information of all kinds, learning new things, and being a community. And we can enforce some basic rules of civility to make our libraries islands of egalitarianism, safe and welcoming to all.

I know that in my head. But yesterday my heart led me slightly astray of the rules. It was below zero overnight. In the morning I saw one of our regular patrons arrive, ashen-faced, a blanket wrapped around himself in addition to his usual coat, hat, and boots. I don’t know his circumstances, but he often stays all day and carries a very large bag with him. I was doing a walk-around on the main floor and saw him sleeping with an open book in his lap. It wasn’t even a case where I could claim maybe he was just reading — he was clearly asleep. I went to wake him, but as I approached, I saw that he looked much better after spending some time in the warm library. His color had returned. His sleeping face looked less worried. And I could not bring myself to disturb him, even though I was breaking a rule by walking away. Did someone else come along and decide the library wasn’t a comfortable place because that man was sleeping? Or see me leave him alone and feel compassion too? Either is possible.

I look forward to a day when this kind of conundrum — follow the library’s no-sleeping policy as I ask the rest of the desk staff to do or follow my conscience and give a clearly exhausted man a break, a man who may, for all I know, have spent all night awake trying to stay warm, or keeping watch over his stuff in a shelter, or in any case not in a comfortable home like my own — will no longer be the reality in my community. There is hope, as my friends who hosted us for lunch pointed out, in that there is some momentum in the struggle to end homelessness here, as you can read in this Concord Monitor series  by Megan Doyle and Jeremy Blackman.

And if there is one thing public librarians are very good at, it’s being hopeful, because we know how powerfully our work can transform people’s lives — think of how often you’ve heard someone refer to the library as the place that meant the world to them, that made a difference, that was a haven during some difficulty, or helped them realize they were smart and capable and able to think. So when I’m not flouting rules, I plan to keep on trying to be welcoming to every patron, to help the library be the place they want to be, no matter who they are.