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Libraries Don’t Need the Homeless

There’s been a lot written about homeless people in public libraries over the years. I’ve probably written some of it myself but am too lazy to search the archives. However, I’ve now seen what is for me at least a new argument.

But just as Bailey needs his library, the library needs him: In this digital age, many people who used to depend on libraries can find what they need online without leaving home. Menaced by budget cuts, many public libraries are effectively failing to justify their relevance, reducing their hours year after year.

Bailey is a homeless man in Nashville who spends most of his days at a public library. He’s obviously been spending some of that time boning up his chutzpah on the Internet, which is apparently how he and many other homeless people in the library spend their time.

There’s a lot about providing Internet access in the article, but not much about providing anything libraries typically provide, which probably pleases plenty of librarians who find libraries too boring for them.

Regardless, it’s a bold claim stated baldly: public libraries need to attract homeless people to make them relevant again.

It’s also a really bad argument.

It’s one thing for libraries to make an effort to help the homeless people with no other resources. Libraries are there to help everyone get access to information.

However, libraries without a large number of homeless patrons aren’t any worse off than libraries with them. It’s a fact of life that libraries have homeless patrons, not a reason for being.

Also, justifying public libraries in this way would be the death knell for most library services. If public libraries became mainly centers providing Internet access for the homeless, nobody would fund them.

All it would take is some idiot trying to promote a tax increase to support public libraries by claiming they’re main purpose is Internet for the homeless. Not only would the tax not pass, people would start taking a serious look at just what once proud public libraries had evolved into.

What people like about libraries is all the stuff they think libraries do, like providing books and educational opportunities and stuff like that. Even if they don’t use libraries, people often like the idea of them.

But you know what people don’t like the idea of? Homeless people. Most people who aren’t homeless want to forget about them. In the article, it’s clear even most librarians don’t want to deal with them. If there was such a public drive to provide more support for the homeless, then there would be more support.

And it’s the homed people who pay the taxes that support libraries. If libraries turned into de facto homeless shelters, everyone else would stay away. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t be good for libraries.

Rationalizations are as natural as anything, but they’re still just rationalizations. Public libraries provide services to the homeless because the homeless are citizens with the same right to library services as anyone else. Libraries help people who need help.

But if the homeless were suddenly homed, most of them wouldn’t even spend so much time at libraries, and libraries would still be providing the services libraries do.

Saying libraries do good things to help the homeless can be good PR for how helpful libraries try to be for everyone. Making a stronger case than that is just a bad way to promote libraries.


Please note that new comments for all posts on this blog have been closed.


  1. That’s like saying park benches needs homeless people to justify their existence.

    If anything, homeless populations can be seen as hindering the library’s ability to complete it’s mission by scaring off other potential patrons. It’s like yogi Berra said, it’s so popular nobody goes there anymore.

  2. Zen Librarian says:

    “Menaced by budget cuts, many public libraries are effectively failing to justify their relevance, reducing their hours year after year.” -Translation: Libraries get less money, so they can’t maintain as many hours or services, so we cut their money because they aren’t offering as many hours or services…circular logic is circular.

  3. Cut Both Ways says:

    From the article: “I think there are still a lot of punitive policies and a lot of barriers … rules about the size of baggage you can bring in or policies about odor or no-sleeping policies”

    Should libraries act as daytime hotels now? I’m sympathetic to the barriers regarding baggage and odor, but indulging the sleepy is just asking for abuse.

  4. We only have ourselves to blame. So many librarians are promoting the library as a social service instead of an economic development agency. Salt Lake City’s well meaning initiative to stay open 24 hours turned into an initiative for the homeless instead of a discussion about startups and local businesses/entrepreneurs having access to tech and internet 24/7. When we hear from the opposition in political campaigns, many times its about the message that the library is a social service for those “lazy homeless people” who should get a job instead of being supported by yet another gov org. While I believe that these services are important, they can be fulfilled as a economic development agency instead of a social service. Besides… is the burden really on libraries or should it be placed back on the orgs that should be doing it, are trained to do it, and have the knowledge and skills to do it?

  5. If excessive odor disrupts services for other patrons, why should it be tolerated? Librarians can find ways to be tactful about it and steer patrons toward services that may help them, certainly.

  6. Homelessness people need library service as much or more than anyone. They should be treated with respect for their dignity. However, the public library is not an appropriate institution to use to address the problem of homelessness. Instead of perceiving homelessness people as an opportunity, we should view them as a threat.

    Many homeless people are chronic substance abusers, suffer severe mental illness, or both. ( These people deserve our empathy and help, but they can bring criminal activity to the library that we cannot tolerate. They make libraries less safe. If the mission of public libraries is to promote reading and learning, they hurt the ability of others to read and learn. We can and should continue to tolerate a little weirdness, strong body odor, and loitering. We should not tolerate inappropriate, illegal behavior that threatens the safety of our libraries.

  7. Yup…not many of these people realize that elected officials
    Do not fund libraries based on attendance. In my
    35 years as librarian, the only thing
    Elected officials accept is “circulation statistics”
    The number of items checked out
    and taken out of the library.
    Ten thousand homeless people
    could walk in the library every day
    and its effect on funding would be

  8. Because “excessive order” is almost exclusively a “no homeless people” policy. Sometimes people in public smell bad. Suck it up and deal with it, or move to a different part of the library if your nose is offended. If a patron found another patron’s clothing so garish/bright that it was bothering them, would you argue “excessively garish clothing is disrupting services for other patrons, so it shouldn’t be tolerated”? Yes, homeless people sometimes smell bad. That sucks, but it sucks a lot more for them, generally.

  9. I’m interested how you reconcile “they should be treated with respect for their dignity” with “we should view them as a threat.”

    Illegal, dangerous activity obviously shouldn’t be tolerated, but viewing the entire homeless population as a threat doesn’t seem in keeping with the idea of treating people with respect.

  10. Andy Sarson says:

    The library could help homeless people access the services they need to improve themselves.

  11. Danielle says:

    Treating people with respect for their dignity while being aware that they are a threat to our safety are not concepts that oppose each other. We understand that prisoners of war and inmates who have been imprisoned for violent crimes such as murder should be treated as both dangerous and deserving of respect and dignity. When we treat these ideas as opposites, situations like Abu Ghraib can result.

  12. Joyce Mooney says:

    The shelters in our area only let you stay there at night, so the homeless folk need a place to go during the day. Most homeless patrons use the facilities as anyone else would, for reading, using computers, and sometimes attending programs. Yes, some are disruptive and mentally ill and downright creepy. But there are loads of other patrons who hang around much of the day – such as retired, bored, and lonely souls who are busying themselves. Libraries not only provide internet access for the homeless, it serves the poor folks who cannot afford a home computer.

    PS…I like the use of the word ‘homed’ – those of us in that category should be very grateful

  13. Tristan K says:

    You really think startups and local businesses want to use the library for their Internet access? Um, okay.

  14. Emilia Strickland says:

    So apparently one of my friends who works at Barnes and nobles says thet they just throw out unsold books. If you were to contact a main branch or headquarters, perhaps they would donate unsold books to these libraries. They don’t even recycle them!!! Thought this might help get more books in the hands of those who could really use them.

  15. plateshutoverlock says:

    It’s funny how people think the homeless are criminal, basicly an automatic guilty until proven innocent. Yet, most crimes, and the worst ones at that are commited by people who do have homes. Shouldn’t that mean the housed should be assumed guilty until proven innocent.

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