Sunday, May 30, 2010

Quiet in the Library

In an impressive attempt to placate the fearmongering and elitism that has surrounded the recent spate of negative coverage about the downtown Milner library, today's Edmonton Journal published a lengthy article on what some may refer to as "problem patrons" - people who have nowhere to go in a culture of increasingly eroded public spaces. It would have been nice to see a mention of the successful and innovative Canadian initiative, The Working Together Project, but it's still refreshing to see an attempt at understanding the root causes of the issues many inner city libraries face when serving patrons from a wide spectrum of backgrounds. Punitive policies against odors and bedrolls and large bags, for instance, work against the broader library ethos of inclusion and equity of access, and promote public libraries as exclusive enclaves of an elite middle class. The Working Together Project eloquently expresses the exclusionary effects of such policies:

"The reality is that to the majority of socially-excluded people, we are a club and they do not feel welcome. Our atmosphere is oppressive, our rules and codes are alienating, and, often, we ourselves are unapproachable and/or intimidating. We require identification and proof of address for membership; we charge fines for overdue materials; we have policies about smelly patrons and behaviour that we as staff find challenging to manage; we implement policies and architecture to “protect” staff from patrons; and we use complex jargon to discuss our services. Many socially-excluded people do not feel welcome and the reality is that they are not welcome. Most of our planning processes and many of our policies and practices make this very clear to them."

Some libraries - San Francisco Public Library for example - are much more progressive and innovative in their approach, hiring a social worker who can refer patrons to shelters and agencies. While most libraries don't have the budgetary luxury to hire social workers, staff training and referrals to social service agencies can go a long way in helping those patrons who have nowhere else to go find social services that can assist them. Promoting a welcoming atmosphere is also essential, as EPL CEO Linda Cook remarked: "We would never refuse entry to someone based on how they look or the fact they don't have a home."

We do have to take issue with the tone of the Journal article at times and the somewhat hyperbolic journalistic license employed - "Nearby, a man dropped a small plastic baggie into another man's hand. In the bathroom, the needle box continued to fill" and referring to these folks as "bad apples in public spaces." If anything, these issues have been useful in illuminating how many Edmontonians have fallen through the cracks caused by the erosion of social services. To complain that these people are "taking over our library" is to overlook the fact that it's EVERYONE'S library. In the unfortunate onslaught of negative coverage concerning our downtown library, there is the bittersweet benefit that perhaps our city officials might take a closer look at the perilous effects of budget cuts in areas that affect people's lives in such overwhelming ways, and to hopefully arrive at some sort of plan to fill these gaps.

Kudos to the Journal for an insightful article that will surely open some eyes.

Image courtesy of, licensed by Creative Commons.


One Man's Opinion said...

This post is laughably, mind-bendingly naive.

For one thing, whether you like it or not, some people pay taxes and other people pay A LOT of taxes. They deserve to be able to visit a place and expect it to be more than a hangout for a bunch of guys that are referred to in this article as "socially-excluded people" but are, in reality, bums.

A lot of bums like being bums. They don't want jobs or homes, and if they did, they would use the library to investigate job options, special services, and apartment listings in newspapers instead of sitting around all day sleeping or using the bathroom stalls as their new homes for several hours at a time.

Most of these guys don't view us as some special club that they cannot be a part of. They view us as a bunch of fools who waste everyday of our lives going to work and having real responsibilities.

It is great that you wish to help unfortunate members of our society but please, go into it with a little bit more of a realistic view of what causes and contributes to homelessness.

Anonymous said...

SFPL's security people are terrific. I was in once and another patron decided it was a good time to flip out and go into his patron-threatening routine. The security people came over and like flicking a switch, had him cooled out almost instantly. It was truly amazing. They tapped right in to whatever was setting him off, defused the whole thing instantly. Kudos to those well trained *sensitive* cops. I hope it not an an *only in San Francisco thing.*

Bill Hale
SFPL Patron