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A question of civility, neatness and proper SPL policies

Written by Tom Armstrong
Nov. 14, 2016

A question of civility and proper Sacramento Public Library policies came up at Central branch yesterday afternoon when a library user, Joanne, witnessed an interaction between an evidently-homeless woman and a library guard in the 4th floor women’s restroom.

The homeless woman, from what Joanne saw, had a lot of belongings -- including contents of a cumbersome backpack -- that she was endeavoring to deal with and sort out in the sink area.

From the perspective of a guard who entered the restroom, the homeless woman was wholly improperly brushing her teeth in the bathroom sink, in stark violation of library policy.

The homeless woman showed the guard that she was mistaken. The homeless woman had no teeth.

At this point, from what Joanne witnessed, the guard’s attitude became brusque and the guard proceeded to make her case in a manner such to humiliate the homeless lady. The guard stood fixed in one spot until the homeless woman left the restroom.

The events that took place in that restroom-sink area angered Joanne, a youthful-looking senior citizen who has great compassion for the suffering and difficulties that homeless people have to put up with. Joanne spoke with a librarian on the 4th floor who directed her to the 3rd floor where a guide for homeless people is often stationed.

The day being Sunday, the guide was not in the library, so Joanne addressed a group of librarians in their bull pen (as I call it) about 25 feet beyond the elevator on the 3rd floor.

It was only at this point when I first became aware of Joanne. I heard her ask the assembled librarians what a disadvantaged person should do when she has a lot of possessions she must bring with her and use of bathrooms is so constrained that a woman is not given the time to make herself as presentable as she needs to.

The librarians told Joanne that the Library simply needed to follow its reasonable policies. Joanne then said that “policies” should always only be provisional. What we must seek should be means to be kind to one another; to help those who are struggling, who are beaten down.

In the midst of what was quickly becoming a rousing discussion, a dark-haired woman walked up to Joanne and suggested that a fire station has facilities that can aid a homeless person in making herself presentable. And then I, foolishly, joined in the discussion suggesting that Amtrak has restrooms that tend to permit more-involved efforts of making oneself ready for the day.

Somehow, the discussion then veered to one of talk about shower facilities as library-users joined in, offering a-bit-off-topic ideas.

A “Rules of Conduct” sheet then became a focus of discussion.

On one side of the sheet was a bullet-point list of what is “PROHIBITED AT THE SACRAMENTO PUBLIC LIBRARY.”

One of the items was, simply, “Inappropriate use of restroom facilities,” without any suggestion of what might rise to the level of being inappropriate.

A second item, perhaps-germane to the discussion since it pertains to a homeless-folk stereotype, can have been “Offensive, pervasive odor that interferes with others’ use and quiet enjoyment of the library.”  [A snarky thought of mine: The wording of this item could likely be improved. I don’t think of odor disrupting “quiet” -- though I suppose it can if the odor is so offensive is causes people to noisily flee.]

The other side of the “Rules of Conduct” sheet [which is really a somewhat-stiff 7” by 3” card] is a bullet-point list of what is “FOR THE SAFETY AND COMFORT OF ALL.”

Germane to the broad discussion are these three bullet items:
  • Comply with staff requests.
  • Be considerate of fellow library users; do not harass, intimidate or disturb them.
  • Respect one another; concerns about fellow library patrons* should be addressed to library staff.
At this point, the broad discussion was gaining more far-reaching attention of folks on the third floor. One fellow was walking around and began loudly repeating his opinion that the whole thing was STRANGE. It’s STRANGE! This is all too STRANGE!

I don’t know if it was Joanne’s idea, or one of the librarians in the bull pen, but Joanne then went downstairs to the first floor to discuss the matter with someone in authority.

I followed after Joanne since I was irked about how she was being treated – especially so by the STRANGE man. I, of course, introduced myself to Joanne as if I was important. “I write the Sacramento Homeless blog,” I said. Joanne seemed happy to have me come along – not that she didn’t clearly have a well-organized mind such to take care of matters wholly on her own.

In short order, on the first floor, a woman who had a badge that identified her, simply, as Jessica and who said she was the branch manager, came forward to talk to Joanne at a spot not far from where library users line up to get their books checked out by library personnel, as opposed computers set up to allow the checking out of books, videos and other items.

In a discussion of about 15 minutes, Joanne told Jessica about the teeth-brushing issue; the terse, unkind guard; the lack of facilities for people with special needs; and that the library should not be humiliating people.

The idea of “facilities for people with special needs” seemed to push the discussion beyond the scope that three people in an odd spot on the library’s first floor could ably get a handle on. So, Joanne adroitly narrowed matters to the “small, ordinary cleansing needs that people have, relating to teeth, face and hands.”

Joanne requested that the bullet-item “Inappropriate use of restroom facilities” be defined.

I was totally impressed -- wowed, even -- by Joanne’s fortitude, courageous spirit and very, very evident love for those who must struggle.

Stay engaged, Sweet Sister, you are, likely, more important in this crazy old world than you can know.

What might happen from here is, perhaps, completely open-ended. The Central branch, of course, hopes to be a place that is a welcoming, satisfactory spot for the well-off people who are taking possession of fashionable homes and apartments through-out the Grid. From Tower bridge to Fort Sutter. From the Railyards to Highway 50.

But, too, the branch has a commitment to aid those most in need of getting information and gaining knowledge.

*Nettlesome to me is use of the term “Library Patrons” as synonymous with “Library Users.” I think that I am correct in saying that "Library Patrons" is the well-established term to use to identify people who give money to the library.


Unknown said…
Patron here means user of the library, no financial support is required to be a patron of the library, only to possess a library card, which is free to obtain and use.
Dear Unknown, There is a long article at the website Public Libraries Online that delves into the issue of "What the hell does Library Patron mean?" [ ] Me, I'm in favor of allaying confusion. Call me sensible, if you must. Or clear thinking. Or, brilliant or Godlike. But, as best we can, I think that different things should have different words -- or sets of words -- to identify them. Patrons give money. Users borrow books or hang around in the library to stay out of the rain, and such.
I have contacted the Director of Sacramento Public Library, Rivka Sass, about the problem of use of bathrooms and treatment of homeless folk, but have not heard back. Perhaps she is very busy shelving books and some such.

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