In a recent commentary published in the Minnesota Star Tribune, Jacob Woods recalls a visit to the Latimer Central Library in downtown St. Paul, where he had a brief interaction with a man he presumed was homeless. The man had angrily remarked that Woods had “come to the library to read books.” This interaction confused Woods until he realized that, while he was there to pass the time, the man who was homeless viewed the library as a shelter.
While he certainly shares an insight worth remembering, Woods’ commentary as a whole is less clear. He suggests that the Latimer Central Library would better serve its community if it were to transform into a homeless shelter. He proclaims that The George Latimer Central Library “is a wasted space benefiting from being called a library and having books.” With no evidence other than his own personal observations, he states that “people don’t read most of the books but we keep them here just in case they need them to waste their time.”
Pew research indicates that, while it is true that slightly fewer Americans are reading books than in previous years, seven in ten American adults have read a book this year. This statistic alone is enough to debunk Woods’ claim—quite a few people are, in fact, “wasting their time” reading books, whether or not Woods sees them doing it.
But does Woods’ notion that public libraries should be doing more to combat the homeless epidemic have some merit? Library volunteer Martha Rosen explores that question in her response to Woods’ commentary.
Rosen has been a volunteer at the Hennepin County Library System in Minneapolis for ten years. For her, library service is constantly evolving. She recalls the time when we were reliant on card catalogs instead of computers and has seen questions like “What floor are true crime books on?” transform into “Can someone help me download an e-book?”
To her, the library is a place where people seeking information can get that information. She states that, regardless what they are looking for, “[finding] that information is just as important in those people’s lives as reading ‘Jane Eyre’ is to the young woman who recently asked for it.”
She acknowledges the seriousness of the homeless situation but argues that turning the library into a shelter because people who are homeless sometimes go there makes as much sense as “turning Orchestra Hall into a hotel because people occasionally nap during a concert.” Rosen notes that there is very little we can do as librarians or as an institution to end the homeless epidemic, but we can do things for patrons dealing with hard times that might seem insignificant but can have a huge impact. Rosen’s method is to “try to treat everybody I talk with while I am at the library as a dignified, valuable human being.”
I had the very great pleasure of attending the New York Library Association Annual Conference & Trade Show this past year, and one of the most impactful lectures I attended, “Libraries as Social Service Centers,” explored the growing trend of public libraries’ providing social service resources and, in some cases, care and assistance to those in need. In addition to providing a wealth of practical resources, presenter Tom Vitale pointed out that one of the most important things we can do to help people who are homeless is by simply treating them with respect.
I am inclined to agree with Vitale and Rosen. Someone experiencing homelessness has just as much right to a public library’s services as a patron with an apartment in New York City and a vacation house in Tuscany. Both kinds of patrons may have different library needs, but both can and should expect that when they come here they will be treated with courtesy and respect while we work to meet those needs. The best thing we can do is remember that old library chestnut: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” We cannot hope to determine what a patron might need based on their dress, ethnic background, or accent, and it goes without saying that we should never make assumptions. It’s our job to engage everyone we meet in a meaningful way and remind them that everyone who comes through our doors is treated as an equal.
 Jacob Woods, “Places in the Twin Cities where worlds sit side by side: The library. Light rail.,” Star Tribune (Minnesota), November 30, 2016.
 Lee Rainie and Andrew Perrin, Slightly fewer Americans are reading print books, new survey finds, Pew Research, October 19, 2015.
 Martha Rosen, “Libraries serve wide range of purposes and people, some homeless,” Star Tribune (Minnesota), December 1, 2016.