February 16, 2018

LJ Talks to Chip Ward

When, after 29 years in libraries, Chip Ward retired last year as the assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library, he wrote a passionate and pointed essay about how public libraries have turned into “de facto daytime shelters for the nation’s street people; while librarians are increasingly our unofficial social workers for the homeless (and often the disturbed),” as Tom Engelhardt, who first published the essay on TomDispatch.com, put it in April 2007, paraphrased in his introduction to the piece. This, Engelhardt wrote, is “a dirty little secret that tells us all too much about the state of our nation today.”

In the essay, titled “What They Didn’t Teach Us in Library School: The Public Library as an Asylum for the Homeless,” Ward discussed how the “library wrestles with where to draw the line on odor,” how overworked local social workers and overwhelmed local hospitals were “uncertain allies,” how a librarian who left social work because of emotional stress rediscovered her despair at being unable to help “mentally ill people,” and how the clearest solution—difficult in these underfunded times—is the provision of housing and a stable environment. (LJ noted it.)

“[I]n a democratic culture, even disturbing information is useful feedback,” Ward wrote, if “the mentally ill whom we have thrown onto the streets haunt our public places.” Indeed, Ward’s essay still has resonance, as it’s been optioned for film development, and Ward—despite having moved to a remote Utah location—is still being called on as a commentator, most recently for the Hartford Courant’s May 18 report on bad behavior at the central library. LJ decided to check in with him.

Q. You waited until you left [the library] to write the article.
A. I wrote it on the way out the door… I’m fairly controversial as an environmental activist; led a number of campaigns to make polluters accountable. [Ward’s books are Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West (Verso, 1999) and Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land (Island Press, 2004).] My political activism caused my colleagues enough grief, I didn’t want to be stirring up controversy while at library.

Q. What kind of reaction has it gotten?
A. It’s hard to say. There was a short version in the Los Angeles Times. I was on Talk of the Nation. My purpose was to get a discussion going; it seems no one wanted to look at that problem outside of the library community. It was disturbing that so many people, who consider themselves progressive, seemed rather clueless.

Q. How did you become the go-to guy on these issues at your library?
A. When we built the new library, everything tripled. We had consciously created a public space, film theater, retail, a rooftop gallery; we just drew an awful lot of people. We drew a great many street people; we always had some. Our staff was so busy just trying to keep legs under them. So I took on that role. The director, Nancy Tessman, [was thinking long-term], so I thought my job was to take care of what’s immediate and urgent. I think Salt Lake City Public Library copes very well, they’re a model…. They emphasize treating people as individuals. Our bottom line is, we respond to people on basis of their behavior, not the basis of their appearance.

Q. Do you know if any of the insights in the essay have been incorporated into library education?
A. I hear from younger folks that they do in fact get some coverage of what to do about difficult patrons in library school. But I really don’t think that you can be totally prepared for what you find at library doors in the morning. Librarians are not social workers, and we’re sort of doing it de facto.

Q. Are you optimistic about solutions?
A. Awareness is a prelude to commitment. One of the things I hope is people will not think of it as an overwhelming situation but one that has solutions and can be solved for less effort than to endlessly manage it, to rotate people in and out of jail and out of the emergency room. [Now] I think most social service agencies are overwhelmed. There aren’t enough facilities for people who need them. There were a lot of well-intentioned people who said we needed to deinstitutionalize [this population]. The problem is, we didn’t follow through. Now we have a somewhat similar situation. If you put people in housing, they stabilize. But here we are in a recession, we have a war that’s very costly, oil has hit another record price—I’m afraid we’re going to drop the ball.

Q. How’d the movie come about?
A.. Emilio Estevez and his dad, Martin Sheen, read TomDispatch.com. Emilio contacted me, said he was very moved and interested in the topic, and wanted to do a movie. My big fear was it would turn into some kind of comedy. I was very assured Emilio got it and he was serious.

Q. Did you have any input?
A. Not really. [Emilio] sent me the script. I told him, there are dogs that know more about algebra than I do about screenplays. But Emilio did find it inspiring and wanted to honor that. The title is The Public—it’s apparently the nickname of the Los Angeles Public Library. It would be a mistake to think the movie is just about homeless people in the library; it’s also as much about erosion of civil liberties and climate of paranoia.

[The Hollywood Reporter said of the movie in a February 5 article: “The story, set in Los Angeles, takes place during a 48-hour period on the two coldest days in the city, with the library overwhelmed by people seeking shelter. After getting rebuffed by the administration to keep the doors open, one librarian stages an act of civil disobedience. He ends up dealing with the library’s new inhabitants, many of them mentally ill.”]

Q. What are you doing now?
A. As much as I have great affections for public libraries and still believe they have a very powerful role, 29 years of throwing yourself at any mission is a lot. We moved to southern Utah and live in a very remote part of the world, 65 miles from the nearest town. I’m writing and getting a lot of exercise. My wife and I ran a guest ranch 30 years ago [in the area]. I’m on the board of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. This isn’t necessarily a new focus.

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