sent in the following article by the dean of the library school at Indiana University. It was published in the November 15
and gives a sense of how things work out today in public-service organizations. I rather liked the idea of seminars on how to deal with “atypical patron behavior” in libraries.
WHAT A LIBRARY IS NOT
by Blaise Cronin
What is a library? According to my dictionary it is “a place in which
literary, musical, artistic, or reference materials…are kept for use but
not for sale.” This is a noncontentious, bare-bones description of a
familiar institution. It would pass muster with professional and lay
But as I hear accounts of patrons viewing pornography on library terminals
and read stories in LJ and elsewhere with headlines such as “Barefoot
patron sues library,” I sometimes wonder whether sanity has gone out the
back door of that library. I wonder whether we haven’t lost sight of the
commonly understood purpose of this venerable institution.
Let me, therefore, enumerate a number of things that a library is not. If
I offend your sensibilities, so be it, for this is the quotidian reality
in parts of the nation. A library is not a community masturbation center.
A library is not a porn parlor. A library is not a refuge for the
homeless. A library is not a place in which to defecate, fornicate, or
micturate. A library is not a bathing facility. A library is not a dumping
ground for latch-key children. There you have it, straight from the hip.
The atypical gets expected
You may find these statements distasteful, not to mention blindingly
obvious, but anecdotal and other evidence suggests that such quirky and
deviant practices are depressingly common in our urban libraries. Indeed,
the perpetrators of said behaviors have been blessed with the wonderful
euphemism “atypical patrons.”
This has given rise to workshops on “atypical patron behavior” under the
unspoken motto, “Never mind the root cause, let’s concentrate on the
symptoms.” Meanwhile, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has just
suggested the Minneapolis Public Library pay 12 employees $75,000 each in
damages for having suffered from exposure to heavy porn surfing by
patrons. Where will permissive policies and temporizing bring us?
Welfare agency by default
This column comes after a conversation with an experienced reference
librarian from one of the nation’s larger urban library systems. He
tellingly used the phrase “barnyard behaviors” to describe the miscellany
of antisocial practices sketched above, practices that occur with
regularity not only in his but also other libraries. Let me make it clear
that my friend is not devoid of a social conscience or bereft of basic
He fully understands the larger economic forces and government policies
that have created this kind of social fallout. It’s just that he doesn’t
feel it is the responsibility of the library to act as a default social
welfare agency. Libraries, as the definition above makes clear, are not
shelters, and librarians, by extension, should not be viewed as surrogate
social workers-nor should they risk practicing social work without a
According to another story at libraryjournal.com, LJ’s web site, Tacoma
Public Library’s central facility has become a refuge for the local
homeless population. As many as 1000 homeless are spending daylight hours
there. The result is that the administration has instituted a policy that
restricts patrons from bringing “bedrolls, big boxes, or bulky bags into
the library.” Why in heaven’s name has it reached this point?
I don’t take big boxes when I visit Borders. I don’t take bulky bags into
the Tate Modern. This strikes me as an eminently reasonable ordinance,
designed to ensure that the library functions as, well, a library. This is
not management by stigmatization; it’s good old-fashioned common sense.
Good old-fashioned common sense isn’t good enough any more because to
speak the unpleasant truth is to risk condemnation by those who should
Wagged by the PC tail
Social inclusion is a noble goal and sound public policy, but it should
not be construed as a license to abandon time-honored standards and
expectations concerning behavior in public spaces such as libraries. The
following words, emblematic though they be of the spirit of this nation,
were not meant to be interpreted literally by library administrators:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
This extraordinary invitation is, of course, found on the Statue of
Liberty, and it is there-not above the porticos of America’s public
libraries-that it should remain.
It seems to me, and not a few others, that we are getting to the point
where a disruptive minority is effectively preventing the majority of bona
fide library patrons from exercising their rights. Once again it is a case
of the politically correct tail wagging the socially responsible dog. It’s
high time this issue was raised and discussed systematically within the
profession and with locally elected politicians. It is simply too
important to be brushed under the stained carpet.
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”