Sunday, October 10, 2010

Barriers to Access

Chip Ward's "What They Didn't Teach Us in Library School" was a heartbreaking article. The poor, severely mentally ill and chronically homeless are among the most vulnerable and disenfranchised segments of our society. That libraries are ultimately one of their last refuges is an unfortunate fact, one that speaks to large gaps in our social safety net. In society, we shove these people farther and farther to the fringe, their mere presence inconveniently pricking our conscience.

Blaise Cronin is a classist and his arguments are hackneyed. His tone is similar to those who have argued against civil rights, gay rights, women's rights and so forth, claiming that the aggrieved do not simply want to be treated as human and fully vested citizens, but instead want "special rights." Now, I do agree with some points Cronin made, the library isn't an appropriate place to be viewing pornography, librarians also are not baby-sitters and their are sound reasons for having policies regarding unattended children, public fornication is not only inappropriate, it is also illegal, as are public intoxication and using illicit substances. These are all reasonable prohibitions, not only in the library, but in any other public place as well. His claim that the library is not a place to "defecate [or] micturate" is prima facie ludicrous. I have done both, with frequency, in the library. By Cronin's reasoning, I suppose I was wrong in assuming that was what the bathrooms were for.

Cronin citing the example of the Tacoma public library and their issues with homeless patrons, defends the adoption of policies that ban "bed rolls, big boxes, or bulky bags into the library." He defends these policies with an argument by analogy stating, "I don't take big boxes when I visit Borders. I don't take bulky bags into the Tate Modern." This is a bad analogy (and therefore a bad argument), Cronin, a well-heeled former Dean, is clearly not homeless and has no need to carry "big boxes" around with him. Further, Borders is a private business not a public place. While Cronin does not mention policies regarding odor or sleeping in the library, these are policies that have been adopted with the similar intentions, excluding a problematic class of patrons from the library. Again, clearly a library needs to have policies in place regarding expected behavior in order to ensure the safety and full enjoyment of the library for all their patrons. But the above cited policies seem to me to be crafted to target the homeless and to exclude them from the library. I doubt very much that a policy about offensive odors would be enforced against an unwashed teen playing on-line games, that a policy against bulky bags would be enforced against students, or that a policy prohibiting sleeping in the library would be enforced against a senior citizen that has dozed off sitting in one of the library's new over-stuffed chairs.

Taking a cue from Sanford Berman, instead of crafting reactionary policies that are meant to be punitive and exclusionary to deal with the problems presented by homeless patrons, we should be advocating for policies and social programs that get at the underlying causes of homelessness.

Libraries are public spaces and function as open and inclusive democratic forums (inspite of the troubling history outlined by Musmann). This is what makes libraries exceptional, and we should celebrate that fact, accepting the occasional messiness that accompanies welcoming all comers. Contra Cronin, patrons need not prove their "bona fides" before entering the library. There are few truly public spaces left in our society and they are vital. Libraries cannot argue for their necessity as public spaces while at the same time trying to exclude certain segments of the public that may cause us some annoyance or moral discomfort.


  1. It is unfortunate that the homeless need to carry their belongings around with them and may not be able to bathe on a daily basis, but the library needs to have rules and policies in place to make it a welcoming place for all. That being said, when a patron with an offensive odor walks through the door (whether they be homeless or not), it detracts from that welcoming atmosphere. I've been through this many times and have had to breathe through my mouth in order to get through a transaction or helping someone because of their odor. It makes it very hard to help them and you tend to rush through the interaction in order to get them to leave quickly. I have no problem with homeless people using the public library, but they need to follow the rules just like everyone else who walks through those doors. I don't believe any of the libraries I have worked at have had a policy on offensive body odor, but there were plenty of times that I wish they had!

  2. Of course there needs to be policies and standards in the library to make it a welcoming and safe place for all. My point is that many of the policies I outlined above are geared toward making the library a welcoming place for only some people i.e. those that are not homeless. The most troubling portion of Blaise Cronin's op-ed is that only some library patrons are "bona fide" library patrons.

    Policies on offensive body odor are inherently arbitrary and unlikely to be uniformly applied, which makes them unfair and possibly unconstitutional, as the judge in this case decided.