Library Service to the Homeless » Public Libraries Online

by Amy Mars on April 26, 2013

Public libraries are a primary source of information and refuge for the poor and disenfranchised. However, many public libraries have enacted policies that limit homeless patrons’ access to library resources. These policies are often put in place in response to complaints from other patrons about the presence of those exhibiting signs of poverty. District of Columbia Public Library put an “offensive body odor” policy into place that was later declared unconstitutional by the courts because of its uneven enforcement.1 Similarly, Tacoma (Wash.) Public Library banned the presence of bulky bags and bedrolls in the library.2

Other policies attempt to control the conduct of patrons, but their uneven application has led many to question whether these codes are little more than “poverty profiling.” Multnomah County (Ore.) Public Library, for instance, has enacted policies detailing the proper use of restrooms, placing a limit on “bathing, shaving, washing hair, and changing clothes.”3 Some libraries have even incorporated anti-homeless design into their buildings. Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library installed a spiked iron railing in their window sills to prevent homeless individuals from sleeping and loitering.4

These policies bring up an important issue in the management of libraries and information centers. Is it ethical, or even legal, to limit the access of homeless patrons to protect the rights of other patrons? How do we educate our patrons about the unique circumstances of the homeless population? And, most importantly, how do we remove the barriers of access homeless people face and create programs that engage them in a meaningful way? First, I will examine the legal and ethical ramifications of conduct codes and other policies targeted at the homeless. Then, I will outline some of the barriers that prevent homeless people from taking full advantage of library services. Finally, I will propose some outreach efforts that libraries can enact to fulfill the special information and service needs of the homeless in their community.

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This entry was posted in Advocacy, Libraries & the Law, Public Libraries, User Experience and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Library Service to the Homeless » Public Libraries Online

  1. tjmcfee says:

    Reblogged this on brainsections and commented:
    If homeless people are attracted to libraries, why not use the opportunity to raise their awareness of services that could help them and make literature that addresses homeless issues available to them. –T.J.

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