I have had a library card for more than 60 years. For the last 10 years, I have been a volunteer in the Hennepin County Library System.
Right now, I am one of 25 or so people who work at the Welcome Desk in the Central Library on the Nicollet Mall. Being there regularly has led me to think a lot about two important issues that Jacob Woods raised in “Places in the Twin Cities where worlds sit side by side” (Nov. 29). What is a library for? And what should the citizens and governments of the Twin Cities do for homeless people?
In fairness to Woods, I’m pretty sure his suggestion that we turn libraries into homeless shelters is satirical. (Did you read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” while you were at Hamline, Mr. Woods?) But for anybody who thinks the idea is serious, here are some things I have learned in my time at the Welcome Desk:
Many, many people come to the library to read. How do I know? They stop and ask me questions:
Where is the Children’s Room? What floor are true crime books on? How do I find a book in the online catalog? Where do I pick up a book I have on hold?
All of these are questions the librarians of my childhood might also have heard (the difference was that their catalog was made of cards, not pixels). But nowadays there are other questions as well:
Can someone help me download an e-book? Where are the genealogy records? Do you have materials to help me with the citizenship test? I’m starting a History Day project; how do I find materials on my topic?
What I have learned from these questions is that a library is not (just) about getting books into the hands of the public. It is about making information in all its varied, 21st century forms available to anyone who needs it. Does that mean people using the computers to look at their e-mail? Are there people looking at newspapers because they need a job or an apartment? Yes, and yes. And 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. The library does not — and should not — discriminate.
But what about the homeless people taking up chairs (and sometimes sleeping in them)? Yes, they are there. I’ve been at the Welcome Desk long enough to recognize many regulars. Mostly they are polite and quiet, but I know some of them can pose problems for other patrons, staff and (very occasionally) volunteers like me. But that’s not the library’s fault.
Turning the library into a homeless shelter because people go there when they have nowhere else to go during the day makes no more sense than turning Orchestra Hall into a hotel because people occasionally nap during a concert. Homeless people need to be somewhere during the day, and the library may be the best option — not because it was designed that way but because society has not made anything else available.
Woods says that all he can do is give leftover potatoes to a stranger in need. That is a real thing to do for another person, even if it seems small. My small, real thing is to try to treat everybody I talk with while I am at the library as a dignified, valuable human being.
Which is — now that I think of it — another thing libraries do. We are all equal there, whether we came to get a book, find a job, or just to come in from the cold for a while.
Martha Rosen, of Minneapolis, is a retired school psychologist.