The common mode, especially in large urban public libraries, is to speak of the challenges presented by our homeless patrons. They make other patrons feel uncomfortable, there are stories of staff confrontations, bad odors, and property damage... All of these are valid concerns. This article, however, will make the case that your library's response to homeless patrons can let you shine a bright light on the relevance and power of a 21st century library in a way that few other issues can. And at the best-run libraries all around the country, it already is.
The issues surrounding homelessness present a poignant set of challenges and opportunities for public
libraries. In the abstract, libraries have a core mission to serve the underprivileged and help close gaps in opportunity and information access. Helping the homeless improve their own condition is one of the most important services a library can provide in its community. As a practical reality, however, many homeless people have problems the library is not equipped to address: serious mental illness, addiction, chronic physical health challenges... Also, the presence of obviously homeless people in the library can alienate the families and the more affluent patrons that libraries rely upon for funding support.
How, then, do effective libraries balance these competing priorites? What best practices have the most effective libraries implemented?
I must be feeling bold this morning because I’m about to predict the future of public libraries.
Libraries of the future will become first class, publicly funded educational institutions that fill gaps in the formal or traditional education system.
Examples of those gaps include the following:
- Early childhood literacy
- Personal enrichment learning
- English as a second language
- Entrepreneurship and small business training
At this point, those of us in the library world are familiar with many myths about the relevance of libraries in a digital world. Among politicians and the citizenry at large you’ll commonly hear a narrative that runs something like this:
- A library is a building full of books.
- Books are dead.
- Libraries are irrelevant.