When Kevin Barbieux became homeless in 1982, he was new to Nashville. At first, he relates in an e-mail interview, he spent his days hovering around a rescue mission. Then, as he met other homeless people who introduced him to the city’s attractions, he began to explore. He took long walks by the Cumberland River, visited the Tennessee State Museum—and found himself browsing the stacks of the downtown library.
“I wasn’t much of a reader, so I didn’t spent much time [there] initially,” Barbieux writes. “But I did have an interest in photography and art, so once I discovered those books I was at the library for hours at a time. ... The 750s and 770s [were] where I spent my time.”
For Barbieux, these Dewey Decimal numbers were not the vestiges of a dusty, archaic organizational system that few people today use, let alone commit to memory. Beginning with coffee-table art books, the library became a setting of vital importance and a main stop on the road to changing his life.
When public computers came on the scene, Barbieux used them, along with print resources, to research and produce an educational newsletter about homelessness. The library’s fledgling Internet service connected him with others doing the same, such as the publishers of Seattle’s Real Change newspaper. He began to do photography, eventually showing some of his work—which featured what he calls “an eye for inspiration in the mundane”—in galleries. And in August 2002, Barbieux tried his hand at blogging, then a relatively new phenomenon. His blog, The Homeless Guy, which he updated at the library, became an Internet sensation, and donations through the site gave him the funds he needed to get off the street for a time. Thanks to his newfound notoriety, he was also asked to join the mayor’s task force on ending homelessness in Nashville.
Most recently, Barbieux used the library to research anti-anxiety medications. He saw a commercial for one, recognized his own symptoms, and devoured all the books and online resources he could to learn more about social anxiety. As a result, Barbieux says, he was armed with the information he needed to conquer the main cause of his homelessness. Today, he lives in his own private, permanent residence, furnished by the city’s Housing First program, for the first time in 27 years.
Barbieux’s story may seem like an exceptional one of serendipity, a single person stumbling into the right place at the right time. But public libraries have always been, by design, community gathering places, settings intentionally equipped for personal and societal transformation. They are especially essential in the lives of the socially excluded—those who are isolated due to poverty, mental or physical illness, limited education, or immigrant or refugee status—because they are charged with the mission of providing free access to information and connections to resources and to other people.
John Vincent, a librarian from the United Kingdom whose advocacy group The Network attempts to level the playing field in public agencies, says: “Libraries have an immensely strong role to play in providing information to support people’s struggles, supporting people in gaining literacy, numeracy, and IT skills, as well as in digital inclusion, equality of opportunity, and personal well-being.”
It’s a lofty vision, but one rooted in a historic mandate for public service. The grandfather of modern-day libraries, steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, donated much of his fortune to building and staffing neighborhood branches that would act as community centers. Carnegie understood from his own experience that centrally located, freely available resources have an equalizing effect on people’s ability to educate themselves and improve their lives.
Since Carnegie’s time—when branches were just as likely to contain a boxing ring or a lecture hall as book stacks—the public library has been called a neighborhood living room, an information commons, and even “the people’s temple.” Far from the hushed sanctuaries most people envision, today’s libraries are bustling community centers and integral players in revitalizing depressed areas, especially in urban settings. A recent report from the Urban Libraries Council began with a tone-setting proclamation from Bowling Alone and Better Together author Robert Putnam: “No longer a passive repository of books and information or an outpost of culture, quiet, and decorum in a noisy world, the new library is an active and responsive part of the community and an agent for change.”
Library advocates argue that there is no other institution in a democratic society that serves this function. In most cities, corporations have gobbled up formerly public space, stratifying the population according to income, race, age, and other rigid expectations about who belongs where. “You have to ask yourself,” says Lisa Gieskes, a school librarian and coordinator of the American Library Association’s Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty Task Force, “where would you go in your community that you could sit and learn and enjoy for hours and hours without any pressure to buy anything? There’s nowhere else. You go to the library.”
But are libraries still necessary in our hyper-connected digital age? In a time where you can punch up anything you need on an iPhone, the continued relevance of public buildings filled with books and professionally trained staff is questionable—when it is even considered at all.
But this leaves out those who, like Barbieux, are unable to pursue their interests or goals in any other venue but a free and public one. The so-called “digital divide” is drawn starkly between those who have the financial means to equip their homes with materials and technology—and develop the skills to use them—and those who do not. Unsurprisingly, the divide also falls along racial and ethnic lines. According to the American Library Association (ALA), black, Latino, and Native American families are less likely to have home computers than their white and Asian counterparts.
Books, computers, and a public gathering place may seem like a luxury when compared to more obvious and pressing needs. How much can information matter when people are hungry, homeless, out of work, and struggling for day-to-day survival? A lot, it turns out—Vincent points to research showing that various elements of literal poverty and information poverty are “linked and mutually reinforcing.” Gieskes agrees, stating that the right information can be the gateway to changing difficult realities in an individual’s life, and subsequently in society at large.
“Poverty is not just about economics, it’s about access,” she says. “Our job as librarians is important because we provide access, whether educational in nature or recreational. We provide community links, referral services, job search and career change information, literacy opportunities, and a place for quiet reflection, to name a few. These are all things that anyone coming to the library wants, but your biggest advocates are going to be the people most in need. In order to be a full member of society, you have to have equal access to educational opportunities, and that’s what libraries provide.”
The worldwide recession is leaving more people information-poor—and therefore in need of public library services, Gieskes points out. “Whole demographics are changing, so you have newly, invisibly poor people using the library,” she says. “You can see the obvious homeless, because there are markers for who that is, but we are now seeing so many former middle-class families becoming the working poor and suffering unstable, itinerant lifestyles because of the housing crisis.”
Libraries tend to shed light on such societal shifts, precisely because they are a place where all types of people come together to lay bare their information needs. In a 2007 article for TomDispatch.com that catalyzed the library community, former Salt Lake City Public Library System assistant director Chip Ward wrote: “When [those] we have thrown in the streets haunt our public places, their presence tells us something important about the state of our union, our national character, our priorities, and our capacity to care for one another. That information is no less important than the information we provide through databases and books.”
Rather than simply observing a magnified version of society’s problems, librarians have a professional responsibility—bolstered by ALA’s Policy 61, which formalized services to poor people in 1990—to use this information to develop solutions. Librarians sometimes insist that they are not social workers, an objection stemming from frustration with a traditional lack of training in dealing with the baggage, such as mental illness, that accompanies patrons through the front door. But more and more, they are equipped to serve the public in innovative ways that meet more than straightforward information needs, proving themselves as effective community organizers.
Vincent’s U.K.-based organization, The Network, provides training and other resources to libraries and museums that want to address the ways in which, he says, “people may be prevented from taking up—or even knowing about—our services, and working to remove these barriers.” While it is true that libraries are high-minded, democratic institutions, they are still institutions, ones that rely on the same authoritarian structures and rules as other government entities. There are just as many people who find libraries restrictive and intimidating as those who find them calm and welcoming—usually those who have faced barriers in other settings.
The inability to pay fines—and the public humiliation that sometimes accompanies such transactions—is one of many factors that prevent people who need library services most from using them. Others include difficulty getting a card without a permanent address, language barriers, and bureaucratic staff attitudes that resemble more-punitive government agencies.
Through partnerships with existing community agencies, libraries are able to mitigate these obstacles and provide valuable, targeted services to those who might otherwise fall through the cracks. Umbrella organizations such as ALA’s Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty Task Force provide research and practical support for libraries that want to offer “everything from hosting pro-bono legal services within a branch to sponsoring GED, ESL, or job training, to working with unemployment agencies, to offering shelter clinics for people seeking emergency services,” according to Gieskes, its current coordinator.
On the front lines, meanwhile, large systems have developed programs that respond directly to community needs. For example, Queens Borough Public Library in New York is renowned for its New Americans Program, established more than three decades ago, which acclimates immigrants to the city while helping them maintain connections to their homelands. In a place where more than 100 languages are spoken and one out of every two people hails from another country, it is easy to see how native-tongue collections and story times, cultural celebrations, citizenship programs, and adult and family literacy classes put the library at the heart of community development.
Even if they do not have high-flying programs, public libraries still play an essential role in many people’s experience of democracy and education. Take Kevin Barbieux. “The library has been a focal point of my homelessness,” he writes. “Days began and ended at the library. I have known several librarians by name and consider them to be friends, and the library is where I met up with what few friends I had from the streets. It was a central location that most everyone was familiar with.” No special provisions existed for the homeless in his Nashville library, and he says he occasionally experienced prejudicial attitudes. Nevertheless, the books were there, the computers were there, the community was there, and Barbieux changed his life in part thanks to their availability—free of charge.
Kate Bowman-Johnston, a former Sojourners intern, is a children’s librarian at a neighborhood branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.