Monday, April 06, 2009

As Libraries Become Key to Communities, There is a Dark Side

Several days ago, my sister sent me a link to a New York Times article (click the title to this post) from April 2, by Susan Saulny, "Downturn Puts New Stresses on Libraries." I had been getting lots of links from the Massachusetts Board of Libraries -- little articles from across the Commonwealth about how libraries in various communities are becoming much more important as they offer computers to newly jobless folks looking to create resumes, and free reading to folks looking to save money and free events to families who need cheap entertainment. In so many ways, the economic downturn has made public libraries more important than ever in their communities. And supporters are working hard to make sure the folks making hard decisions about where scarce dollars are distributed, hear about these stories.

But this story from the New York Times, is the dark side of that new role. While big city public librarians have had years of experience with homeless people coming down to use the restrooms to clean up, and sleeping in the chairs when the weather is nasty, all this is new to the suburbs and wealthier communities. The librarians in these places are shell-shocked, and having some trouble coping with the sudden changes in their roles and the tone of their workplace. The libraries are stretching to fill the new needs of their patrons, as

...newly homeless patrons are showing up in their business suits, ... They are living in their cars after losing a job they had for a number of years,, ....

“I guess I’m not really used to people with tears in their eyes,” said Rosalie Bork, a reference librarian in Arlington Heights, a well-to-do suburb of Chicago. “It has been unexpectedly stressful. We feel so anxious to help these people, and it’s been so emotional for them.”

Urban ills like homelessness have affected libraries in many cities for years, but librarians here and elsewhere say they are seeing new challenges. They find people asleep more often at cubicles. Patrons who cannot read or write ask for help filling out job applications. Some people sit at computers trying to use the Internet, even though they have no idea what the Internet is.

“A lot of people who would not normally be here are coming in to use the computers,” said Cynthia Jones, a regional branch manager in St. Louis.

“Adults complain a lot about kids just playing games and you know, ‘I need to do a résumé, or ‘I need to write, I need some help,’ ” Ms. Jones said. “There’s a bit of frustration.”

Ms. Jones instructed her staff to tread carefully. “You don’t want to upset people,” she said. “You don’t know what might set somebody off.”

Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, said résumé writing had become a major use of library computers, and every librarian in the system had received training in how to better assist patrons conduct job searches. The 40 million visits to New York libraries over the past year, he said, is the greatest ever in a 12-month period.
The article talks about some of the libraries bringing in therapists to work with librarians. Libraries have added help desks specifically to work with job hunters to their standard reference desks. Other libraries are dealing with new rises in theft by adding security guards, inviting local police to walk a beat through the library, and by no long holding cash in the library. The American Library Association does not keep statistics on the number of security incidents at libraries around the country. And in fact, I have to say, every library I have worked in has had thefts from time to time; I am guessing that this is not a sudden appearance of theft, but a rise in the incidence.

The decoration is only to illustrate the "dark side." Sorry 'bout that! Image of Darth Vader costume courtesy of

No comments: