Monday, October 11, 2010

Module 6 Thoughts

In thinking about tensions and issues in access policies, I enjoyed returning again to Sanford Berman’s piece about classism in libraries as well as new exposure to the pieces by Tom Engelhardt and Chip Ward. Probably the most striking statement for me in the Berman piece was when he wrote, “And in calculating ‘enormity,’ isn’t homelessness itself an ‘enormous problem,’ perhaps greater even than body odor” (52). Ward echoes in obvious agreement with Berman when describing the patron Ophelia as representative of our country’s shame for allowing individuals to reach her state in that condition.

It is always so humbling to read about these ideas because I will admit that there are times when I too can be one of those patrons who has felt irritated with or uncomfortable around homeless patrons and their behavior and/or hygiene. I can imagine that as a librarian who takes great pride in his or her work, it would be easy to respond to homeless patrons in your library in a critical manner. Yet, as Ward writes, since when did marginalized groups become subject to discrimination in the physical space that boasts of being a welcoming place for everyone where access to information is limitless? How easy it is, though, and how unfortunate to lose perspective in pursuit of our own causes.

When considering the leery patrons - who, like myself, are uncomfortable being in such close proximity with people afflicted by homelessness or considered “street people” - I began to wonder how it is that we are to go about changing people’s preconceptions, stigmas or fears toward these people? The idea of the American dream is so driven into our minds that people immovably believe that homelessness is a condition people bring upon themselves as a lack of initiative and work ethic; yet how far from the truth it is! Is community education possible, as Berman suggests in his education curriculum solution? Is it enough to train your staff in sensitivity or create more usable access policies? Or is the issue on a wider cultural level?

And where do you even begin with changing culture? Ward throws in a pretty weighted moral plea to readers, saying “The belief that we are responsible for each other’s social, economic, and political well-being, that we will care for our weakest members compassionately, should be the keystone in the moral architecture of a democratic culture.” Um…ok, great. I guess I agree with you, in theory, on that point, and that the acknowledgment of street people’s presence is a legitimate contribution to the dialogue of our nation and society.

However, I was expecting more substance from Ward in what he believes can be done, at least on the end of libraries, in actually making the change. His piece definitely called attention to the issue, but I expected something more in his suggestion of what I could do, per se. At the same time, though, I catch myself thinking that and respond, “But wait, should he really be expected to do or suggest more?” Where is the line of advocacy drawn for librarians, and at what point do we allow our personal pursuits to become professional?


  1. Great post, Katherine with lots of grist for thought!

    1) Is it enough to train your staff in sensitivity or create more usable access policies? Neither of these is enough to address the issues at their core level, BUT they are both essential to operate a business (and a library is a business) effectively.

    2) Your last statement about drawing the line of advocacy and the tradeoff of personal pursuit/professional responsibility is indeed profound. I try to frame decisions within the framework of our library's mission.

  2. Question – is it the responsibility of the library to change society’s perceptions of a social issue, i.e. homelessness? Is that the library’s mission.

    It is true that the library is a place of thought. A place where people may come and converse about the great ideals found within Plato, Voltaire, DesCartes, Socrates, and others. At least, that’s the romantic image; but it works, and it is generally accepted so long as said individuals to not use the library to hold rallies or other politicized activities.

    It is the libraries responsibility to inform – to bring topics to light, to get people discussing on issues. However, I do not feel it is the libraries’ responsibility, or is it within the mission, to attempt to persuade individuals to one side of the line or the other.

    The truth is, “providing information to the public” has a lot of freedom associated to it and libraries can do a lot of good within this clause. We have the ability, legally, to provide classes and database to help homeless find jobs or family members, to provide reading materials for entertainment or personal growth, to be an access point for professional contacts via reference interviews, and much more.

  3. Is the homeless problem a library problem? In so far as it is a reality that those on the job, especially in urban areas must deal with, it seems that it is, but what we need to do about is the larger debate. And who do we focus on specifically? There is no one type of problem, there is no one type of homeless person that has specific needs.
    In Berman’s writing the homeless are largely not the same as those in Ward’s article. I got the impression that the homeless that Berman referred to were the majority of homeless, the temporary/once-in-a-lifetime homeless that Ward describes. In their case, I don’t see as big a problem. They are people looking for resources, furthering their education, seeking jobs, contacting family, networking, etc. Why would we not extend the same services to them as we would to anyone else? I think that Ward hit upon the much more difficult aspect of the problem, the mentally ill and chronically homeless. There is no good solution to this problem. Libraries and librarians are simply not equipped to deal with these issues. It is tragic and telling of the state of things when your best option is to hand the issue off to someone else who is unable to properly deal with the situation, which in these cases often means the police, but in the end what else can be done. Cronin, despite seeming entirely insensitive, is not entirely wrong (theoretically anyway), as a public service, library use and access should not be disrupted for one group by another; whether it is a mentally ill person shouting racial slurs verbally abusing Hispanic teenagers or the often unfounded and classist fears of the middleclass keeping the homeless out of the libraries.
    I think in the end we will continue to do what we do, which is whatever can be done with the allotted resources. Those that can afford to staff a social worker, like the San Francisco Public Library (which I thought was a brilliant way to help the situation, in that “why has no one thought to do this before” sort of way), will do so (hopefully), the rest will try to help and to educate and to make things run as smoothly as possible while we all cross our fingers and wait for reforms that will provide adequate care for this too often neglected group. Librarians are not social workers, nor should they attempt to be, but anyone can help.