Libraries in embattled communities

I’ve been attempting to write this post for a long time. I shy away from controversy, and I am sad to say that services to our more challenged patrons – homeless, released felons, and the very poor – tend to fall lower on some librarians’ priorities. The bottom line is that some aspects of these particular patrons can make them difficult to serve and some – librarians and patrons included – just don’t want them in the library. And that was heartbreaking for me to see. Especially now that the community that one of my libraries exists in is facing even more challenges due to the loss of its only grocery store. This has left many of my patrons stranded in a food desert, where the only place to get food is from convenience stores (like 7-11) or fast food joints (like McDonald’s or Church’s). The cheapest food at these places is generally the junk food and if they even serve healthy alternatives or “fresh” vegetables, they are generally overpriced.underserved

But returning to the patrons I dub the underserved (because library policy either ignores them or attempts to restrict their actions). The reasons that make certain populations more of an issue to serve are varied. For example, our homeless don’t always have access to hygienic facilities, leading them to try to use the bathrooms to clean themselves, which can be a shock to other patrons trying to use the same facility. The demeanor of our released felons can scare some library workers and patrons. Our very poor often will walk around the library soliciting money or food, which is against our policy. We’ve had some individuals attend programs, take all the food, and then leave the program before it’s really started. In other cases, they are often slow to accept help because they don’t want to be charity cases, which is noble but frustrating when I know I can help make some of their life easier by increasing their knowledge of computers, a skill necessary for both jobs and applying for government assistance. 

These descriptions, of course, do not mean that all members of these groups present these challenges, nor does that mean that people not part of the groups don’t present similar challenges. But all of these things have caused these individuals to be looked upon poorly by some librarians and library administrators. Many rules often discriminate these groups, even if that is not how they are meant. But it all can break your heart when you have to tell someone you can’t offer a service to them because of something they might have no control over. And really, it’s the most difficult part of my job.

Last summer I wrote a long research paper (40 pages!) proposing an assessment of a hypothetical public library’s services for the homeless (based loosely on statistics and budgets for my own public library). Half the paper was devoted to the technical aspects of the assessment, the other half was on research about homeless individuals in libraries, with a focus on child development. The kids of these individuals are always the hardest to face, since you want to help them so badly but you can’t overstep your bounds as a librarian. I think the real issue is that the role of libraries are changing. We’ve become more of a community center and shelter than we’ve ever been. And those who need that service, come to us because we are all they have. This is why I find it so difficult to say no, to tell them that they can’t use us – their only real lifeline – in the way that they actually need.

Of course, we really can’t have homeless people taking sponge baths in a public bathroom. What we can do, however, is evaluate what our patrons need, and work to give it to them in the way they can actually benefit from and won’t overstretch our already meager resources. To me, the solution here is outreach. If the welfare, schools and community outreach programs in the community aren’t seeing the problem, then it is up to us to give a voice to our patron’s needs.

Another issue is one of funding. As budget cuts continue to run deep all over the government, we’ve found that local government agencies are referring their patrons to us for roles that only they can really fill. We’ve always offered the basic computer help, but patrons are increasingly needing more help as government services are transferred online and require greater skills. I want to see these patrons get what they need, but we just don’t have the funding to offer these in-depth services. Unless, the government recognizes the new and increasingly essential role we play and send funding – and training! – our way in acknowledgement.

Here are some links across the web with more perspectives underserved populations in the library:


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