Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Social Inclusion

I can’t help but think that the issues emanating from social inclusion in our libraries has to do with the varying definitions we have of ‘library’. My main concern lies in how we come up with that definition. I like to think its created by all we learn and do, and that its a fluid definition that changes as we are exposed to new experiences. But for some, alarmingly and like Ms. Blaise Cronin (‘What A Library Is Not’), the definition is nothing more than a ‘ready-reference’ question that can be quickly found by resorting to a dictionary. From my limited experience in the library world, including library school, the one thing I can say with certainty is that the defining of a library should not be a ‘ready-reference’ question. To provide and rely on such a condensed notion of a library’s responsibilities could be equivalent to not truly participating in the profession. (With that said, and may lack of participation in racist, classist, sexist, etc circles, I turn to my own dictionary, much like Ms. Cronin did, but this time to define Bigot: a person intolerantly devoted to her own prejudices; one who regards the members of a group with intolerance. Oops. This is what can happen if we apply the partial and imperfect world of definitions to institutions, or people for that matter, that are multifaceted. My apologies and thanks to Ms. Cronin, who I do not know well enough to categorize as I did, and who also inadvertently illustrated the lunacy in relying solely on definitions.)

The differences in perception of the type of work we do (or will do) as librarians is central to the response we give to a situation such as library participation on part of homeless patrons. My perception makes me wonder why a social worker is ultimately necessary at the San Francisco Public Library (albeit how wonderful the service is). My concern is not with the social worker’s compassion, accessibility, knowledge, or professionalism. My concern is that, supposedly, the SFPL librarians are not offering similar assistance. Granted, social work, like librarianship, is a very demanding profession that requires insight that is not necessarily second nature, and by no means do I expect librarians to act as social workers. But the very fact that a homeless patron will not approach a librarian (in the library) for help, but will approach a social worker (in the library), I see as damning for the profession. For I don’t believe such a phenomenon falls back on the patron; inevitably it illustrates the accessibility a librarian exudes, or in this case, the lack there of. (Some of the questions a homeless patron may have can be extremely easy for a librarian to answer, if only we could find it in ourselves to encourage such interaction, regardless of how they smell [examples being: were can I sleep at night, where is the closest hospital, where are there lunch lines, how can I contact a social worker, etc.])

One other issue that I question is the almost-absolute association we have with homelessness and mental illness. For sure, some of the most colorful examples of a homeless library user involve quirks of a mental nature. But do these examples truly constitute our perception of homelessness as a disorder? It goes without saying that many people are homeless for many reasons. In addition to illnesses, or loss of jobs, people sometime turn to homelessness intentionally as they may be running from the cops or ex-spouses, or just running. What’s more, my experience with the ‘chronic homeless’ in the library (again its limited and I can’t project it widely) is that they know, understand, and follow library rules better than any other patron. Their whole existence relies on them living just below everybody’s radar (the cops and shop owners who shoo them off doorsteps, etc). Most of them follow the rules so that they can use the library. We shouldn’t take this for granted, and impose unrealistic and/or illegal rules for them to follow.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that as a public librarian you should be more proactive in helping your patrons -- including those that you may believe to be homeless. Shouldn't they need the most education, help, assistance from those who have the 'all-powerful' access to information?

    As for the smell issue, this really bothers me. I think a little more compassion would do a lot of librarians and patrons some good. The library is not a 10x12 room -- there is plenty of room for everyone. Stinky smells -- not the end of the world. Harassment -- that's a different issue. As we saw in the SFPL video, most homeless patrons were reading, sitting in a chair, taking a quick nap (I take naps in the library!) without disrupting other patrons. I'm happy to know they see the library as a safe place and they are partaking in activities that don't involve violence and drugs by spending time in the library.

    We should take this opportunity to help those in the community that actually need it. It's called public service for a reason. If a librarian wants to help -- then directors and boards should be supporting that initiative.