Friday, March 16, 2007

Poverty, exclusion & library behavior

Connect these dots -- what picture emerges?
  • Hunger Homelessness & Poverty Task Force - a website for a task force of ALA's Social Responsibilities Round Table, says: "U.S. libraries have been slow to adopt the social-exclusion framework for public service ... Librarians who are seeking community-building models can benefit tremendously from projects launched in Great Britain and Canada ... Through national campaigns, these countries promote relationships between library staff and traditionally excluded groups. The resulting collaborations create more useful programs and services and more cohesive communities." A Canadian model is detailed in the document Breaking Barriers: Libraries and Socially Excluded Communities.
  • There was a 2006 lawsuit against Worcester, Mass library for restricting circulation to homeless people. The suit was settled out of court, but the library had to remove its restrictions.
  • Project Promise is our collaborative effort with other organizations to address problems of poverty in the Fox Cities. So far, we're talking the talk -- and its a worthwhile conversation, with our community read of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel & Dimed at the core of it. But after we talk, how do we walk the walk? Obviously, this is bigger than the library, but what's our piece of it? Do we just talk about books, or do we need to think about how we provide library service?
  • We just held a poverty simulation exercise at the library with 45 community participants and 15 volunteers. During the course of the two-hour simulation, participants get a small taste of the frustration of people who, for a variety of reasons, can't quite make ends meet. Just simulating these situations can leave you angry and questioning your own ethics. It gives me some sympathy for how those in real poverty must deal with repeated frustration and authority which can seem arbitrary. This makes me reflect on our own library and how we provide service.
  • Homeless and poverty are rising faster in our community than nationally and our downtown feels increasingly urban. . Some people in the community feel the library or the library neighborhood is unsafe. We need to gain more insight into this perception. We see increasing public dissatisfaction with safety in the library neighborhood and to some extent in the library, as expressed in a October, 2006 survey. A major root of this is widely held to be loiterers at the edge of our parking lot. This situation was exacerbated by the City's smoking ordinance, which pretty much requires all bus passengers to leave the bus depot area and stand near the library if they want to smoke while waiting for a bus. This in turn has created a mini community center for street people, with a lot of litter, profanity, harassment of women, destruction of plantings. Library staff and Police have not been able to address the situation so as to eliminate the problem. In a free country, people are allowed to stand on the sidewalk and even to cuss publicly. But it creates an unfriendly feeling.
  • A librarian reported a family that had apparently been using the library with their children and experiencing no problems, abruptly leaving. The father, observing another patron who was minding his own business, loudly announced that they were never coming back to the library again, because he had seen at least two or three former inmates or felons here. The family left before staff could engage him -- he didn't want to discuss his concern, he just wanted to announce his unhappiness publicly.

Here's the picture I see:

  • Our public library needs to be, and to be perceived as, "a safe place for everyone" -- and the operative words here are:
    • safe: people need to feel comfortable, for themselves and their children, that this is an OK place to be
    • everyone: we cannot abandon the promise of public libraries as a provider of universal educational opportunity and community gathering place. We need to moderate inclusiveness for all legitimate users. Nobody gets to drive other types of people out. It's not about who you are, it's not about how you look, it's about how you behave – and everyone is responsible for their own actions. Being poor, mentally ill or having a criminal record is neither an excuse for bad behavior nor a reason to be disrespected or excluded.
  • Everyone involved in the library needs to be invested and empowered to make this real
  • Library staff needs tools to deal with these concerns -- how we collectively do this has room for lots of discussion! Tools include:
    • policies & procedures
    • well-designed spaces
    • sufficient staff
    • training
    • backup & support
    • technology for communication & documentation as needed
There are a lot of forces in our society which mitigate against the growth or funding of library services. They can point fingers and trivialize what we do. But a thoughtful look at public libraries reveals the value of information, self-determination and education that we provide. It's good that we bridge the digital divide and its good that we provide bestsellers in many media. But the good thing is not to increase library use of popular services, the good thing is to bring people closer to the rich variety of opportunities we offer -- for everyone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am happy to hear about all your library is doing to raise awareness about poverty. Keep up the good work!

You might want to check out the Hunger, Poverty, & Homelessness Forums.