I have been reading The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen and, while I am only a few pages in, already the book has raised some interesting questions. The background for the history of the library traces early ideas of the library as something only accessible to the wealthy and the elite, through the increased democratization of literacy (and thus libraries) as books became cheaper. New types of readers concerned those used to guarding books as their own, however, and soon the question arose: Whom does the library serve?
Though many might assume today that libraries (at least in the U.S.) are for everyone, and that this is a well-known fact, the reality is a little different. People know in theory that the library is open to everyone–that a person does not need to justify why they are in the library, and that anyone (at least anyone in the service area) can get a library card. In reality, however, there are plenty of people who remain uncomfortable with libraries as the great equalizers, and who might prefer, openly or secretly, that the public library be a little choosier about whom they allow in. In particular, there are three groups that many library users tend to express reservations about, when they see members of those groups in the library.
Ironically, though children may arguably be some of the most avid and regular library users, plenty of adults seem to wish they were not. Complaints about noise–crying babies, screaming toddlers, laughing children–are not uncommon, nor are requests that children stay in the children’s room “where they belong.” Even though public libraries are supposed to be for everyone, children are still not seen by many as desirable patrons, even though they are experiencing formative years when introducing them to reading and teach them literacy skills is vitally important.
Many library users seem to dislike children, but the dislike some adults have for teens is even stronger. Again, many library users can be heard complaining about the presence of teens in the building, the level of noise they are making, and the fact that they are out and about in areas where adults can see them. Library users who believe the library should be silent and who apparently miss the old days of shushing can be especially harsh. Incredibly, I have even witnessed random adults (not library staff) taking it upon themselves to go yell at teens whom they thought were talking too loudly. There does seem to be a double standard here. It is hard to imagine the average person taking it upon themselves to regulate the behavior of an adult in the library.
People Experiencing Homelessness
People experiencing homelessness are often not accorded dignity by others. I have heard people say that they do not go the library, so they do not have to see anyone who is homeless. I have heard multiple people suggest that the homeless should not be allowed in the library at all. I have seen online reviews raging at the existence of people who are homeless in the library building. And I have witnessed adults asking that homeless people be kicked out, even though they were not breaking any rules. Even though many people are proud to have public libraries serving the community, there are people who would love to become gatekeepers, keeping out those they deem unworthy of benefiting from the library.
That the public library is open to all has become a sort of truism. But sometimes actions do not match words. It is easy to believe in theory that everyone should be welcome and everyone should be treated equally. In reality, however, a segment of library users still want to apply different standards to people who are different from them. And, regrettably, sometimes library staff seem to feel the same, disproportionately kicking out members of certain groups, or applying rules to some groups and not others. So the question remains: Who is the library for? And, if the library is really for everyone, what are doing to make sure that remains true–in reality, not just in theory?