The Library as Refuge – When There is Nowhere Else to Go


Found on this post from the Atlantic Free Press was a heartbreaking and thought-provoking article by Chip Ward, former Assistant Director for the Salt Lake City Public Library System. And if you want read all of it (which I highly recommend), please go to the Atlantic Free Press post where the full article can be found. Here are also a couple of posts that point to this article that have more thoughts on the matter. This one from Library Journal and this one from the Puget News.

Excerpts from “What They Didn’t Teach Us in Library School – The Public Library as an Asylum for the Homeless” by Chip Ward.

“Ophelia sits by the fireplace and mumbles softly, smiling and gesturing at no one in particular. She gazes out the large window through the two pairs of glasses she wears, one windshield-sized pair over a smaller set perched precariously on her small nose. Perhaps four lenses help her see the invisible other she is addressing. When her “nobody there” conversation disturbs the reader seated beside her, Ophelia turns, chuckles at the woman’s discomfort, and explains, “Don’t mind me, I’m dead. It’s okay. I’ve been dead for some time now.” She pauses, then adds reassuringly, “It’s not so bad. You get used to it.” Not at all reassured, the woman gathers her belongings and moves quickly away. Ophelia shrugs. Verbal communication is tricky. She prefers telepathy, but that’s hard to do since the rest of us, she informs me, “don’t know the rules.” ”

“Ophelia is not so far off after all — in a sense she is dead and has been for some time. Hers is a kind of social death from shunning. She is neglected, avoided, ignored, denied, overlooked, feared, detested, pitied, and dismissed. She exists alone in a kind of social purgatory. She waits in the library, day after day, gazing at us through multiple lenses and mumbling to her invisible friends. She does not expect to be rescued or redeemed. She is, as she says, “used to it.”

She is our shame. What do you think about a culture that abandons suffering people and expects them to fend for themselves on the street, then criminalizes them for expressing the symptoms of illnesses they cannot control? We pay lip service to this tragedy — then look away fast. As a library administrator, I hear the public express annoyance more often than not: “What are they doing in here?” “Can’t you control them?” Annoyance is the cousin of arrogance, not shame.

We will let Ophelia and the others stay with us and we will be firm but kind. We will wait for America to wake up and deal with its Ophelias directly, deliberately, and compassionately. In the meantime, our patrons will continue to complain about her and the others who seek shelter with us. Yes, we know, we say to them; we hear you loud and clear. Be patient, please, we are doing the best we can. Are you? ”

Chip Ward recently retired as the assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System to devote more time to political activism and writing. He has led several successful campaigns to make polluters accountable and to stop nuclear utilities from turning the Great Basin Desert into a radioactive sacrifice zone. His books, Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land, encourage others to embrace their roles as citizens and to act now to restore a democratic culture to America.

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