Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Public Libraries and the Homeless

Cathcart, Rachael. “Librarian or Social Worker: Time to Look at the Blurring Line?” The Reference Librarian. 49.1 (2008): 87-91. Haworth Press. University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries . 2 Nov 2008. http://www.haworthpress.com

Cathcart views public librarians as “de facto social workers,” citing their duties of interacting with the homeless and mentally ill on a daily basis and the demand that the e-government movement has had on their time (public librarians often need to help the computer illiterate apply for jobs and fill out forms online) as evidence of the profession’s evolution. She writes, “Certainly, librarians are not providing therapy
or case management, and their involvement may often stop at asking a disruptive person to leave or calling the police. Nevertheless, it’s another example of libraries providing a service (say, de facto shelter) that isn’t part of their explicit mission, and a case where increased communication, collaboration, and (in some cases) training with social service agencies might be called for.” Cathcart does not view the move of public librarianship toward social services as a good or bad thing—but something that librarians should be prepared for in library school. She thinks that social service training will help public librarians as they navigate the increasing, evolving demands of their profession. She also states that, “…if the blurring line between librarianship and social work is too messy for some, that too can inform decisions on library policies, staffing, and services. If serving as de facto social workers is beyond the purview of librarianship,who will provide such services, and how will libraries involve more appropriate stakeholders and service providers? If libraries are being increasingly utilized as social service agencies in a more explicit way, perhaps cultivating space and resources for such service and the appropriate providers (librarians or not) would go far to meet the needs of both our users and reference librarians.” Recognizing how the homeless and other special library users (the mentally ill, the computer illiterate) have affected the public library’s role in society (and therefore the duties of the profession) seems to be Cathcart’s key point here. Whether the profession chooses to respond to the problem by embracing a social advocacy role in the library or by calling on the community to respond to the need for new or increased services for specific demographics, like the homeless, is what library administrators and educators need to decide.


Berman, Sanford. “Classism in the Stacks: Libraries and Poverty.” Journal of Information Ethics 16.1 (2007): 103-10.

Berman questions why ALA Policy 61 (Library Services for Poor People) has not been implemented by most urban U.S. public libraries the way the Library Bill of Rights was widely embraced. He mentions a number of public library systems that have instead chosen to discriminate against poor people and the homeless. He blames our society’s ingrained classism as the root of this problem. He details many actions that can be taken to embrace Policy 61, including increased research on library services for the poor and homeless, awards for innovative efforts, collaboration with community shelters, better collection development for this group of users, etc. He would like libraries to allow the homeless to obtain library cards but understands why few libraries will want to adopt the section of Policy 61 that suggests waiving fees and fines.


Cronin, Blaise. “What a Library Is Not.” Library Journal. 127.19 (2002): 46. Library Literature and Information Science Full Text. HW Wilson. University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries. 25 Oct. 2008. http://www.hwwilson.com


Cronin recognizes the the value of “social inclusion,” but does not feel that libraries are equipped to handle the problem that the homeless and other destitute groups present. He does not believe libraries are obligated to become social welfare agencies because that duty or undertaking is outside the definition of a public library---outside of the public library’s purpose. He states, “Libraries […] are not shelters, and librarians, by extension, should not be viewed as surrogate social workers—nor should they risk practicing social work without a license.” He uses a policy enforced by the Tacoma Public Library (after a surge of homeless users), a policy restricting users from bringing in large bedrolls, bags, or boxes into the library, as an example of “an eminently reasonable ordinance, designed to ensure that the library functions, as, well, a library.” Cronin does not agree with those that view such policies as a way of stigmatizing or discriminating against populations such as the homeless---he sees it as a logical way for a library to fulfill its traditional, commonly recognized purpose---to keep books and other information resources for public use. He believes that those who, in the spirit of political correctness, condemn those administrators who create and enforce these common sense policies “should know better.” He calls on local politicians and the library profession to discuss this important issue, stating that protecting the rights of a “disruptive” minority---for reasons of political correctness--has cost the majority of library users their rights.

2 comments:

hansenmk said...

Cassidy~
The three articles present three different issues of this very sticky issue, so props on finding a variety of viewpoints. Your annotations are good too. I can definitely get a clear picture of what the article is about. One constructive criticism: Your first annotation (from the Cathcart article) is a bit lengthy... You might consider shortening some of the direct quotes from the article.
~Morgan

kathyclair said...

Cassidy, I'd be most interested in seeing your final project. Your topic is of great interest to me. Thanks for addressing a timely topic. Kathy Clair