Monday, October 11, 2010

Tough issue

The issues we are looking at this week really made me think about my ethics. I think the full time social worker at the San Francisco Library was a creative and somewhat successful way to deal with a problem. However, I think in most situations it is infeasible, and I do not think, ideally, libraries should be responsible for providing the social worker. I guess that is the problem though, reality is often not the same as the ideal. I agree that there is definitely a problem and many of the homeless do have mental health problems that need to be addressed that librarians are not trained to handle. I personally do not have much experience with dealing with homeless people seeking refuge in libraries because I have not worked at any of the public libraries in Madison and I generally use the Law School's library, which is open to the public but in my experience has not had a lot of people besides students, faculty, researchers or attorneys using it.

I think it is interesting that many library ethical codes include statements about providing services and access to everyone, but now some libraries are adding provisions in their codes that prevent some people from accessing the library; for example rules controlling body odor and appearance. This makes one think does everyone really mean everyone or does everyone mean some subset of the population? In one of my other SLIS classes I did a group presentation on advocacy and libraries, and I looked at some cases involving enforcement of library codes restricting access based on appearance and odor, which were clearly aimed at the problem of homeless people seeking refuge in libraries. As I remember, in one case, the decision of which was then followed in several other cases, the court upheld the rules restricting access based on odor and appearance because the court described the library as a limited public forum and only needed to permit the public to exercise rights consistent with the nature and purpose of the forum. This seems odd to me because if part of the purpose of a library is to provide access to information how can any limitations on access be consistent with the purpose of the forum.

I am not sure how to solve the current problems, but I think in the futures libraries will have to decide what exactly equal access means and to take a firm stance on such issues.


  1. Well, I'll start by admitting that the further I read in the Ward article, the more depressed I got. How can libraries (despite our social consciousness, commitment to equity, etc) solve the issues related to homelessness that are pervasive at so many levels of society? I'll also admit that I wasn't previously aware of an ALA "Poor People's Policy" and have recently purchased the ALA publication on serving the homeless.

    My library will never have the resources to hire a social worker. I was just able to add a full-time YA librarian to build a program for this population! In our current, challenging economic climate (particularly for social service agencies), one solution is developing/maintaining strong partnerships among agencies that serve the homeless. This is the strategy we are pursuing. We work closely with the Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS), local soup kitchens, police department, Youth Service Bureau (a large number of our homeless this year are teens), and mental health agencies.

    As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I am usually the "lucky" one to act as the "enforcer" for polices - alcohol, odors, inappropriate language, etc. Most of the time, it's not the homeless I'm enforcing.

  2. Thank you, Kathy, for pointing out that it is not the homeless who are most often disruptive to the library environment.

    Look, it's clear that this is an issue that is not going away soon. That being the case, adopting policies like San Francisco's, and having a full-time social worker makes a lot of sense. As has been pointed out, however, that is not feasible for most libraries. I think Kathy's suggestion for forging stronger partnerships with other agencies is a great idea. But as Ward makes clear, most of those agencies are themselves resource-strapped, and have their hands full already. This issue really requires a comprehensive, society-at-large solution, and given the state our nation's current political discourse, this seems depressingly unlikely.

    One thing I feel strongly is that banning homeless from the library is NOT the solution. If, as is so often claimed, the library is the community's gathering place, it is essential that all members of the community are welcome there. Not only is it their right, but it forces the rest of us to confront the unpleasant realities of America. If patrons are uncomfortable with the homeless in their midst, maybe some of them will start to do something about it. If you don't want to have your trip to the library include smelling unwashed street people, then start supporting initiatives to help these people escape their circumstances. Which is why I think the single most important line from Ward's piece was: "[I]n a democratic culture, even disturbing information is useful feedback." Not only useful, but healthy. Forcing the homeless out of the libraries, back under the overpasses and into the back alleys, merely saves the rest of us the inconvenience of having to confront our own failings as a society.

  3. Though the thought of a library hiring a social worker is interesting, I don't think this fits with our mission. Should we start hiring doctors and lawyers too to provide these services to our patrons as well?

    That being said, I do agree that the issue of giving equal access to library services and resources to homeless individuals while not infringing on everyone else's rights to also access these things without being disturbed is a tricky one. The issue of smell/sleeping in the library aside, what about allowing these individuals to get library cards? (Most libraries require proof of residency to obtain a card....)

    I agree with my other classmates that have said that homelessness is not a problem libraries can solve on their own. Yes, we should collaborate with other community agencies and do what we can to come up with solutions together. But libraries are not islands - nor should we want them to be.

  4. I fully agree that libraries should provide full access to all peoples – all types of culture, creed, or income. For this reason, libraries have policies – rues to insure that everyone has full access to the building and its materials. On this vane, a disruptive patron is a disruptive patron; despite their income level. It is the library’s responsibility to limit disruptions which prevent the mission of the institution.
    For example, there are policies in many libraries which ban cell phones, extremely loud voices or shouting, accessing pornography, running/screaming children, stealing library materials, and many others. For each policy, there was a reoccurring instance which fueled its formation. Although it may sound harsh, if homeless patrons are to be treated as all other patrons then they must still abide by the same policies which the library enforces. No special treatment.

    That said, my library, and most libraries I believe, have written within the policy something on the lines of “a policy may not be created or amended which focuses on an individual or specific group of peoples.” This statement disallows a policy to be formed which would negatively target homeless patrons (a hygiene, for example) exclusively; yet, if a patron complains about an individual’s hygiene, the library has the responsibility to act in some way if it is within the policy to do so. Needless to say, it is a very fine line which we walk every day. As the old saying goes, “you can’t please everyone.” Sometimes lines need to be drawn despite personal convictions to create equality. That is public service.

    Contradicting myself yet again, each implementation of a behavioral policy needs to be taken on a case by case basis. The lines drawn in the sand are not clean but hazy. It would be great if each library had a social worker – who, was trained, in some respects, to gauge behavioral issues on a case by case basis - to help form and enforce said policies. However, few libraries have funding for such a luxury. Instead, we librarians must be behavioral policy enforcers. We must be the ones to tell someone that their odor offends, or that they may not sleep on the study tables, or that they cannot bathe in the bathrooms.

    I guess my final words will be this – it would be great if libraries could become a place which could provide every need for every individual. But, unfortunately, libraries do not have the funding and that is not our mission.

  5. Since most of us seem to be generally against kicking the homeless out of libraries, I'll go ahead and play devil's advocate and speak out in favor of body odor policies and other brilliant ideas.

    Rules regulating things like body odor or large boxes that many believe are aimed at keeping the homeless out aren't really that complex or devious. They can easily been seen as keeping your community happy. It's true that the library has a duty to provide for it's entire community. Some might say that by banning smelly patrons the library isn't doing that, however this is a mistake. The library is in fact doing its best to maintain a nice place for patrons to come and read or use as a community space. If the library gets filled up with large carts and foul smelling individuals, it is failing at creating an inviting environment. As RP says above, the library has rules banning cellphones and loud talking, this "noise pollution" is akin to the "smell pollution" that some patrons give off. Allowing individuals to disrupt other patrons in any way is a poor way to run any sort of public service location.

    I recognize that the public library is not the same as a Borders because it is a publicly funded government building. This mere fact though does not mean that it should also operate as a homeless shelter. There already exist homeless shelters provided. One could argue that they are under-funded and in need of help and the library is providing that help. That's great in a world where the library budget is endless, but that's not admitting the reality of the situation. Public libraries are under-funded as well. Taking on the role of homeless shelter means taking away from other important functions like providing information to school children or tax forms to the elderly. If a library really wants to get involved in the homeless issue, help support the existing infrastructure instead of co-opting it.

  6. In a safety training session with a local police officer last year, he stated to us that most people think it is their "Right" to be able to use the library. He corrected us by stating that it is a "Privilege" to use the library and if patrons are not following the rules, that "Privilege" can be taken away. So, if a library adopts a policy against foul odors, and a patron (homeless or not) does not follow this policy, they can, in fact, be asked to leave the building.