It's a Matter of Power: Appearance and Hygiene Policies

A letter to the editor submitted on behalf of the HHPTF…

James Kelly’s “Barefoot in Columbus”—published in Public Libraries, May/June 2006—is a useful and well-written contribution to the literature on library risk management. Library directors can now sleep more easily at night. But not so the nine million low-income working families who struggle to get by.

The national discourse on library service to poor people is inordinately dominated by the specter of Richard Kreimer, concern with the “unruly homeless,” and attempts to police odor. Frustration and fear inform the ongoing conversation about homeless patrons, whose presence mortifies us like so many decomposing B-movie monsters.

ALA’s new president, Leslie Burger, maintains that “libraries transform communities.” Yet few librarians quoted in the news mention partnerships with social service providers, advocate for affordable housing and living wages, or express much interest in people who never come to the library—due to a lack of transportation, the burden of multiple jobs, inadequate child care, language barriers, unreasonable fees and fines, or simply because no one has ever invited them.

This is a far cry from the near-decade British information professionals have invested to study social exclusion, the systems and policy decisions that produce disparities, and the benefits thoughtful remedies deliver to all social classes. See The Network, for example: While our colleagues across the pond engage poverty’s causes, we remain fixated on punishing those who display its symptoms.

Sociologists Dale Parent and Bonnie Lewis observe,

Social exclusion is not simply a result of “bad luck” or personal inadequacies, but rather a product of flaws in the system that create disadvantages for certain segments of the population. Therefore, the unequal distribution of power in society from which social exclusion is derived should be the primary focus of attention for researchers and policy makers. Everybody does not start the race at the same place.

Libraries may be operating within the law when wielding appearance and hygiene policies. But without a simultaneous effort to engage poverty—to reach out to men, women, and (increasingly) children who suffer it daily—librarians deliberately perpetuate inequality by withholding the knowledge, resources, and power they possess.

John Gehner, Coordinator
Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force (HHPTF)
Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT)
of the American Library Association (ALA)