Culture and Bias in Library Policy, Part 2

Some public libraries have policies that seem, to me at least, precisely made to reduce access for homeless and disabled patrons. Like?

“Offensive” odors as cause for asking patrons to leave. Did you know that some illnesses and disabilities cause an increase in body odor? Can you imagine how hard it is when you live on a disability check and you’re undergoing exhausting medical treatments to then worry about how you smell all the time? One thing I fully appreciate as a woman is that maintaining a standard of beauty and socially acceptable bodily presentation is not cheap and it requires resources like disposable time and income and access to a bathroom for a long period of time.
Is it distracting when someone has strong body odor? Absolutely. For me, it’s not harder to deal with than a toddler who is having a tantrum next to my desk or a kid with poor boundaries who keeps interrupting me while I help other patrons.My humble solution to this “problem” is get over it. I try to be genuinely happy when I see patrons like this because I think of how many very serious priorities they must have tugging on them. Spending time in the library must be both an escape and a sacrifice for them.

No sleeping in the library. It’s easy to imagine why homeless patrons may come to the library to doze off for awhile. It’s a relatively safe space and it tends to be busy but nowhere near as loud as the sidewalks outside. In addition to homeless or intoxicated patrons, I do see some parents coming to the library and falling asleep. If their child is playing quietly and safely, I sometimes let them rest awhile until I gently wake them and ask if they’re okay.  I usually get a story about working two or three jobs and sincere apologies for dozing off.
Life is just really hard for a lot of people. I understand how in some branches, if you let people nap, you would quickly run out of room at all of your tables from all the patrons seeking rest and refuge. (Isn’t that a heartbreaking problem?) My solution is just to be compassionate in your response. Not every patron will want to talk about it if they don’t have a safe place to sleep, but some may, and it takes some training to learn the difference and to know how to enter those conversations. I personally think that if a patron is not taking up too much space and they’re not known to be problematic, it’s worth considering allowing them to rest for a few minutes.

Loitering. What does this even mean? Is someone loitering if they’re standing outside the building, using the wifi to download something on their phone? Or is just loitering if someone makes staff feel uncomfortable? To me, most people think “loitering” when they don’t understand what someone is doing and worry it could be something criminal. I have a lot of questions about the circumstances surrounding asking a patron to leave based on a loitering policy. I have a feeling this is used as a cover, at least sometimes, for some racially biased thinking.

What are some policies you’ve seen that tend to target homeless or vulnerable patrons?

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