I have a simple message for my readers in this holiday week of sharing and warmth and compassion.
Don’t just be kind. Institutionalize kindness. And, just as important, root out institutionalized unkindness.
This article brought to my attention that some libraries actually have ‘personal hygiene’ policies in place that allow them to eject patrons based on offensive odors and other considerations. One patron is suing a Utah library for the humiliation brought on by the exercise of such a policy, which states that “[p]rohibited conduct includes any illegal activity and includes, but is not limited to, the following… Having offensive hygiene, odor or scent that constitutes a nuisance to other persons.”
Stories like this always make my heart hurt. It’s so tough to walk the edge between (a) providing a comfortable space for all patrons and (b) providing access for the most information-needy among us.
The plaintiff’s claims are questionable, of course--I should hope that library staff didn’t go out of their way to loudly humiliate him beyond asking him to leave. It also seems unreasonable for the library to have banned him, rather than making clear that he was welcome to return after resolving his hygiene issue. The article makes no comment on the veracity of that part of the story.
Just in case that’s all true, though, it seems to me that library policy ought to enshrine accountability for staff along with expected patron conduct to prevent unnecessary hardship for our guests. If we must have hygiene policies, we ought also to insist that they be carried out in a respectful and private manner, and that patrons not be banned outright on the basis of hygiene.
What’s more, hygiene policies should carry exceptions for patrons who, to the best of staff’s ability to discern, are experiencing homelessness. (If that means that some patrons who are not homeless get caught up in this exception, then so be it.)
But I’m of the opinion that hygiene policies in general are cruel and serve no purpose but to institutionalize biases against the homeless, the indigent, the impoverished and the mentally ill. These are biases that librarians and staff have no business indulging in.
I want more people IN, not OUT. Sometimes I look out the window of the library to the people trudging through the snow and cold and think, “Wherever you’re going, don’t you know you can come in here, even just to warm up for a few minutes?”
You won’t scoff, I hope, at the supposed naivete of my hope to see all people make use of the building, based on physical need as much as intellectual. I hope you won’t reply, “That’s all well and good, but we’re neither flop-house nor warming shed nor utility for the physical convenience of anyone and everyone. We work in LIBRARIES, for God’s sake!”
Because if you did, I’d point you to this Public Libraries article about the libraries across the nation who opened their doors to bicycle riders, acknowledging that they stopped just to rest, to get out of the elements, to refresh themselves and recharge their devices, and, as a secondary concern, to avail themselves of ‘traditional’ library services.
Smelly, sweaty, noisy...bike riders.
If we can serve this undoubtedly affluent and privileged subclass of itinerant bicycle daytrippers, then we can surely serve in similar fashion the overworked, unemployed, underprivileged, overburdened and transportation-poor members of our everyday communities.
Surely we’re not too elite for that; surely we don’t value squeaky-clean over human life.
And it is a matter of life or death. Homeless people are dying across the country as climate change alters our expectations for winter cold and regional norms.
Dunkirk, where I live and work, doesn’t have many homeless people. But it also doesn’t have much free shelter. The former is much more likely to suddenly change for the worse than the latter is to change for the better--the Great Recession reminds us of that every day.
If people need to get warm in my community, I’d like them to know that they can come to the library, if only for a couple hours.
Sadly, it seems as if the rest of society is turning its back on the neediest of people, or actively turning against them. Take a look at this roll call of public shame:
And so on and on and on.
We, as librarians, need not join that dark chorus.
Let’s respect all of our patrons’ dignity, and have some compassion for their suffering in circumstances beyond their control.
Our doors are open. Let’s keep them open, and push them wider where we can--in this season and in all the seasons to come.