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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.



About Deb Baker

Deb Baker is a writer and insatiable reader, and library director at a community college. She muses about library issues at The Nocturnal Librarian ( and blogs about books, reading, and life at bookconscious ( Her family includes two awesome offspring, a husband, and the cat who adopted them. And a crazy rescue kitten.

4 responses to “The flip side to serving the homeless in libraries

  1. I, for one, am warmed by the thought that you let the man sleep in peace. In my worldview–and, I realize there must be reasons why the library has a no-sleeping policy–sleep is sacrosanct, and in reading your story, Deb, I envisioned you in the role of guardian angel, watching over him, monitoring his color, opening your already wide heart even more. And in doing that simple thing, checking on him, noticing and then blessing him in his slumber, illegal though it may have been, you have paid it forward, as it were, and modeled kindness and compassion for others to follow. I am proud to know you’re my friend. A big hug.

  2. Amanda ⋅

    Ironically I was going to share this with you as I was reading, not having looked at which site I was reading in my ‘library’ feed. I was struck by the thought that, yes some of these patrons might make people uncomfortable, but 60 years ago it was another type of patron who made people uncomfortable. Then we had the civil rights movement, and now — for the most part, and in most places — society has accepted them. Maybe libraries are where people can adjust to the idea of being compassionate and understanding of all people, even if you don’t understand them and can’t relate to them. Maybe it’s breaking a rule, but maybe too it’s a sign that something else needs to be done.

  3. If the argument is that for the non-homeless patron to feel welcome, then the homeless patron needs to be excluded, my response would be: what’s the additional utility for the library in that case? Nobody’s paying for services, nobody ‘costs’ more to serve than anyone else, so why change policies to privilege one type over another? Their value is literally, as well as ethically equal. Probably the calculus is even more unbalanced than that- to encourage one patron who is alienated by homeless, you would have to exclude a much greater number, all or at least the most florid of your homeless

  4. Janice Flahiff ⋅

    My hometown newspaper recently had an article on this.
    Hope this links work, if not let me know and I will email you a PDF of the article.
    Some excerpts…a good chunk of the article (umm…thinking I am breaking copyright)
    A library’s function has historically been one of collecting information and providing it to people. Now, there’s a question of expanding that role, Ms. Delaney said.

    Toledo library staff have attended training classes over the last several years. The sessions focused on serving the homeless, responding to mental-health concerns, and overcoming poverty.

    Employees want to be approachable so customers feel comfortable asking for help, Ms. Delaney said.

    “As the sophistication and complexity of people’s lives and their needs deepen, we want to be there for them,” she said.

    Ms. Delaney said the goal for these prospective programs is providing help that residents desire.

    “Now, the fresh idea of having other community partners in the library, that is fairly new,” Ms. Delaney said.

    Among the programs Toledo library officials researched is a service in Pima County, Arizona. There, a partnership between the county health department and library implemented medical care for library patrons.

    It’s one way to treat residents who lack health insurance, and ultimately encourage them toward the federal marketplace, said Amber Mathewson, a deputy director at the library in Tucson.

    Nurse Daniel Lopez visits the system’s primary library and a branch. He frequently conducts blood pressure tests and treats minor wounds, Ms. Mathewson said.

    Last year, Mr. Lopez helped more than 2,000 people at the system’s main branch.

    The library has employed Mr. Lopez since late 2012 and pays his annual salary of $67,000.

    The rapport he’s created eases those who might feel uncomfortable with traditional medical services, Ms. Mathewson said.

    “Not only will he talk to people, but people will seek him out for care,” she said.

    The library-health department agreement has succeeded and expanded, she said. Nurses employed by the health department connect with nearby library branches.

    The public has largely approved of the nursing program, and employees feel better prepared to address problems, Ms. Mathewson said. Calls to 911 for patron incidents are generally down, she said.

    Ms. Mathewson said she and her staff are proud to continue libraries’ tradition of assisting everyone, including the poor.

    The nursing program is scalable, she said, for smaller libraries that can reach the right agreement with their area health department. Pima County has a population of about 997,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

    Similarly, the District of Columbia Public Library employs one of the few full-time librarian social workers.

    Jean Badalamenti brings 25 years of social work experience and credibility. It helps the library partner with other organizations, said spokesman George Williams.

    “It’s broader than one-on-one case work. It’s about creating an environment where people feel welcome and safe,” Mr. Williams said.

    Much of Ms. Badalamenti’s time is spent helping the homeless.

    She also works for a library branch at the area jail.

    “We do a lot of things people don’t think of a library as doing, if they think we’re just books,” Mr. Williams said.

    Ms. Badalamenti started in May with a salary of $76,596, according to Washington public employee records.

    The job includes coordinating with other service organizations to provide meals and housing, forming new library programs for the homeless, and helping train staff.

    “I think what Jean brings to the library is a really broad view of how we can serve a variety of customers and connect them with organizations in a systematic way,” Mr. Williams said.

    A Blade survey of regional libraries found staff do not conduct a specialized mental-health response when incidents occur.

    Officials with libraries in Cleveland, Bowling Green, Wauseon, Port Clinton, Fremont, Findlay, and Monroe, Mich., said they typically contact an outside agency if problems arise.

    The Columbus Metropolitan Library opens library rooms for agencies hoping to reach their homeless patrons. The specialists hold sessions four days a week in obtaining shelter, employment, and health care.

    The program falls within the library’s mission, “to inspire reading, share resources, and connect people,” said spokesman Ben Zenitsky.


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