by T.J. Johnston
[dropcap] L[/dropcap]ibraries have been in the landscape of my life ever since I was a small boy in New England. In the fourth grade, I learned to search for volumes using card catalogs in my school library (mostly, I searched for sports-related books).
But I learned the value of libraries as a public space when I was a college student and post-grad with limited means. Stores and restaurants will shoo away people if they stay too long and spend little — or no — money. But public libraries are always free. We have rampant capitalist Andrew Carnegie to thank for establishing these democratized gathering areas.
During operating hours, you and I are free to check out the stacks, read magazines and newspapers, or relax. Also, we’re free to hang out there for free — just as long as we don’t make too much noise.
However, a San Francisco resident wrote to the S.F. Examiner complaining of homeless people “taking over” the city’s main library. In his recent missive to the daily paper, Jack C. Della Santa bemoaned the removal of two comfortable chairs in the main lobby. He continued, “On the second floor, there are two benches that cannot be utilized because the homeless are usually camped out with their junk spread out over the whole bench.”
Della Santa also described a scene where his wife took their 4-year-old grandson to the restroom where they saw a woman taking a birdbath at one of the sinks. “Where are the library’s security guards and what do they do to address these issues?” he wrote.
Five days later, City Librarian Luis Herrera responded in the letters column. He wrote that ample security and the addition of an on-site social worker enhance the overall experience for more than seven million library patrons. Granted, at six floors and 375,000 square feet, the main branch has a lot of ground to cover.
As a frequent library patron, I always see homeless people there, as well as people from all walks of life and all types of housing situations. Usually, they mind their own business, as anybody else does.
I have observed poor and Internet-less — if not unhoused — folk line up for the express computers. The biggest breach of protocol I have observed is staying beyond the 15-minute time limit.
When Della Santa asked “where’s the responsiveness to the rest of us,” he ignored a simple truth: Sometimes we need refuge in what Ernest Hemingway famously described as a “clean, well-lighted place.” Libraries provide such refuge from the stresses of everyday life, and those peculiar to the lack of housing.
They call them “public libraries” for a reason. In an increasingly corporatized world, public space is growing scarcer. Shopping centers have collaborated to form “business improvement districts” where “outsiders” are monitored and curtailed, often by private security forces.
Also, laws such as the sit-lie ordinance, approved by San Francisco voters in November, place further limits on where homeless people may assemble peaceably.
In recent years, facilities in the main library have diminished. In addition to the lost seating areas in the lobby, two sets of bathrooms have been closed, with two remaining on the ground and first floors.
The question of why people bathe in the library should be reframed: Why doesn’t everybody have access to a bathroom or a place to sleep safely and soundly? Where are the public spaces that could accommodate such basic human