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.