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.

 

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