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Minding Your Manners in Seattle

The Seattle Public Libraries "are clarifying several rules and beefing up others in a reasonable attempt to improve the customer experience," according to this editorial (found via LIS News). I’m not sure what’s more amusing – the stuffy, patronizing tone of the editorial or the comments following it.

We’re told right off what libraries are and are not: "IF libraries were private living rooms, patrons could remove their shoes and shirts and doze off into blissful sleep. But Seattle Public Libraries are public spaces with rules that must be clear and easier to enforce." Perhaps, as usual, I’m in a minority here, but I don’t think I have ever removed my shirt and shoes and dozed into a blissful sleep in a private living room, mine or anyone else’s . In fact, I’d say that anytime my shirt and shoes are removed in a private living room, blissful sleep is probably the last thing on my agenda. Literally. I’m also puzzled by the phrase "clear and easier to enforce." Where is it easier to enforce rules than in your living room?

The editorialist is fond of the "But" opening to a sentence that should probably be connected to the previous one with a comma and coordinating conjunction since both are so short (just some advice from one writer to another): "Libraries should welcome all comers. But library staffers have a right and a duty to demand polite behavior." On second thought, maybe those two sentences aren’t that connected after all. Nevertheless, we’re given an example of polite behavior and a reason why it’s impolite: "For example, you cannot take your shoes and shirt off, because that offends some users." Not that I want to see most people walking around shirtless and shoeless (and please, God, not the professional librarians), but is that impolite because it’s in a "public space"? If the public space were a beach, or even a sidewalk, probably no one would bat an eye, especially in a place like Seattle.

Or is it that walking around semi-clad "offends some users"? This is a curious phrase. I wonder if it comes from the library officials or is the reasoning of the editorialist . Since when do librarians care if anything offends some users? Isn’t this the core of the battle against surfing for Internet porn in public libraries? Isn’t this the main reason books are challenged and "banned" in libraries? Why isn’t the ALA cracking down on the Seattle Public Library? After all, if some library users can surf for Internet porn and read Heather Has Two Penguin Daddies, why can’t other library users – especially tanned, hunky ones – walk around shirtless? Haven’t we been told that a good library will have something to offend everyone?

The editorial and perhaps the library policies themselves seem to dissemble. For example, a major target is "nappers" with "large bags": "Library computers and space are in such high demand that the library can no longer serve as a quasi hotel lobby or unpaid bed and breakfast. An existing rule prohibiting sleeping will be expanded to include ‘appearance of sleeping.’ That makes it easier for library staff to move people out who are hogging computers and tables while snoozing. There are not enough resources to accommodate nappers." Are we really supposed to believe that anyone really cares about "nappers"? Aren’t we all pretty sure "nappers" is but a euphemism for the homeless, or as the editorialist styles them, "street people"? If Seattle doesn’t want homeless people using libraries as "quasi hotel lobbies," then perhaps they could set up more shelters or create alternative public spaces for people who don’t have "private living rooms." It’s an idea, at least.

The comments dissemble considerably less, but are not necessarily any more coherent. The problem, apparently, isn’t just smelly homeless people and their steamer trunks, but also loud children, high school students who "bounce around like a pack of chimps," people talking on their cell phones, African immigrants, and rock Muzak at the local bank.

It’s hard for civilized people not to be sympathetic to some of thecommenters . For example, the advent of cell phones has certainly served to increase the vulgarity and incivility of our society. People who want to be left alone don’t seem to mind bothering others with their loud conversations, and people who think they deserve attention and respect when they’re speaking don’t mind turning away to read or send a text message while you’re addressing them. Adolescents are always annoying, and that’s why we have high schools to contain them until they calm down. Nevertheless, libraries trying to stem the tide against rudeness and vulgarity are fighting a losing battle, because the vulgarity is woven into the culture and thus must manifest itself in libraries.

This is especially true as libraries seek to become all things to all people. After all, if libraries are there to make sure that poor children have access to videogames, why shouldn’t they make sure that the homeless have access to comfy sofas and bathing facilities? Once libraries stop focusing on educational and informational purposes and desire to become "community centers," then it’s a short step to becoming homeless shelters, day care centers, and playgrounds. It’s not like we have many rules of public civility left. Vulgar cell phone users, the homeless, loud children – these are all members of the community, and out in the community they can act as they please, so why not in the library? There may be good reasons why not, and good reasons to make and enforce these rules, but making the rules isn’t going to change anything, and enforcing them will be difficult for librarians, who must now add training as security guards to their resumes.

Perhaps libraries are the last bastion of public civility left in America, the last places where one can expect silence and calm, where one can be in public but not be constantly bombarded by music blasting, televisions blaring, and vulgarians shouting. That’s what some people want from libraries, but they may be out of luck. The barbarians have been inside the gates for a long time. Sometimes they’re even the librarians.

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Comments

  1. Dan Kleinman of SafeLibraries.org says:

    Nobody says it like the AL. That’s why she’s got the hottest library blog by far.

  2. pk3eb says:

    Shut up and stay in academia.

  3. public librarian says:

    Wait, where are the tanned, hunky library users? I want to work at that library.

  4. nolajazz says:

    First of all, ditto to public librarian’s comment above!

    Second, I know AL is wonderfully sarcastic (that’s why I read the blog), but because I feel compelled to, I must stick up for the metaphoric “little guy.” Just as some teenagers really do know how to act respectfully in libraries, there are some homeless people who do as well. But with everything, there are those unruly ones who ruin it for the rest. Same goes for the cell phone users.

  5. Roger says:

    The memo is stupidly written, but the problem is real. Be grateful you do not have stinky sleeping people with five garbage bags full of stuff taking up space in your library. Enjoy your ivory tower.

  6. another f-ing librarian says:

    in seattle, even the hunky shirtless are pasty.

    seattle needs more homeless shelters, for sure. but if i were homeless, i’m pretty sure i’d *still* rather spend my days at the library than with a bunch of other homeless people. or maybe i’d pick a city with better weather and spend some of my time at the park.

  7. TwoQatz says:

    I tried public library work back in the early 80s and didn’t like the problems we encountered with the homeless, the mentally ill and wild children. And let’s not forget the perverts. A private university has been a much better alternative for me. That said, we have our problems too. What I particularly dislike is the cell phone that must be answered while they are asking for assistance. That now is a cue to leave the bone-headed student all by his/her lonesome. Cell phones are great but if you’re asking me for assistance with your research, you’d better not answer your phone if it rings. You’re going on my permanent s**t list.

  8. Dances With Books says:

    Imagine that: asking for people to have manners in a public space. Sure, we always get the “oh, most teens or most homeless know how to behave” defenders. But at the end of the day, it’s the pretty numerous mofos who do cause a problem and have to be dealt with. This is not some ideal Pollyanna land. People need to effing behave. I do like when they use the living room image because the public library is everyone’s space. I don’t go to your house and act like a maniac, so what makes you think you can do that in the public library, which is as much your space as mine? And no, the public library is not a damn beach, so yes, keep your damn shirt on. Want to take it off, go find a freakin’ beach. I don’t get what is so hard about expecting some common manners and decent behavior in the library (or society for that matter).

  9. I Like Books says:

    Some libraries actually are part of community centers that have meeting rooms, weight rooms (and, presumably, showers), and whatever else they put in there. Those libraries tend to be small enough that they don’t need an entire building to themselves, but maybe the idea of community centers that aren’t in the middle of the books could be explored further.

  10. chickenlittle says:

    I agree “Dances With Books” I’m so fed up by being held hostage by these crazy maniacs that ruin the entire library for everyone! Our library has such a stink to it from the homeless and shirtless crowd that air spray behind the reference desk is a requirement!! There is one patron that loves to sit near the entrance of the building, leer at all the young women coming in and stinks like he just crawled out of a sewer! All attempts to remove him from his “post” have been unsuccessful because as we all know, access to information is everyone’s right!

  11. Elder Librarian says:

    Chickenlittle: I remember a case some years back where a local gadfly who chose not to bathe or behave was shown the door and it was upheld in court. Does anyone else remember that case-how
    did it finally turn out if he appealed it?

  12. chickenlittle says:

    Elder Librarian….that’s interesting, of course the local police (and city hall) refuse to do anything close to laying charges because “that’s the librarian’s problem”!! Problem is they would have to lay charges against a good number of people at our branch!! As you know, its always easier to ignore the problem than actually deal with it. Which begs the question, at what point did the public library become an “adjunct” mental facility? I could be imagining things but I don’t remember nearly the number of “crazies” frequenting the public library when I was younger (and not a librarian). Could this increase be due to the downsizing of mental institutions in the 80-90′s?? Just a thought….or a rant!

  13. Whiner says:

    Does Seattle let patrons bring some of that famous coffee into the building? If not, maybe that’s why they’ve got patrons sleeping on the tables (barefoot or otherwise).

  14. oy says:

    1. in response to Whiner, the downtown SPL branch sells coffee near the prominent 5th floor open area.

    2. the public library is just about the only place to go to get out of the elements, where you don’t have to spend money, in downtown seattle. apart from the shelters that is. and those shelters can be nasty, dangerous, frightening places.

    3. deinstitutionalization and the closure of many mental health facilities, combined with substance abuse issues and a shortage of affordable treatment options, both contribute to the situation in seattle whereby a large proportion of the homeless population suffer from one or both of these other conditions. these folks hang out at the library. where else are they going to go?

  15. Anonymous says:

    In the early 90′s, my friends and I frequently used the old building of the Seattle main library.We did not feel comfortable browsing in the stacks because mentally ill people would follow us around and act in a hostile fashion. My friends and I would grab our materials and look at them in a more public space.

    I work in a public library. While I realize that it is difficult to find a place for the mentally ill to stay for the day, I would not let someone who physically attacked another person return to the building even if they were mentally ill. Librarians would be better off advocating for facilites where the mentally ill to be treated rather than warehousing them without proper supervision inside a library.

  16. DogEar says:

    I say, toss them all out: the smelly homeless, the crazy teens, the cranky old people, and the crying babies.

    If Librarians want to keep their job low-stress, they need to remove these people from their facilities immediately.

    Perhaps the use of batons could be implimented!

  17. Mr. Kat says:

    The world may have given you a life, but it don’t owe you a living too.

    This place is neither your home nor a hotel.

    No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service.

    Get the eff out.

    What’s so hard to understand?

  18. AlexAxe says:

    Hi, Super post, Need to mark it on Digg
    Thanks
    AlexAxe

  19. pnbhn says:

    The Annoyed Librarian should be renamed the Library Nazi.

    “You did not follow my rules, no books for you!”

  20. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    My stint at public library work was blessedly short. What irked me no end was the fact that we had to endure the leerers, the touchers, the smelly, the nasty, the wailing children, the icky dregs of society. Not five blocks away lay the courthouse and city hall. Our gruesome visitors were not welcome in either facility and promptly ushered out if they ventured in. But there wasn’t a problem with the homeless and crazies in this city! No siree!

    The great thing about private university libraries is the ability to make our own rules. You don’t have a current state ID? You cannot enter! Tsk tsk – you’re not nice?! Campus police can ban you permanently.

  21. LastResortLibrarian says:

    To NotMariantheLibrarian. Isn’t that the truth. The Richard Kreimer v Morristown and Morris Twp. (NJ) case immediately sprang to mind. I’m still steamed that the Courts who found in favor of Mr. Kreimer would never allow his behavior in their hallowed halls (also public buildings). The lawmakers who exempt themselves from the very things they inflict on the rest of us are what will be the death of civility and commonsense in our society. Hey if the AL can exaggerate and overstate, so can I. Down with the legal system, up with justice and commonsense (if there are such things anymore. Public places should be places of common courtesy.

  22. bacon says:

    My library has a zero tolerance policy for anyone creating a “disturbance”. Disturbing behavior can include leering, odor, noise, sleeping and even dress (or lack there of).

  23. Elisa says:

    To add on to NotMarianTheLibrarian’s post, no current college id, no entry!

    Bacon, I wish my library had similiar rules.

  24. kbd33 says:

    We have one person come into the library on a daily basis who never bathes, changes their clothes much less their underwear, is usually drunk, falls asleep everywhere in the library, hits on young boys and girls, vomits in trash cans (if we are lucky)….

    We would kick them out but we really do need a director.

  25. Godwin Librarian says:

    Godwin’s Law violated by pnbhn who commented:

    “The Annoyed Librarian should be renamed the Library Nazi.”

    This discussion must now cease.

  26. offended patron says:

    Not by the homeless but by many of the librarians who have commented here. I never realized you were such a vile bunch.

  27. coldbrains says:

    offended patron, I’m with you.

    Would you rather be panhandled on the street or inconvenienced by a hygienically-challenged person trying to escape the outside world? You use the public library because it’s a safe space; did it ever occur to you the homeless use it for the same reason?

  28. mg says:

    tighten up the buns (and whatever else), but please make sure that we keep them all out.

    it’s a bitch of a job, but people need it. we will never know who and how many benefit from our objectivity and obvious struggle in maintaining civility (of some sort).

  29. Lame Duck says:

    I volunteered in a Seattle neighborhood library in the 90s. Every evening a few homeless dudes would take their places in the children’s section and go to sleep until closing. The head librarian, the neighborhood parents and other patrons gave the dudes their space.

    The next public library I worked in was in a conservative, affluent suburb where the internet is filtered and kids take their parents’ meds in the restroom.

    Go loiter in your nearest public library and check out:
    “Free for All” by Dan Borchert
    “Quiet Please” by Scott Douglas

  30. DD says:

    As someone who is looking forward to paying off student loans for several years to come and worked very hard for the post-graduate degree that was required for my job position, I resent the days when I have to come in to work and act like a security guard in a suit. Note, then, that I have just as many problems–if not more–with folks who come in with their sense of entitlement that comes from their six-figure income as I do with the patrons that need to carry in all their worldly possessions.

    So much of the ensuing discussion has focused on socio-economic status that I am irritated to have to remind you all that the purpose behind the original article and AL’s response is civilized behavior. Is that really so much to ask for? I don’t mind if my patrons don’t bathe, but that is not a free pass to panhandle or leer at my other patrons.

    I strive to make our library a facility that is a welcoming and comfortable place for the public–ALL of the public. I don’t care what you wear, where you go when the library closes or what you do when you are not here, but while you are within these walls, dignity and respect is required.

  31. de8rd says:

    “. . .civilized behavior. Is that really so much to ask for?”

    In today’s society, there is no civilized behavior. You want that? Get a time machine and go back and hob-nob with the Cleavers.

  32. TheMerryLibrarian says:

    In Cleaver days, librarians shushed the rowdy little Beavers who whispered exitedly about 3 peppermint sticks for a penny down at the sweets shop. Nowadays, librarians in places like Seattle have to sincerely hope the metal detectors are still working properly when they ask patrons to behave–no matter how gently they ask. Times have changed; but it seems the stereotypical image of the shushing librarian has not. There’s no place like a library! (www.merrylibrarian.com)