Sunday, November 29, 2015

Who Are We Serving?

“As a former public library director, I am well aware of the many challenges that staff members face in providing services to an extreme range of users. However, there is little utility in the identification of homeless persons as "problem patrons." The same can be said of classifying senior citizens, young adults, or others as problem users. Individual behaviors that are well identified are reasonable arguments for denying access to services. Although it can be difficult to provide day in and day out, a cheerful, helpful attitude goes a long way in making a homeless person's day. Conversely, the homeless are often on the receiving end of disapproving attitudes or worse, being treated as if they are invisible. As professionals, let us assess service needs in the context of a person's homeless environment while not making personal judgments of their situations.” — Julie Hersberger 

(Full citation: Hersberger, J. (2005). The homeless and information needs and services. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 44(3), 199-202.)

If I had just one wish today, it would be that everyone who works in a library anywhere would find and read this short, yet vitally important, article (.pdf) from 2005. Even if you think you may have read it before, perhaps in library school, it’s worth revisiting and even printing and sharing with your staff. 

Before I go into the reasons for this post, I want to clarify that I am not writing this post to criticize any one specific person or organization. Rather, I want to point out something that I think is indicative of a much larger problem systemic to our field, from library management to LIS education. We have created a climate in which we continue to problematize certain patrons/users without addressing (and sometimes even ignoring) the root causes of their needs.

Over the weekend, I was looking through the schedule for the upcoming PLA Conference in Denver. I was actually looking to see how many sessions were focused on diversity and inclusion, when I stumbled upon this preconference. I had originally planned to briefly mention this preconference in another blog post (the forthcoming “Praticing What We Preach”), but I was so saddened by the language, tone, and implications of this type of preconference that I felt it deserved its own post. 

It saddens me on several levels:

The "problem" patron misnomer—Julie does a great job of detailing how often we are selective in applying our policies more heavily toward certain types of users than others. I would follow this by saying that we are really good at claiming to serve everyone, while actually serving some more positively than others. Even when we aren’t creating policies that automatically privilege the middle class, we are applying other policies in ways that do privilege. 

The "holistic" claim—The preconference includes both a law enforcement officer and a security person, but no homeless advocate (beyond the social worker, who may or may not be an advocate, given the focus on mental health). A quick Google search revealed that there’s a group called the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, based right in Denver. It would seem that an actually holistic approach would include advocates, if not at least one person affected by homelessness.

The centering of "safety" above actual service to the homeless—Whose safety is this session focused upon? It seems to not be the safety of library users who are homeless, even though victims of domestic violence often have periods of homelessness. In addition, people who are homeless are often the victims of crimes and much less likely to report those crimes. Are we really talking about safety or is this just a euphemism for our own prejudices and the prejudices of the users we allow to dictate our policies? Are we acting under the assumption that homeless=person without a home (short-term or long-term) OR the prejudice that homeless=drug user=violent criminal?

Conflating mental health issues with being homeless—I am thankful that the term “mentally ill” wasn’t used; however, it was the implication. I actually tried to find good statistics on the percentage of people who are homeless who also have mental health “issues,” but mainly found sites erroneously quoting the HUD annual reports on homelessness, which actually only have mental health-related statistics for those in permanently supportive housing (PSH) in the U.S. The disability statistics of those in these types of facilities in 2014 could make it seem that the mental health disability rate among the homeless is quite high, with the disability status for mental health at 34.3% and dual diagnosis (both mental health and substance abuse) at 22.2%. However, the report also notes that “In many PSH programs, only people with disabilities are eligible. As a result, 8 of every 10 adults in PSH had a disability (82.7%). This is significantly higher than the 42.2 percent of adults using shelter who had a disability.” (2014, 7-7). There are so many other ways to better address the specific needs of the homeless than by focusing on their mental health (which hopefully any public library would already be focusing on for all patrons). For example, based on the 2015 report, 23% of the homeless on a single night in January 2015 were under the age of 18. Thirty-six percent of the homeless that night were families. Racially/Ethnically, 20% were Latino, 48.5% were White, 40.4% were African American, 2.7% were Asian/Pacific American, 2.7% were Native American, and 5.8% were multiracial (Latino overlaps the racial categories). Roughly 11.8% were veterans. Why aren’t we focusing on any of these other demographics among people who are homeless? Instead, we further stigmatize both mental illness and homelessness. 

“Hostile and upset patrons”—I’m not even sure which patrons are being referred to with this phrase. The assumption would be homeless patrons, but in my experience addressing homelessness in both public and academic libraries, I’ve dealt with more “hostile and upset patrons” who were hostile toward library staff and the homeless patron(s) and upset toward all of us because we weren’t “dealing” with the situation in the way that that entitled patron wanted it to be dealt with. The mere presence of the homeless (sometimes not even inside of the library building itself) was enough to make some patrons hostile and upset, wanting to know why we weren’t doing something, why we were letting “those people” ruin the library experiences of “taxpayers” or “people who actually belong here.” 

And all of these problems above don’t even scratch the surface about how we as a profession still too often focus on "fixing" small problems (like dealing with an individual who is homeless), while ignoring the things we could be doing at the macro level to alleviate larger problems (creating services, policies, programs, etc. that address the root causes of homelessness in our communities). I am a bit hopeful about what Salt Lake City PL and other libraries are doing to address this but they're definitely atypical.

I also want to point out that there are two other conference sessions at the PLA 2016 Conference on serving the homeless. One will focus on adult users, while the other will look at serving LGBTQ youth. A look at the language of these two sessions, in comparison to the preconference, is much more encouraging as both sessions include input from the users themselves. While both are included in conference registration, each of these sessions is only one-hour long, while the preconference is 3 hours in length and seems quite expensive ($150 for PLA/CAL member, higher for others).

How do we get to the point where we start refocusing our efforts on actually serving everyone?
1)      I start with LIS curriculum as I went into LIS education with the hope and belief that it was the best way to make the largest, most lasting impact on the field. The curriculum has to change across the board, rather than serving the homeless being one week in a diversity class as it is in most places (if that). This change applies across the board to all types of inclusion. Looking at the new ALA Standards for Accreditation, the following statement addresses the nature of the standards: “The nature of a demonstrably diverse society is referenced throughout the Standards because of the desire to recognize diversity, defined in the broadest terms, when framing goals and objectives, designing curricula, and selecting and retaining faculty and students.” However, the standards aren’t very specific, allowing programs to continue to pay lip service to diversity and inclusion.
2)      Critical librarianship, scholarship, and education would go far toward addressing some of the root causes of many of the perennial issues in the field. As Emily Drabinski wrote in a recent blog post I encourage everyone to read, “For me, Charleston was another reminder that the field could stand to look up from our close reading of library problems to the social, political, and economic forces that structure those issues for us.” Every day in LIS spaces, we make decisions buried under a cloak of “neutrality” and “equitable access,” yet most of us fail to recognize the systems that make this impossible without critical engagement. We ignore these systems at our own peril, and in the end it may cost us the profession.
3)      We need to really innovate in the ways in which we provide services. We complain about how tired we are of the “we tried that in 1989 and it didn’t work” mantras that plague the profession, yet we balk at the thought of having social workers provide services within our walls? We can spout all day (particularly at conferences) about being “Yes, and…” leaders, but are we actually innovating for everyone we serve? Or just certain types of users?
4)      Professional development and continuing education should also be included, at local, state, and national levels. This means more programs like the two sessions mentioned above. And articles in spaces that aren’t behind subscription paywalls.
5)      Simply remembering the principle out of disability activism, “Nothing About Us Without Us” would go a long way toward improving a lot of the things we do in libraries.

I’m sure there are other options that aren’t even occurring to me, now that I’ve reached the end of this (really long) post. If you have solutions, please feel free to share them!


  1. Robin, thank you for this post. It's thoughtful and critical and thought-provoking. I especially appreciate your thought about addressing LIS education and I wonder about creating a course that specially looks at community partnerships in the hopes of giving students a framework by which to best meet the needs of all members of the population they serve. Perhaps an interdisciplinary course with schools of social work, education, public policy, and others?

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Liz! I think we desperately need to spend more time across the curriculum looking at community partnerships. I'm hoping that some programs are doing this in specific courses. I know that many of my students (particularly from social work and cultural studies backgrounds) often help to guide classroom conversations onto the importance of these types of partnerships. I've also made a community partner a requirement for the grant-writing project when I teach our management course. I also wonder how much we (LIS education) have decentered community needs analysis/assessment in the curriculum. It was a major assignment in my management course as an MLIS student, but isn't part of the required management course in the 2 institutions where I've taught since then. We do have a separate course on community needs analysis here, but it is typically taken only by those students in our leadership track. Are we even teaching all future librarians how to run focus groups or apply other methods of actively engaging with community members? Or has then been relegated to electives?