AUTHOR: Julie Murphy
TITLE: When the Rights of the Many Outweigh the Rights of the Few: the
“Legitimate” Versus the Homeless Patron in the Public Library
SOURCE: Current Studies in Librarianship 23 no1/2 50-60 Spr/Fall 1999
This article, written in 1999, attempts to address when, “the rights of the homeless really impinge upon the rights of other patrons,” and refers back to an article written by Shuman, in 1996. The author mentions that some of the arguments Shuman provides for limiting access of the homeless population to the library are echoes of similar articles written in the late 70s and early 80s. Shuman also provides reasons that homeless individuals should have full access to the library including the idea that many are mentally ill and therefore have special rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the library serves as a point of access to local social services.
Murphy points out that most non-homeless people have an image of what a homeless person looks like, and because this visual marker exists, homeless patrons can be easier to spot and easier to stereotype. Furthermore, using Shuman’s broad definition of a problem patron, within the article it is made clear that any patron can potentially be a “problem patron.” The article mentions published examples of some librarians’ views on serving the homeless and/or the mentally ill,
“For the good of the common peace, these people’s antisocial behavior cannot be accepted, regardless of the socioeconomic circumstances that may cause such behavior. We are not social workers; we are librarians (Manley, 1991).
The experience of large urban libraries suggests procedures need to be developed for easing loiterers, sleepers, panhandlers, and smelly, verminous individuals out of the library (Morris, 1986).
Open access to all. An admirable philosophy, but at what point does a public servant become a public slave? (Easton, 1977).
Turns my stomach to look at them. There ought to be a limit to what librarians are asked to do to serve people … No one wants to see them. They should be put back where they came from, out of sight (Anonymous librarian on the mentally ill) (In Zipkowitz, 1990, p. 54).
We are not helping these troubled people by treating them as if they were normal, and we certainly are not helping others who come to the library for a legitimate reason (Vocino, 1976).”
From here the author mentions the Kreimer vs. Morristown Public Library case, where it was ruled that the public library constitutes a “limited public fora…where only patron activities directly related to those purposes are constitutionally protected,” therefore libraries can ban activities which are not directly related to the mission of the public library.
As far as solutions are concerned, Murphy (as well as the ALA) advocates creating an explicit code of conduct which is visibly posted, and maintain a proactive sensitivity to the plight of their homeless patrons.
As far as my personal take on the issue of homeless individuals using the library, i think if there are homeless people in your community (and there probably are) then barring violent outbursts, drug use in the facility, etc. then it is your job as a librarian as well as the institution for which you work, to serve the public – all of them.
the Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS), within the ALA has a subcommittee on library services to the poor and homeless. The Encyclopedia of Homelessness also has a multiple page section on homelessness and public libraries.