A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Spring 2021


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Not Your Grandmother’s Library

By Candace Brown

You enter your neighborhood library looking forward to a peaceful hour of study, research, or browsing, but that might not be what you get. You expect a clean, safe environment, available computers, and quiet. After all, you’re a tax payer, and live in a supposedly civilized nation. But instead you might see people who appear to be psychotic, others viewing child pornography online, those under the influence of drugs or alcohol, restless kids, a sleeping “street person” whose foul odor fills the room, and a creepy guy staring at you through the stacks. If you’re lucky the place hires security guards. But if no one complains and these people aren’t technically interfering with others’ use of the library, chances are they’ll stay.

What is the state of America’s libraries in 2009? It all depends on where you live, what rules exist, the degree of enforcement, and the type of patrons. Some are virtually problem-free, like the Wheelock branch of the Tacoma Public Library system in the state of Washington. Situated in a low crime “urban village” in the city’s north end, surrounded by single family homes and near two schools, it’s a peaceful, happy place where patrons of all ages show respect for the building and each other. The atmosphere in Wheelock may remind of us “the good old days” but it’s becoming more and more rare for libraries to exist under such optimal conditions.

Some try strict rules to deal with challenges, not always with much effect, and some manage successfully through more tolerant attitudes and flexibility. Also in Washington, the Sno-Isle Library System has 21 branches in a variety of neighborhoods. Community Relations Director Mary Kelly says, “It’s important to us to make our libraries welcoming places people want to visit. We do try to customize how we respond to the needs of each community.” They sometimes see problems like disputes over computers, incidents of vandalism, and issues related to vagrancy, and hire security guards to help prevent more serious situations. Like Wheelock, Sno-Isle is lucky. In some cities patrons have found used hypodermic needles left sitting around or filthy clothes being washed in restroom sinks.

In some ways the nation’s libraries are better than ever, embracing the latest technology, expanding collections and reaching out to the community in exciting ways. But this treasured public institution, this vital part of our democracy, struggles with its changing patronage, public expectations, and serious challenges to its noble purpose of providing free access to all. Providing that access while still maintaining the safe and comfortable atmosphere we expect means traveling a rocky road.

It isn’t easy for librarians to deal with the mentally ill, calm someone who is potentially violent, or approach a patron and tell them they smell so bad they must leave. In 1989 an indigent man named Richard Kreimer was expelled repeatedly from the Morristown, New Jersey library because of his foul odor and intimidating behavior toward other patrons. He brought a lawsuit against the library in the Federal District Court for the District of New Jersey, (Kreimer v. Morristown 1991, Kreimer v. Morristown 1992) in which he claimed violations of his First Amendment rights plus pain and suffering. Kreimer won. Later the decision was appealed and reversed but it brought to light some controversial issues.

Librarians rank among the most open-minded, patient and compassionate people around. Most saw their choice of this career as a true calling but can find themselves pushed to the limit, going home at night depressed and overwhelmed. Yet despite these obvious stresses on both the librarians and many patrons, no one wants to talk about it.

That is to say, no one wants to talk about it publicly. All but a few messages left and emails sent while doing research for this article, to points all across the United States, went unanswered. While anonymous blogs by harried librarians abound on the web, official spokespersons offer uniformly careful and reassuring statements, if they respond at all. One candid representative, not wanting to be quoted, asked, “Would anyone actually talk to you?” Libraries want patrons as much as any business wants customers.

As noted earlier, in some libraries the classic scenario of a quiet repository of information still exists with only minor problems. But too often they end up as the center of a tangled web of inefficiency, frustration, and despair when it comes to dealing with perplexing issues like mental illness, homelessness, substance abuse, out-of-control children, and the widespread demise of simple good manners.

In the worst cases librarians spend their days in a gallery of society’s ills, expected to be social workers, psychiatrists, surrogate parents and police officers, all without the additional funding or training to do the job. They have rules and policies aplenty but that doesn’t make it easy. They worry about that feverish looking indigent with a bad cough and how contagious he might be. They might witness emergencies like profound health crises, mental or physical. They can call paramedics repeatedly, at great expense to taxpayers, but know it won’t bring any meaningful or long term help. Sometimes the people they serve are verbally abusive.

Who are the majority of those “problem patrons?” Many might answer “the homeless” but homelessness in itself does not mean a person will use the library any differently than anyone else and substance abuse, mental illness, and even body odors aren’t confined to the homeless. Likewise, it isn’t always the homeless who take naps and snore.

Where some libraries have rigid prohibitions against things like sleeping or eating and the size of bags, others don’t. In the case of Sno-Isle, a Lynnwood branch reference librarian, Diane Brown says: “We allow food and drink in the library. Some people have packs and suitcases. Some sleep, and if they snore they may be asked to cease, if it’s disruptive. If they aren’t disruptive to others it’s fine.” 

The tolerance of other patrons varies too. Robert Dickhoff is an artist living in a condo not far from the showpiece main branch of the Seattle Public Library. When he and his wife Mary Ann visit the library they share it with the homeless without concern. “We’ve seen the homeless playing chess, reading, resting, or otherwise using the facility, its café, or restrooms,” says Dickhoff, “but have never been made to feel uncomfortable by them.” However, some would disagree, as evidenced by comments on a Seattle Times editorial on recent changes at in the library’s rules. One of those changes is to prohibit not only “sleeping” but the “appearance of sleeping.”

John Cabrera, Operations Administrator at the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon agrees that it’s wrong to stigmatize people based simply on homelessness, and says: “My general thought is that 99% are just like other patrons, do their business, come and go. A lot of it is perception. We have homeless people who are regular users and I know a lot of them on a first name basis.”

But in addition to people with financial hardship, the homeless population does include drug addicts and drunks, the severely mentally ill, and those who disrupt or pose hazards to patrons. Some use the corners of rooms as urinals or destroy property. Those without a permanent address often fail to return library materials. Rule violators can be prosecuted or lose library privileges, in some case for a year or more. Most libraries post policies on their websites, but the rules of even the “best” libraries suggest some problems, as they likely resulted from incidents.

“We regularly exclude people for a day or up to three years,” says Cabrera who considers patrons under the influence of drugs or alcohol to be the biggest problem. Some are so-called “road warriors.” mostly males in their early 20s, homeless by choice and more aggressive. “Right now Portland is dealing with a lot of that.” Still, Cabrera estimates that out of the 2,700 people that library system serves each day, only a few are regularly issued exclusions.

What can libraries do, beyond having enforceable policies, giving librarians additional training, listening to and openly acknowledging their concerns, and hiring security guards? Temporarily kicking people out isn’t the answer. Neither is pointing a finger at libraries and expecting them to find their solutions alone. Our whole nation needs to focus on unemployment, substance abuse, mental illness, poverty, and the resulting homelessness.

On the topic of mental illness Dr. Robert Jackson, retired Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Washington Tacoma says:

“In my view people who use libraries for shelter and appear to be mentally ill are a diverse collection of folks, often unemployed and homeless. Some may have serious mental illnesses (perhaps 10-40%). In addition some may have alcohol or other substance abuse problems. Some are simply trying to manage their illnesses and other problems with drugs and alcohol. Lack of a permanent residence may be one of the reasons they are in the library, but there are probably others. Today public libraries serve as places of shelter and refuge never imagined by their founders. Unfortunately more appropriate alternatives for adults with mental illness are often inaccessible.

“Currently those with mental illness and without money or insurance, find it almost impossible to get inpatient psychiatric care. Simply being psychotic in the United States (that is, seriously out of touch with reality) will not get you a bed in the hospital even if you want or need one. You must be a threat to yourself or others, or be gravelly disabled and subject to involuntary treatment laws in order to receive inpatient psychiatric treatment. Isn’t this crazy social policy?

“Tangled, contradictory policies, and inadequate programs and systems of care set the stage for thousands of personal tragedies among adults with mental illness. Until health care (including mental health care) and social services are available to all, based upon need, not financial means, emergency rooms will continue to serve as inadequate and expensive primary care facilities and public libraries will continue to provide shelter to this vulnerable and generally invisible population.”

Back at the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon, Cabrera comes to work each day with a heartfelt belief in America’s libraries and what they symbolize. “Over the door it says ‘Free to All’,” he points out, “and that’s our approach.” Despite everything, our libraries strive more diligently than ever, to serve us well and remain vital to community life and our nation. But the problems won’t go away and the present economy exacerbates them. As good citizens, we need to see beyond the irritation caused by “problem patrons” and learn how to deal with what makes them so. As Dr. Jackson reminds us, “Hard times test the humanity and compassion of all Americans.”

Photo by John Cabrera, Multnomah County Library




Editorial in Seattle Times, June 1, 2009






www.ala.org  American Library Association



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