Barbarians sack libraries

A reader sent in the following article by the dean of the library school at Indiana University. It was published in the November 15 Library Journal 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.

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 readers alike.

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 human compassion.

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 license.

According to another story at, 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 know better.

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,
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.”
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.

Posted by Jim Kalb at December 10, 2002 07:52 AM | Send

“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.”

Of course, if any patrons were denied access to porn — and it better be good quality too, and to their liking — this same EEOC or some sister organization of Big Brother would impose the same $75,000 per-person fine on the public library for “anti-diversity discrimination” or some such insanity.

Who set the EEOC up? What administration? Isn’t it time that abomination be given the deep-six? What good has it ever done? All one hears about it are things like this which give the impression it’s merely a base of operations for governmental shock-troops of the extreme egalitarian left.

Posted by: Unadorned on December 10, 2002 8:47 AM
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