Last week, the Associated Press published a story that did well in surveying many libraries across the country which were finding ways to help people who are experiencing homelessness. However, some passages suggested that libraries need people who are experiencing homelessness in order to survive. The report said that due to the current state of technology, libraries are “menaced by budget cuts,” and “are effectively failing to justify their relevance, reducing their hours year after year.” The article reported that with most people being connected at home, libraries were barely keeping their heads above water. According to the article, “many people who used to depend on libraries can find what they need online without leaving home.” Even if it wasn’t meant, the article seemed to suggest in those passages that those who were experiencing homelessness made up the bulk of library users.
The article followed with ways in which one specific library had adapted a section of their building with homeless patrons in mind. The library had renovated a space that used to house periodicals by digitizing them and placing 68 computers and tables with outlets and connections to the internet so that other devices could be used.
It sounds as if the library was simply updating its resources and while some of the passages written in the AP article may be true as far as some libraries just barely keeping their heads above water, others, like the Denver Public Library, seem to be doing just fine. Further, it is an attitude of inclusivity that keeps them doing well.
Examiner made it a point to contact the Denver Public Library (DPL) to find out what was happening there. The issue of homelessness is a very visible one in Denver, where a substantial group of people are experiencing homelessness. According to The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s 2014 “State of Homelessness Report” thousands (6-8000 people) who were included in their surveys were experiencing homelessness or were at risk for homelessness. Examiner wanted to know how the library helps Denver’s homeless population and if there were any specific plans or programs in place to that effect. Reference librarian Hillary Estner talked with us in a telephone interview earlier this week and answered some questions as follows:
Examiner: How is the DPL doing?
Our numbers of cardholders and visitors are good and consistent.
Do libraries need the homeless population in order to keep their doors open?
We welcome everybody. We certainly do marketing and outreach to everyone and I would say that the library is a part of the Denver community. We want to show everyone that we have resources that would be helpful to everyone in their lives. In that sense, we need everyone. We need everyone’s input.
For this and many other reasons, it seems that the library is one of this society’s last sacred places.
We like to think so.
Has the homeless population in any way brought about any adaptations of how the library runs, functions or builds its social areas such as reading rooms and computer rooms? Has the library brought about changes in the way it’s offered resources or what resources it offers?
In terms of the way it’s built, I don’t think we have that many opportunities to really change infrastructure with any great regularity.
I always think it’s important to point out when I’m talking to people about library customers experiencing homelessness, that as a librarian, I don’t know which of my customers are experiencing homelessness. There are definitely certain stereotypes, but I think that those stereotypes are pretty routinely broken. We serve people from every socioeconomic level and people who are homeless may or may not fit perceptions that people have. There are certainly homeless families that use the library. There are adults and teens who might be experiencing homelessness. So, I think that’s a hard question to answer because there’s so much overlap with other groups. For example, we have a teen space and then we also have the ideaLab (which is now also for adults) and teens who are experiencing homelessness are certainly welcome to participate in any of those activities.
We wouldn’t say “let’s have a specific teen space for teens who are experiencing homelessness.”
I think it’s similar in terms of programming. We have all kinds of programming for children, teens and adults, and people who are experiencing homelessness who might fit into those age groups and who might really appreciate having free programs that anyone can be part of.
One thing that’s kind of resonated with me also is that because the library is free to everyone, people can come and don’t have to be identified by their socioeconomic level or whether or not they are experiencing homelessness. If someone comes up and has a question or is looking for a book or something like that, it’s just a healthy human interaction.
What do you think of these articles about libraries and homelessness?
In terms of how libraries run, it’s interesting because lately, there has been all this press about people who are experiencing homelessness using public libraries but it’s not a new thing. I remember reading some articles from the 80s or 90s about people who are homeless using public libraries. It’s funny to me to think of changes to how the library is run because maybe it’s just intrinsic in the way that we consider many different customers’ needs when we are considering policies, what materials we are going to buy, or the programming that we’re doing.
It did seem worrisome that homeless patrons were seemingly being targeted specifically. The idea of specific homelessness advisory committees seemed very interesting, however. Does the DPL have anything like that?
We do have a homeless services action committee. Really the reason it was founded was to make sure we were being inclusive to customers who were experiencing homelessness. It wasn’t problematizing people who are experiencing homelessness.
We did very recently hire our first social worker and part of her job is going to be working with customers who for whatever reason are having barriers to access library services. Barriers might occur because there are other services that those patrons may need to access more immediately than library services. Or, maybe those patrons are having behavioral health issues that they need to work through to be able to use our services to their fullest. That’s something that the social worker is going to be working on. A lot of her work will overlap with the work we do on the homeless services action committee.
This is in line with the constant role that the library plays in the service that the library gives the community in resources for just about anything; domestic violence, how to cook, how to make money, how to find a job, etc. For everyone. . . .
We basically consider the library to be a place that can help people with all sorts of questions. We’re not attorneys. We’re not doctors. People do sometimes bring those questions to us and what we do in those cases is provide information that leads them to figure out who they really need to talk to. We don’t judge what people’s questions are. We take customer privacy very seriously. In that sense, I think we’re a really wonderful safe space for people to ask questions.
I’m not sure how to rephrase that whole idea that libraries need people who are experiencing homelessness to use the library. I just think that is very strange. I think that being a physical presence in different neighborhoods is very powerful for people and I think that all the different online things that we’re doing are also very powerful. In terms of that whole question of people not needing to come into the library because they have other digital resources at their disposal; I just think that it’s important to emphasize that the library provides a lot of those digital tools in terms of ebooks and audiobooks. We have digital magazines, databases where people can use digital supports through the library or whatever kind of research that they may need to do and people who are using our resources online are also our customers. I just wouldn’t draw that distinction between those who are walking through our doors and those who are utilizing library resources from home.