The Smelly Patron Complex

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.

~ Ken


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3 responses to “The Smelly Patron Complex

  1. Thank you, Ken! Years ago, I worked at a library where a directory (including hours) of local free public showers were mounted on a list that was posted in its public washrooms as well as given out in a large number of venues, such as soup kitchens. While that didn’t cut below the surface, it did put the kibbosh on any staff holding a misguided belief that it was okay to talk about a problem instead of offering a referral toward momentary amelioration.

    Once I had to discuss with a frequent library visitor about whom new complaints by other members of the public had been made regarding an odor problem that seemed to indicate an arising health problem for him. The discussion was gentle, and led to his seeking help at the free clinic where a prescription drug reaction was diagnosed and corrected. This could not have occurred if staff-user relationships had been us-them. Instead, what happened was together “we” got help.

  2. This discussion is not too far away from the “problem patron” discussion. The self-reflection for this is whether we have “solution libraries” to deal with these so-called “problems.” If we don’t, we might be better off keeping our professional traps shut. Our communities have enough problems, they don’t need a bunch of librarians using their taxpayer dollars to socially construct more of them, unless, of course, we are prepared to make a recommendation to prevent, resolve, or learn from these so-called “problems.” Fortunately, the vast majority of the librarians I know *are* interested in proactively finding ways to help their patrons wade through a communities’ social conventions without embarrassing or antagonizing people. It’s not always easy, but most do make a difference.

  3. Pingback: Problem patrons or stuck-up staff? | Rhymeswithlibrary

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