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public libraries = the new homeless shelter

April 12, 2007

I stumbled across a fascinating article on the Hulkster’s blog (fiance of MLE).  It is written by Chip Ward, recently retired Assistant Director of the Salt Lake City Library and deals with the well know (in library circles) issue of homeless people using public libraries as day centers.  I found this a very interesting topic both because of my own interest in entering library work and my semester spent interning at a day center for the homeless in Indianapolis, IN.  At my current job two of the librarians also work a few shifts at our local public library and I have heard both of them talk about dealing with patrons who have offensive body odor, patrons offended by those with offensive body odor, patrons who try to smoke in the library, but most of all patrons who are obviously mentally ill and falling through the cracks of our current social welfare system. 

In his article Ward talks about the strain this places on librarians, who are obviously not trained to deal with seizures, schizophrenia, public drunkenness, etc, but must try to deal with these issues with compassion and wisdom.  Ward also makes strong statements about the stigma associated with mental illness and asks,

“If we accept that schizophrenia, for instance, is not the result of a character flaw or a personal failing but of some chemical imbalance in the brain — an imbalance that can strike regardless of a person’s values, beliefs, upbringing, social standing, or intent, just like any other disease — then why do we apply a kind of moral judgment we wouldn’t use in other medical situations?”

That is indeed a hard question to answer, especially if I allow myself to own up to my own responses to the homeless people I encounter on the streets.  I know when I see the elderly man, who always sits outside of our local coffee-shop, selling his Streetwise, part of me wants to ignore him or at least silently begs not to feel guilty for not buying a paper.  The severely mentally ill can often elicit a similar response.  I mean who really wants to acknowledge that the only difference between your life and the life of a street person could be the level of a particular chemical in your brain.  In some ways we tend to treat mental illness as if it were contagious, we don’t want to catch that severe depression or bi-polar disorder that has been going around these days. 

So in order to protect ourselves we try to isolate ourselves and for the most part we are successful.  With a good pair of ear buds, an aversion to homeless shelters and re-use it stores, one can turn a blind eye or at least ignore most of the homeless people in our cities, except apparently when you go to the library.  And maybe that is a good thing, or at least until society finds a way to truly treat and accept its mentally ill and homeless members, those of us who go to libraries will need to live with having our eyes opened.

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One comment

  1. I think with your knowledge of peace and justice issues, you could be an ideal infusion into the profession, even if that’s only for one library. Good post on an interesting topic.



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