Monday, October 11, 2010

Module 6: tensions in access

Bob spent a lot of time at my library. He would come in, sit down by the newspapers with a load of reading material and music for his portable CD player, and just dig in. He didn’t bother anyone. But patrons and staff were still annoyed. The smell emanating from where he was sitting was “offensive,” they said. And it was. I had a hard time walking by him without turning my head away. Yet, I always smiled and said hello to him. The few times I spoke with him he was respectful and articulate. Just a man down on his luck and with nowhere else to go.

Then Bob started sitting at the all access WebPac computers to look at Google maps. Others quickly became alarmed because they thought he was casing houses to burglarize. I think he was just looking for somewhere to sleep. It was winter. IT blocked Google maps from the WebPacs. Without a library card, Bob wasn’t able to log in to other computers. And with no address, Bob couldn’t get a library card.

Chip Ward’s article, “The Public Library as an Asylum for the Homeless” painted a bleak picture of an institution that has been designed to be democratic. Because they are a designated public space, libraries have always been a haven for those with nothing to do, and nowhere else to go. People without homes or jobs or families are often plagued with mental illnesses and addictions that make the (normal) people around them ill at ease.

Ward writes that the mentally ill are “sick, not bad,” and asks, “Why do we apply a kind of moral judgment we wouldn’t use in other medical situations?” For example, would someone with cancer be viewed with as much distaste as a schizophrenic talking to him/herself? In some way, it seems as if libraries want to protect their regular patrons from the homeless ones. And, according to Berman’s article, we don’t want the poor near our new multi-million dollar libraries. If you look to Musman’s article, for the longest time we didn’t allow African Americans equal access either.

So, who are we if we are tailoring services to those who have an address, a family and friends, health insurance, and the ability to shower at least once a day? More importantly, how do we break down those barriers? By building gorgeous libraries in nicer areas and leaving little or no funds for branches in areas that are aching for computer access, job and housing information, and maybe just a place to sit down?

Ward is right when he says that librarians do not have the training to deal with the mentally ill. To compound that problem, no good solutions exist when a librarian is faced with a patron who starts talking to him or herself, washing up in the bathroom, or worse. When things do get worse, there is no one else to call for help except for the police.

I don’t know the answers, but I agree with Ward that we must begin to work toward a better understanding of all members of our communities, individual members of many classes of people that need help. Maybe community forums to help inform the public and destigmatize the wrath of mental illness. Or the development of professional workshops led by social workers, psychologists, and doctors that can help us understand behavior patterns, and how to judge situations and best handle them. Not every homeless person is mentally ill but how do you distinguish when a schizophrenic who has been off her meds is violent or just terrified of life? I believe that a small part of the solution starts with the library itself, educating staff, and ultimately patrons, in how not to “look away fast,” as Ward said.

In the end, Bob did something offensive with illicit material. He was talked to, and then he did it again. The cops were called and he was banned from the library. I cannot argue that what Bob did wasn’t wrong. I also cannot argue the fact that since the police were involved, he inevitably lost his spot at the shelter where he was staying.

I haven’t seen Bob in months now, not even walking down Illinois Route 59 with his backpack. I wonder where he spends his time, with nothing to read or listen to. And winter is coming soon.


  1. I agree with Joanna that this week's readings really made me think about my ethics. And argue with myself. Then Diana really personalizes the issue by telling us about Bob just as Ward tells us about Crash and Ophelia; Diana wonders about Bob now and I'm wondering about him too. I admire Chip Ward -- I think: I need to be more like Chip Ward. But then I read Cronin's article about what a library is and is not and I can't help agreeing with him, too. Can I be on both sides of this fence? I do appreciate David's comments that libraries should be celebrated as one of the few open places we have and we'll have to accept a little messiness with that. But I guess the problem comes when it's more than a little messy. Of course the library must be open to everyone and of course our country needs to better take care of the poor and the powerless. These issues are not easy and will not be solved overnight. It was good to learn that the ALA has a "Library Services for Poor People" policy. It was also good to learn more about mental illness. Musmann's article provided an interesting juxtaposition and some important history -- library access helped many blacks attain a better life and education. All of this is helping me realize one of the most important rewards of being a librarian -- the ability to truly help someone to attain the knowledge to change his or her life. With that reward comes a lot of responsibility and difficult decisions.

  2. Thanks for sharing this story Diane. It made me upset that the library suspected Bob of casing houses because he was looking at Google maps.

    The Berman article briefly mentioned judgement -- we cannot judge our patrons simply because they are dressed poorly or smell. We must treat them with respect and say hello and help them -- not deny access or worry our more clean patrons (who have the luxury of going home after their visit) may be offended.