Annoyed Librarian
Search ....
Subscribe to LJ
Inside Annoyed Librarian

Libraries Also Help the Poor

It’s so nice to get comments from admiring fans, like the admiring fan last week who wrote, “Your elitist attitude betrays you.”

No, I might say in response, the fact that you use “elitist” as a term of abuse betrays you. So there! It’s a meaningless term of abuse that merely indicates that the person using it doesn’t have the same standards about the same things as the person it is being used about.

Then again, the world is run by elites, so maybe it’s time to just get used to it.

My elitist attitude was betraying me when I questioned whether libraries should become food kitchens, which apparently meant that I hadn’t “much experience working in either major urban areas or in rural ones.” Because, um, that’s just what libraries do in urban and rural areas, as opposed to the posh suburbs where I also don’t work in public libraries.

My argument was twofold, both that it was bad for libraries to foist yet another nonlibrary task on them, and bad for people who really need libraries to have the library mission and effort eroded by taking on too many nonlibrary services. If that’s elitist, then I’m elitist. I have nothing against food kitchens, but I think libraries are important, too.

Despite claiming to be speechless at my arrogance, the commenter went on to claim the following: “In major urban areas, where grinding poverty exists on a large scale, anything the library can do to help the individuals in the community, makes the community a better place. Maybe not on a grand scale, but if we can save one kid, so much the better.”

One would think I had argued that starving children should be left in the streets, which of course I didn’t do. [I’m tempted to make a joke here about where starving children should instead be left, but clearly some people don’t have a sense of humor.]

The claim that “anything the library can do to help the individuals” in poor communities makes the community a better place is a pretty extreme response to my alleged elitism.

First of all, that kind of thinking opens the library to becoming everything but a library. Why not get rid of all the books and convert libraries into food kitchens and homeless shelters? Why not take the money spent on books or databases and just give it to the poor? Why not start formal day care services so poor mothers can be sure the kids are safe while they’re working jobs with such low wages that they can’t afford day care? Why don’t librarians start tutoring poor children in the summers to give them the support they need to do well in school? Why not have librarians visit the poor at home and give them helpful tips about budgeting and childcare?

All of these would arguably help the poor more directly than anything libraries actually do. And if anything the library can do would help, then that’s what they should be doing, at least according to my outraged commenter. Forget books. Forget reading. Just turn libraries into expansive social service agencies. That would be fine for everyone except the people needing libraries. Oh, and the librarians, but who cares about them and their elitist desire to be librarians and not social workers.

The only reason that libraries are tasked with any of this stuff is that other social agencies have broken down or been defunded, including post offices. At some point enough Americans decided that we don’t need robust social services anymore and they started to go away. Helping the poor is just so darned expensive, and if I had to pay more in taxes to fund such things I might have to wait a few days longer to buy that 60” TV. Libraries have been mostly saved from this because people like libraries even if they don’t use libraries.

To insist that libraries should be doing any of this stuff is absurd, because libraries already exist to help the poor, even if the poor don’t take advantage of them.

You know what’s a good way out of poverty? Education. Handing out lunch is an act of temporary importance. Educating yourself is a permanent good, and that’s where libraries come in. Libraries help the poor and everyone else by doing library things, not by morphing into catch all social agencies.

If you believe that libraries should take on limited roles like providing lunches to poor children because the reality is that either libraries do it or it doesn’t get done, I don’t really have much of an argument against that. People need to eat before they can have the energy to read. Education is a luxury among the starving but a necessity to keep yourself from starving.

But if you really think anything that a library can do to help the poor trumps what libraries actually should be doing, then maybe you shouldn’t be a librarian. Become a social worker. Volunteer at a food kitchen. Start a crusade to boost social services in your area.

Libraries have a mission to support reading and education. It’s an important mission, and everything they do that takes time away from that mission slowly and subtly undermines what’s important about libraries. Feeding the poor is important, but you know what? Libraries are important, too.



  1. This is always and forever the push me-pull you problem for libraries. When we try to be all things to all people, we likely sacrifice doing any particular thing very well. There are many good things to do, but we must to think carefully about how we deploy resources and the tradeoffs involved.

  2. Well said, AL. I am of the opinion that libraries face enough problems with their current missions that adding more responsibilities will further erode our ability to function as a library.

    I prefer my library’s approach of partnering with local food banks, soup kitchens, etc. and using our public space to help advertise and promote their services. This allows us to help with other community issues without eroding our mission of reading, literacy, and education.

  3. When both churches and libraries offer a similar set of services to the poor, how might certain communities see that? Poor folks need all the help they can get, and I think libraries as a secular, state sponsored, provider of help is a good thing. There are some who may prefer to see government grants to religious organizations however.

    • Perhaps that insight was a bit incendiary. I was just thinking about how some may react to both the secular and religious serving similar purposes. But it’s true I am a crazy cat. I blame it on being born in the ghetto!

    • I think the real issue is voluntary charity forces forced charity under the guise of taxation.

    • crap, versus, not forces. versus forced charity…

  4. You are a crazy cat indeed. Now you want to fight church vs. state?

  5. Eloquently said and downright true.

  6. “I have nothing against food kitchens, but I think libraries are important, too.” And that’s “elitist”? Our government works diligently to shut down religious institutions and private charities as sources of food/charity so you’ll be forced to go to the government for a hand out. Just a week ago, for example: “Valley Woman Told She Could Not Hand Out Free Bottled Water in Summer Heat

    Read more:

    I don’t hear the library-cum-food kitchen people talking about that.

  7. annoyedlibraryworker says:

    There’s something that has always rubbed me the wrong way about focusing the public libraries mission as primarily helping the financially disadvantaged. Libraries should be promoted as a valuable resource for everyone, a place for self enrichment and discovery for all people and communities.

  8. What’s going to happen is what happened with tax forms, and what will probably happen with the post office etc. Tasks which should be funded and staffed by other government organizations will be dumped on public service librarians who will have to “fit them in” without any additional resources.

    Same song, 107th verse.

  9. There are few public organizations focused on “teaching people to fish” vs. “giving them a fish”. Libraries are important because of our focus on providing access to information and tools for everyone. Libraries and education are more important because of this. Activities like those mentioned that move us from our core competency take us from doing things we do well and do help to activities we don’t do well and only help marginally at best.

  10. I was not in the least offended by your post “Food Stamps in the Library.” The way I see it, there are a couple of important points to this argument.

    Public Libraries are being dumped on due to the closing of many social agencies, but this issue is also an indication of what libraries are doing to “stay alive” and relevant. It is sad, but public libraries are grabbing at every chance and every opportunity to get people in and possibly reading. It goes back to what many of us were taught about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You were correct, when you wrote, “reading is a luxury.” If an individual’s basic needs aren’t being met then they’re not going to be focused on reading. Libraries do need to work with other agencies to promote the common good.

    However, with that being said, it is true that we are turning into social agencies and getting further and further away from our true purpose. After working at an inner-city branch for a couple of years, I can count the times that I got a challenging reference question, the kind that I was trained to answer in library school. Everyone knows what happens when you don’t use what you have, you lose it.

    I think it also an indication of the generational divide. Many of the “Baby Boomer” librarians see this as the way to go-delving head first into social issues. While many of the “generation x’ers , y’ers, and millenials” see the mission of the public library and the benefits of technology and information and how it can educate the public. Unfortunately, while many of the Boomers are retiring, many are still in driver’s seat (directors, managers, etc.). The x’ers and y’ers, and millenials are entering into the field and trying to make their mark. We have to do what we are told until those in positions of power retire.

    Libraries are one of the only agencies/businesses that attempts to be all things to all people. For people who disagree, ask yourself this question: How many times have you gone to a bank that offered its financial services, offered to repair your car, give you a massage, and babysit your children while you waited?

    While that may sound nice, most banks/businesses do not offer all of those services. Why, because a bank focuses on what it does well, and that is manage and lend money, etc. Perhaps libraries can work more with other non-profit agencies to share resources and even co-occupy spaces/buildings so that we could all work together for the good of the public.

    In the end, the fact is, I did not go to school to be a social worker. You are NOT an elitist, but rather a realist.

    • At first, I was going to reply with a flame thrower. Thought better of it.

      Let’s just say that your contention that this is all the fault of us troublesome Boomers who just won’t retire or die off so you can institute your vision of what librarianship and libraries should be is a particularly egregious example of facile thinking and an utterly false premise. I spend a lot of my time trying to keep the doors open while simultaneously fighting to save your job. No thanks necessary.

      This is not a matter of generational divides (an antiquated and absurd notion), but of pressures placed upon us by funders, the public, staff of all ages, societal demands, the reality in front of us. I agree that trying to be all things is ultimately futile and does dilute our mission. Blaming an entire generation of librarians is divisive and wrong-headed. Sure, there are always examples of Boomers coasting to retirement and clogging the pipeline but it’s not the majority.

      Public libraries face challenges to our survival – Boomers aren’t one of them. Let’s focus on the real challenges – we need all of us to make it through.

    • JW Librarian says:

      Yeah, I think the whole Baby Boomer vs. Xers. vs. Y, and on and on is pretty tiresome and wholly unfounded. Young people have a lot of energy and vision, but no experience whereas older people have a lot of experience, but are not saddled with youthful idealism. It’s a good mix, but to think the younger generations can fix the problem of the library’s future if only these sad old timers clogging up the system retired is… well… very indicative of a young person’s idealism and naivete. And to think: one day they’ll be the fossils at the desk!

  11. not a hipster librarian says:

    I guess I’m of two minds on this issue. Our library had the opportunity to distribute free lunches but we chose to opt out because of staffing restraints and the possible confusing message it would send about the library’s mission. However, I did hear about one library system that incorporated the free lunches into their summer reading program. While eating, kids would hear and share stories. That sounds like it fits into the library’s mission.

  12. Reference Rae says:

    I read your previous post about food programs, and then about this concerning the services of libraries:
    “To insist that libraries should be doing any of this stuff is absurd, because libraries already exist to help the poor, even if the poor don’t take advantage of them.”
    And I agree with you.
    Libraries are not about “helping just the poor”. We help EVERYONE, or did the people railing against AL forget that fact? We offer public assistance with the collection and referral of information. To ask us to become a post office, day care, food depot, or anything else is really not part of our job, and for AL to be criticized is silly. It’s her opinion and she had a right to that. I had a gentleman come in and throw a temper tantrum at me because I would not fill out his unemployment for him. I later discovered he was illiterate. But in my state, it is FRAUD to fill out unemployment for someone else. Does this make me a bad librarian because I’m not willing to face the penalties of that and do it for him? Is it really my duty to fill out someone’s else’s forms or spend 45 minutes to an hour with one poor underprivileged man when I have six other people waiting and am the only ref person on staff who can do my job? No. I can show you how to fish, but I’m not going to give you the fish. AL, you are not an elitist.
    I work in a rural area. Regardless of whether you work rural, urban, normal, suburban, or whatever, there are always people who will take advantage of you – good or bad as it may be – and rather you do it than themselves. When do we stop letting people walk all over us and treat us like we’re their slaves? We’re here to serve. We are not servants.

  13. At my library I declined to be a distribution center for free lunches. There are already several throughout the town and horror stories of staff time wasted on people who would send in one kid at a time to try to get 5 lunches each were enough to make me not do it.

    It’s not what libraries DO, or SHOULD do. We are tax payer funded to meet our established mission. Giving food to the needy- or clothes, or christmas presents, etc- is NOT that mission.

  14. totally hipster says:

    Do you know there’s another institution who mission is to educate and increase literacy? It’s called a school and they have free breakfast and lunch programs.
    Many librarians have a hard time dealing with the fact that we are public servants, so I can understand your disdain for the “poor people” and refusal to turn the library into a “soup kitchen”. But you are sadly mistaken when you tell people to become social workers if one thinks that libraries should be a “social service agency”. Hate to burst your bubble, but we are service providers and being a service provider means responding to the needs of the community.
    If you enter the profession thinking that you would make it about you and your needs, guess again. Unless your goal is to be out of a job, and should that happen then let’s hope you don’t cross paths with anyone who agrees emphatically with what you just wrote.

    • annoyedlibraryworker says:

      Not all librarians are public servants, and not everyone who works in a public library is a librarian. The community needs many things, libraries can provide assistance in the form of access to information, for everyone regardless of your race, creed, orientation or income status. We need trained and qualified people to properly acquire, promote, dispense and organize this information. There was a time when this was considered a service for the public good in itself. Libraries were built to exemplify a communities highest aspirations. Now we are being bullied into being soup kitchens/day care centers/medical clinics/post offices/homeless shelters?

    • Suburban Librarian says:

      “Hate to burst your bubble, but we are service providers and being a service provider means responding to the needs of the community.”

      Actually, we are service providers meant to respond to the information needs of the community. There is a big difference.

    • Development Arrested says:

      @Suburban Librarian,

      Unfortunately, the reality is before you can serve the information needs of the community, there are sometimes other needs that must be attended to.

      How much do you think little Johnny get out of Summer Reading Program / baby sitting if all he can think about is the fact that he hasn’t eaten all day?

      I normally agree that libraries are spreading themselves too thin (selling stamps is an example of this), but sometimes these extra things are necessary to reach your mission. Sad but true.

  15. Finally a Librarian says:

    Our Library system policy prohibits patrons having food in the library. In Florida, if we let folks eat (especially kids) we would be over run with ants!

  16. I agree for once with you annoyed, mainly libraries serve the homeless by providing them with shelter and a toilet while they wait for the homeless shelter to reopen, or until they have to go out into the street. Many of the homeless are also mentally ill and of course unless the libraries begin to employe nurses and doctors, plus social workers, I don’t know about help. There are those who might use it for the computer to search for jobs, and that would be a good thing. I am not a librarian only a library user but I have experienced seeing someone come in with all their belongings in a large plastic bag. Sad but the library is not suppose to be a social services center. I leave in a suburban area that was very affluent, but less so now due to the economy. I am seeing the homeless here. They are pushing carts, going through trash near the grocery store, and they come to the library. The poor and homeless are everywhere now. I live in suburbia. I use the library. I know.

  17. JW Librarian says:

    I’ve been trying to get a needle exchange located at our library. We have a population of heroin addicts and their needs are just as important as any other needs. Heroin is food to an addict thereby the library ought to provide this service, as well. The thing is how can a heroin addict read if he or she is jonesing and going into the cold sweats of withdrawal. First things first, especially if we the library want to stay in bz-ness.

Optimization WordPress Plugins & Solutions by W3 EDGE