Annoyed Librarian
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An Ironic Complaint about Public Libraries

A kind reader sent in this somewhat ironic article about that’s supposedly about “mission creep” in public libraries and all the undesirables the author is forced to be around while working in them.

There are homeless people, rowdy people, and thieves. Not all these occur at the same library, since there seems to be some compression of anecdotes and reportage about various libraries, but the impression left is that if you wander into the average public library it “could be mistaken for a halfway house, homeless shelter, or federal penetentiary [sic].”

I guess I don’t go to the right public libraries.

The author concludes:

Mission creep invites creeps. Library, which traces its etymology to the Latin word for book, has come to mean free DVDs, CDs, video games, and Internet. To the ne’er-do-wells roaming the stacks, library means a place to cop a free feel and grab a free laptop. When librarians go slumming for patrons, the slum’s problems become the library’s.

The bizarre folkways that surround stimulate anthropological interest more than formal complaint. Alas, unpleasant company is always the price of free.

Based on the tone and focus of the article, unpleasant company might very well be the price of free.

“When librarians go slumming for patrons, the slum’s problems become the library’s” is very catchy. It’s also either naive or disingenuous. After all, no libraries try to draw in the homeless or thieves, so to imply that libraries have somehow sought out these people is ridiculous.

It might be naive, or it might just be disingenuous, since it’s published in a supposedly conservative magazine. Considering that conservatives since Reagan have been cutting funds for the homeless, the mentally ill, etc., to blame libraries for being filled with people who have nowhere else to go seems a bit strange.

Does this guy not know about that history? It’s not exactly secret. Google: ronald reagan mental health cuts. Cutting public funding for everything but the military is pretty much conservative policy for the past 30 years. This isn’t some conspiracy theory.

And forget anything that might be a public good to help the poor. The very same issue of the magazine has an article about how Obamacare is nothing but a “vote buying scheme,” rather than a flawed attempt to provide health insurance to people left out of the current system, written no doubt by someone who’s doing just fine in the current system. Or another about how welfare is bad for various reasons, most likely written by someone who’s never depended on it.

Conservatives since Reagan have wanted to cut public funding for health, education, and welfare, and public libraries, and yet a conservative pundit has the gall to complain about undesirable people at the public library he uses?

We could ask why is he using the public library at all, since the public library is a form of welfare for people who can’t afford all the books they want to read. It seems like every week I read some nitwit online complaining about how public libraries are socialist institutions that should be closed.

Or we could ask, if your public library has so many undesirables in it, why don’t you move somewhere with nicer public libraries and fewer people unlike you? Let the market take care of the problem!

Honestly, the nerve of some people.



  1. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    What I find ironic is that Mr. Flynn is writing for a magazine that at the end of his article is begging for the reader to “Support Conservative Journalism”. Seems similar to a homeless person standing on the corner begging for money holding a Sbarro cup. Shouldn’t the market forces be able to support this great publication through ad revenue?

  2. “When librarians go slumming for patrons, the slum’s problems become the library’s.”

    Huh. I thought it was one of our purposes to provide information to all, including those who may not have the means to afford it via other methods. You know… the people who live in what this guy perceives as “slums”.

    • To be fair, I think he was talking about behavior more than addresses (though he does seem to have the two conflated in places). I doubt he’d have his panties in quite such a bunch if it was just people from poor neighborhoods who happened to come in and read erudite treatises in perfect silence.

  3. I read the article. Loved the, “Icky! It’s teenagers!” section.

    Now, I can’t argue that the Boston Public Library doesn’t have parts that smell like urine. I haven’t been there for several years, but I doubt that’s changed. But that’s not on the “beautiful building” side (McKim); it’s on the ugly concrete brutalist side (Johnson). If our writer wants peace, quiet, and lack of urine,all he has to do is go across to McKim. Marble floors are easier to get the smell out of than industrial carpets.

    Not that it’s not gross that Johnson has this problem, and it’s a shame.

  4. Development Arrested says:

    I’m tired of all these poor people using the public bathroom. Maybe it’s time for me to invest in a private one?

  5. A few years ago, the San Francisco public library system and the Winnipeg public library system hired a social worker to help people get social assistance. If the public library is to be a source of free information for all people, having an expert on site who is able to find specific information on how to access social assistance could be helpful.

    Does anyone know what has happened to these programs? I was able to find articles and websites describing the presence of a social worker in these libraries when they first started to work for them, but nothing since.

  6. Development Arrested says:

    I agree completely that libraries can’t fill social services, and it’s a damn shame that some many people are desperately in need of services that we could provide if our country had its priorities straight.

    I will say this though: if you are a librarian (especially an administrator) and have a sudden influx of mentally ill people, you need to research how to better serve them. If you don’t, I have no respect for you, and I have little pity for your cries of how your libraries are overrun with people you never took the time to understand.

  7. Belindie says:

    no libraries try to draw in the homeless
    Pasadena, CA did about 10 years ago. Some dork decided to extend a hand to the local soup kitchen so that their patrons could pop into the library and sleep, snore, fart and hang out after lunch. Finally, after much turmoil, the program was stopped.

  8. I don’t see the problem in someone bemoaning the state of many public libraries. What did he say that was false or was it simply offensive that he said it? What is the “right” reaction when the bathrooms have to be locked to avoid children being attacked (this happened in Tacoma, WA when I lived there) and you have security everywhere (main branch of the Austin public library to name one of many) because the homeless population is massive. People want to go into their public libraries and read, take their children to storytime and not have to be concerned about porn on the computers or people begging for money when they enter the library. Is that so ludicrous? One can support libraries but also believe that a library should be a safe place for its citizens.

    • roymacIII says:

      It just seems strange to simultaneously gripe and whinge about how some libraries have undesirables, but then gripe and whinge when libraries take steps to fix the problem. People want the bathrooms to stay clean and safe, then they may need to be locked when not in use to ensure that they’re not being *misused*. People want the library to be safe, but don’t want there to be any security?

      And, frankly, no, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that you can go out in public and not be confronted with the fact that some people are homeless. As you point out, it’s a massive problem; they’ve every bit as much right to use the library as you do.

      I’d love to be able to go out in public and not be confronted by jerks like the author of the article, but, sadly, life does not always give us what we want.

  9. Kirsten Corby says:

    To me, it just sounds like, “Hey, you kids! Get out of my library!”

  10. RE: Reagan and mental hospitals.
    Found on

    The law that Reagan signed was the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (LPS), passed by the legislature & signed into law in 1967 by Governor Ronald Reagan. The idea was to “stem entry into the state hospital by encouraging the community system to accept more patients, hopefully improving quality of care while allowing state expense to be alleviated by the newly available federal funds.” It also was designed to protect the rights of mental patients. It was considered a landmark of its time–a change in the attitude toward mental illness and its treatment.

    The law restricted involuntary commitment, among other things. It allows people to refuse treatment for mental illness, unless they are clearly a danger to someone else or themselves. It facilitated release of many patients—supposedly to go to community mental health treatment programs.

    Reagan’s role, besides signing the bill, was using it as a reason to cut his budget. What Reagan did was, at the same time the bill was passed, to reduce the budget for state mental hospitals. His budget bill “abolished 1700 hospital staff positions and closed several of the state-operated aftercare facilities. Reagan promised to eliminate even more hospitals if the patient population continued to decline. Year-end population counts for the state hospitals had been declining by approximately 2000 people per year since 1960.”

    This law presumed that the people released from hospitals or not committed at all would be funneled in community treatment as provided by the Short Doyle Act of 1957. It was “was designed to organize and finance community mental health services for persons with mental illness through locally administered and locally controlled community health programs.”

    It also presumed that the mentally ill would voluntarily accept treatment if it were made available to them on a community basis. However, because of the restrictions on involuntary commitment, seriously mentally ill people who would not consent to treatment “who clearly needed treatment but did not fit the new criteria or who recycled through short term stays — became a community dilemma. For them, there was nowhere to go.” Once released, they would fail to take meds or get counseling and went right back to being seriously ill.

    Also, unfortunately, at the time LPS was implemented, funding for community systems either declined or was not beefed up. Many counties did not have adequate community mental health services in place and were unable to fund them. Federal funds for community mental health programs, which LPS assumed would pick up the slack, began drying up in the early 1980s, due to budget cutbacks in general. The Feds shifted funding responsibility to the states.

    Reform of the Lanterman, Petris, Short Act

    • Monique Johnson says:

      As a new public librarian I understand both sides. Anyone should be able to have access to the services libraries’ provide. However there is such a change in the patrons that choose to take advantage of libraries services it is a cause of concern. In my library we have two deputies each day in the building. I can say as an employee I don’t always feel safe and there are times I limit my interaction with particular patrons because I worry they could possibly harm me or become very argumentative and disruptive. I actually like my professional and for the most part enjoy my job. I find it hard to have empathy for some individuals. I see people that sit at the library literally all day, use the computer to watch videos and get on Facebook and then cause problems by doing things against library code of conduct. Often times those same people will do this over and over again. I think if you’re going to come into the library you should follow the rules and if not, whatever your situation you should have to leave, special consideration should not be made. The library is there for everyone’s use not just a few.

  11. Monique Johnson – So why is it that I have to move from where I am reading because a patron wants to connect to wifi? If the library did not clearly support solely “popular” wants, including the purchase of an endless array of popular fiction, and cull most all the books that require thought and study – to make room for more computers, etc., only subscribe to one copy of one of the sole remaining area newspapers, if the reference staff knew what remained in the few non-fiction and reference books remaining that were not thrown out, and could guide patrons to information, rather than to the Internet, allow food and drink in the library, etc., then perhaps the library might be a place of education again, and not so popular a hangout.

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