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.

 

Everyone’s a little bit weird

It’s been a very busy month — almost two — since I last posted here (if you are ever wondering what else I’m up to, visit my review blog, bookconscious, which I tend to post to more frequently). One of the challenges we’ve been facing at my library is that although it hasn’t been truly “wicked cold” yet, as they say here in northern New England, it’s cool and wet enough that people are looking for a place to be warm and dry. And as I’ve written here before, that’s an important part of a public library’s mission. Personally, I feel good knowing we help people stay safe and comfortable.*

But what about those regular patrons, regardless of their reasons for coming to the library, who are “difficult” in some way. That’s a catchphrase that can mean everything from “hard to please” to mentally ill. Public libraries serve a broad cross section of citizens, and we experience every kind of “difficult” you can imagine. We train regularly to deal with everything from complaints to outright paranoia. Lately we’ve been talking a great deal at my library about mental illness, because some of the behaviors we see every day seem to go beyond eccentricity (much as I’d like to explain, for privacy reasons I am not going to go into detail).

And some of our staff feel like they’ve had enough — they want someone else to take this on. Unfortunately, that’s usually not possible. We’re very fortunate to have a couple of caseworkers we can call and talk to and last week I did that twice. The advice they gave on engaging with people who seem so “out there” as to be a little scary to other patrons and staff was very helpful.**  But what they can’t help me with is reassuring the staff of something I heard Steve Inskeep say on Morning Edition today: “everyone is a little bit weird.”

This is something I’ve been telling my kids for years. They laugh, but I’m serious. In some way, every one of us does things that to another person seem strange, different, hard to understand, maybe even off-putting or alarming.  Most of us are only just a little bit weird — we have a quirk or habit, a mannerism, or a personality trait that is close enough to the mainstream as to be mostly noticeable. But all of us are somebody’s weirdo. It helps to remember that.

It also helps to combat compassion fatigue to remember that every person I engage with at the library, from those who are pleasant or “normal” to those who seem painfully strange or even a little threatening, is someone. Each of them is someone’s relative. Each of them is a person, not a problem. Each of them is looking for what we’re all looking for on any given day: a connection with another person. I’ve noted before that working in a library for me means being fueled by both “the conviction in my heart and the ideas in my head” (Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative). If I can do anything at all to reassure and equip staff to deal with difficulty and difference, and also be present to patrons and coach staff to do the same, both my heart and my head tell me that’s my job, even if I didn’t learn it in library school.

 

* To those who say libraries aren’t the place for sheltering people from life’s troubles, I generally point out that we have services many underprivileged people need: computers and internet access, job hunting resources, public restrooms. Even more importantly, we have newspapers, so people can stay informed, and books, so people can learn and even just escape.  Neil Gaiman notes that reading is escapist in the best sense: “If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”

** The most effective advice seems to be to to listen, smile, thank the person for sharing their thoughts/concerns/suggestions, assure them (and actually do) pass those on to your boss, and then politely get back to work. This gentle approach offers presence and validation to the person for a moment, but allows the staff member to extricate him or herself from what can often be a lengthy ramble or tirade. It lets the person be heard, but doesn’t promise particular outcomes, which is key if the requests are beyond the library’s means or mission.