Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Two kinds of library problems

In an article on AlterNet, "America Gone Wrong: A Slashed Safety Net Turns Libraries into Homeless Shelters", Chip Ward -- former assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System -- writes about the problems urban libraries face with some "problem patrons." While Appleton is less extreme than Salt Lake City or any big metropolitan library, we wrestle with the same problems on a smaller scale. Homeless people, street people, the chronic mentally ill, emotionally ill and chemically dependent are daily fixtures and frequent challenges. Local social workers tell their clients: "if you have nowhere else to go, go to the library." While many of the homeless and street people present no problems, some entail substantial behavioral and service concerns. The resultant issues divide our staff and other library users. Although libraries are for everyone, it's easier to serve the people without problem behaviors and with good social skills. We can insist on proper behavior and treat people according to behavior, but its an ongoing challenge, while some other users just think the police should make these problematic people leave town.

We face a tension between legitimate concerns of keeping the library a nice place to work and visit and keeping it a place of opportunity and dialog for all citizens. We don't have social worker training.

By contrast, four days ago I was in Deva, Romania. While walking down the street, I spotted a public library reading room. Curious about Romanian libraries, I stepped in for a look around, hoping I might be able see collections, classification, and talk with staff. It was a small facility: a front room with card catalog and a service desk, a back room with wall stacks and reading tables. As I entered, a library worker stood up and quickly stepped in front of me.

This is a good place to note that I cannot speak Romanian and was wearing dirty work clothes. The staff person asked me a question I did not understand, but the inflection was a lot like "Yes, can we help you?" I responded with my stock "Do you speak English?" No. "Sprechen sie Deutsch?" No. "Parlez-vous Francais?" No.

Not yet quite defeated, I tried to lean in to peer into the reading room. She leaned as well, resolutely blocking my path. I said thanks and left. Final note: I did not see anyone else using the library. Good thing it was so well defended.

A Romanian friend later told me that if I had been well dressed and presented proper papers, they would no doubt have let me in. Another friend, a fairly responsible official in the school district, thought that there was a fairly new central public library, but did not know where it was. She thought she might be able to find out in a day or so. So, are there any happy problems here? Which library is better off?

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