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.



Mindfulness 101

Stress is a natural reaction to changes in our environment — it’s our mind’s way of saying, “Whoa! I’m not ready to adapt to this.”  The start of a new school term brings stress for students, educators, staff, and communities (all that extra traffic!), so it seems like the perfect time to consider a very effective method of dealing with stress: mindfulness.

Mindfulness is intentional awareness and acceptance of what is happening. It can be combined with other practices, such as meditation or prayer, but can also just be a part of everyday activities. While it’s simple, it’s also challenging – our brains are trained from a young age to multi-task and to split our attention among competing stimuli. We are also used to reacting to that stimuli without really thinking about why or how we are responding. Mindfulness requires practice.

Noticing, (“This printer is not working,”) refraining from judging (hating the printer, fretting over the missing document or lost time), and accepting (I’ll just have to troubleshoot) can shift our attention and deter stress reactions (raised voice, elevated heart rate, feelings of anger, worry, frustration). There’s no denial involved; mindfulness isn’t about ignoring or glossing over difficult situations; we observe the challenge, notice our feelings, and let it all pass with our equilibrium likely intact. Mindfulness increases our own well being and improves our interactions with others.

Science shows that it also literally changes our minds. Dr. Richard Davidson is famous for studying Tibetan monks’ brains, as well as pre-schoolers and veterans (a Danish documentary about his work will be out soon).  Davidson’s research indicates mindfulness “re-wires” our brains.  Jon Kabat-Zinn has written extensively on the health benefits of mindfulness, particularly in managing stress, pain, and depression.

So if you’re sitting in morning traffic or starting a new semester, juggling schedules or sending a child to college, balancing your budget or looking for work, answering reference questions or troubleshooting network issues, try a little mindfulness.

Evil printers?

According to OED, evil (adj.) is defined as ” The antithesis of good (adj., adv., and n.) in all its principal senses” and good, when used in reference to things, means “Having in adequate degree those properties which a thing of the kind ought to have.”

So far The Nocturnal Librarian has answered zero actual reference questions in the new semester, and at least a couple dozen questions regarding printers that don’t seem to have “in adequate degree” the properties of a fuctioning printer. Hence, I am prepared to declare printers evil, at least in that sense of the word.  Along with Blackboard links that won’t open, PDF’s that freeze, and online tutorials that won’t run.

This is my second late shift at the reference desk.  I am enjoying the nocturnal life, so far.  The difference in traffic between my commute here at 7:45 pm and home again at midnight is discernable: no one veers into my lane while texting after midnight, at least not so far. And NHPR broadcasts The World Today from the BBC World Service at midnight, so I can hear what my son might sound like when he comes home from his gap year in England. 

It’s also interesting to see how many lights are on in my neighborhood at 12:40 am when I pull in (more than you’d think). And it feels a little decadent to read in the late afternoon, when I used to be working, but I think I could get used to that. I don’t fall asleep in my book at that hour, which I always did at bedtime.

I do hope students will begin to ask reference questions soon, because technical troubleshooting isn’t nearly as gratifying. Maybe I should just consider it stamping out evil instead. In which case, my colleagues in the IT department should perhaps wear superhero capes.