It happened again. I visited a librarian chat group (in this case ALA’s Think Tank facebook page) and guess what they were discussing? It never fails – every year or two I run across another discussion by librarians regarding the hygiene levels of patrons. In this case, librarians were talking about mobile showering buses and the need to have them in their communities. I don’t see an issue with the bus and the need it serves. However, I do see an issue with the response on the listserves.
So, here are my two cents.
Libraries are public spaces and that means they should be reflective of everyone in the community. Public space is a place for all members of the community to gather. So be it a bus, a court room, a church, a public school, or a public library we will experience people different than ourselves.
A truly worrying issue I see with librarians discussing this issue on public forums, is – is it a sign of a different underlying issue? Are some people (both some members of the public and some staff) not comfortable sharing public spaces with others quite different than themselves? Are some librarians really entrenched in a culture of comfort? If hearing this question or reading the linked article makes you uncomfortable – why?
Instead of focusing on a person’s body odor, why aren’t librarians focusing on issues which can impact people’s lives, like access to jobs, housing (yes with showers, washers and dryers), and affordable food and clothing? The real issues I have with the ‘smelly patron’ debate, is first of all it is condescending, and does not address the underlying systemic issues which people find themselves in. Also, there will always be homeless populations and people (either homeless or not) who smell.
Yes, I will admit, there are always rare, extreme examples. So ask yourself who in the community can you link with to address these issues when they arise? Make sure you have contacts with mental health, cultural organizations, or other social service organizations which can work with staff and community members. The libraries’ role as a community hub, makes it important that library staff know where to refer people to and to develop local contacts to enable these linkages. If there aren’t any facilities, do we have a role in highlighting this and lobbying to have them made available?
Continuing this discussion, year after year can be start to be considered poor bashing.
As public librarians, our role is to work with all segments of our communities, not just those that reflect our personal values and lifestyles – and sometimes that means stepping out of our comfort zone.