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.
Free for All
The public library as a place for transformation.
“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.
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