The D.C. Public Library Board of Trustees has issued proposed behavior guidelines, with penalties for violations. It says they’re intended to uphold its policy of providing and maintaining “a safe and secure environment in which every customer can attention equitable access to information, expanded opportunities and an increased quality of life.”
And, indeed, many of the guidelines will do just that. For example, smoking, fighting, carrying firearms and harassing other customers or staff are prohibited. So are indecent exposure, sexual activity, roller skating and skateboarding, stealing library property and making “excessive noise.”
But tucked in among these are some that seem aimed at homeless people–particularly, though not only those who use libraries as daytime shelters. These include prohibitions against:
- Sleeping, lying or placing head on tables or the floor
- Bringing in more than two bags–one airline carry-on size and one “personal”
- Using restrooms for bathing, shampooing, doing laundry or changing clothes
It certainly seems reasonable to prohibit sacking out on the floor or washing one’s hair or clothes in the restroom. But what about sleeping? Are library staff really going to roust anyone who nods off over a book? Or do they want a rule so they can tell homeless people to leave?
And what about the bags rule? It won’t just keep homeless people from using libraries as day centers. It will also keep them from coming to a library to read or use its public computers. Because homeless people who live on the streets or in emergency shelters have no choice but to travel around with their belongings. Are they to leave most of the little they own outside while they use the library’s internet service to look for a job?
And why, after all these years, does the Board of Trustees feel it needs to issue behavior guidelines anyway? The answer apparently is because it’s getting complaints about the presence of homeless people.
Witness the recent report of a survey of residents near West End Library–a branch in an upper-income D.C. neighborhood. It concludes that use of the library by homeless people “is a major deterrent to” other patrons. They’re bothered by a “lack of adequate hygiene.” They don’t feel safe, though nothing in the report indicates they’ve been threatened.
Washington Post columnist Marc Fischer applauds the proposed rules and urges “those who want to use the libraries” to “stand up against the kneejerk reactions of advocates” who’ve raised concerns.
But don’t homeless people want to use public libraries too? And shouldn’t we be concerned when a public institution responds to the discomfort some people feel in the presence of others who are different? Our country has a long, shameful history of doing so. And I think it should give us pause.
As Fisher points out, other libraries across the country have already limited access by homeless people. The New York Public Library, for example, now restricts use of the internet to patrons with library cards. And you can’t get a library card without an ID that includes a current address.
The libraries are responding to a genuine problem. But, as blogger Sharon Moriarty says, when a community perceives a problem with homeless people in libraries, it’s a sign of a homelessness problem. Here in D.C., as elsewhere, we’d do better by focusing on programs to ensure that everyone has a decent, safe, stable place to live.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t have behavior guidelines so that library staff can act consistently and appropriately to preserve safety, security and reasonable quiet. However, exclusionary rules to accomodate the sensibilities of nicer folks will not ensure that “every customer can attain equitable access to information” or the “expanded opportunities” library resources can provide. Quite the contrary.