Knowing Our Place

Unsure how to approach the topic, I’ve lately been poring over the subject of homeless library patrons. I tend to avoid discussions of library charity, particularly where they involve service to the homeless. Lately, though, I’ve found it striking that people in the profession, often library students, are curiously passionate about the handling of the homeless patron.

Enter Steven Johnson, a homeless man from Belleville, IL, whose library privileges have been restricted due to altered residency status. Will Manley writes about the story and asks, “Should the Public Library Function as a Homeless Shelter?”. While I don’t think Will would really entertain the idea that a public library could or should serve as a homeless shelter, his post makes salient suggestions about ethics and public relations and opens discussion of some important topics regarding homeless patrons and patrons with issues of residency.

Should Johnson’s access be restricted due to library policy? Honestly, if I’m on the staff of the Belleville Public Library, I’m overlooking this one. It’s an isolated incident requiring a judgement. The wrong judgement is to hand down a pointless temporary punishment and risk the negative publicity. It’s more common sense than virtue and goodwill. Yet many library staff and students will respond to this story with passion. In their assessment, that library employee has struck a blow to the very foundation of the library-as-community-center. These people need direction. They have blurred the line between librarian and social worker.

The truly embedded public library is a community center, for sure. They serve diverse communities with vastly different levels of mobility, communicative and cognitive abilities, and financial status. In the 80s, many libraries would have a Fallout Shelter sign above the entrance. Libraries serve as warming centers in winter and storm shelters in the tornado season. A growing discussion among metropolitan libraries is the idea of staffing social workers to assist patrons in need.

Yet the public library remains an institution for education, exploration, and connections. It is not an institution for charity and welfare. And although many are slow to rid themselves of the notion, the library’s materials and services are not free. Citizens who don’t pay taxes get a nice ride from the library and, to an extent, that’s fine. We’re all human. Best to be part of the solution. But if publicly funded libraries are going to retain and strengthen their place as community centers, librarians need to remember what it is that librarians do and what is the mission of the library. We need to think more like educators and facilitators. We need to be certain that our primary concerns as information professionals are education and connections rather than welfare and goodwill.

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About Steven V. Kaszynski
librarian, editor, contributor

2 Responses to Knowing Our Place

  1. Ashley says:

    I think there are libraries that have a few isolated cases of “residency issues” that should be handled with care and digression—and then their are libraries that have homeless “problems” I think these organizations need to see how they can provide relevant services to homeless users without alienating tax paying users. There are organizations whose sole mission is serving the human needs of homeless (food, clothing shelter)—they should carry the burden of meeting those needs. I still think that libraries are the most logical place for the homeless to have their information needs met. If homeless users want to use computers to email family or apply for jobs, I think they should be able to so. There are services that libraries provide that are more of a burden on tax payers if they are duplicated in other social organizations. I think community organizations and government institutions (schools, libraries, city/county offices) can come together to assess the needs of the homeless population (particular to their area) and provide comprehensive service across all institutions. Libraries can be part (not the whole) of the solution.

    • It’s certainly the responsibility of the public librarian to know her local resources and to be able to direct the needy patron to the facility or institution that matches his query. Familiarity with these resources and creating partnerships with community centers, youth outreach centers, and goodwill organizations goes a long way toward being part of the solution.

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