Monday, June 17, 2019

Personal Reflections on 'The Public'

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Having seen The Public and reviewed it as a film, I think it might be interesting to look at The Public with different eyes, that of a professional librarian. Perhaps my views on The Public differ from those not in this profession. I think every person who sees his/her job portrayed on film can spot things that would not be right or conversely be accurate. I now take a look over The Public, its plot and its portrayal of a profession I am very proud to be in.

Before I proceed any further, the following views and observations are strictly and wholly my own. They do not necessarily represent the views and observations of my employer or any colleague nor are they intended in suggest or imply that the views and observations are supported or endorsed by my employer or any colleague.

First, a brief overview of the plot. A group of homeless men, facing a lack of shelters during a cold snap in Cincinnati, decide to essentially take over the Central Library branch and use it as an emergency shelter. They are helped by the librarian Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez) and together they face off against opposing forces who want to force them out.

One aspect of The Public that the film got absolutely right was in the montages of patrons asking for information. In the film, a patron asks for help finding a specific book, but does not know the title or author but only that it was at a certain location and its color. I too had a similar question from a patron who did not know the name or author of the book, only that is was blue. Others have helpfully described the cover but not the subject/plot, author or title.

I gave my coworker a knowing look when another patron in that montage asked why so many Civil War battles were fought in state parks. As tempting as it is to laugh at these curious questions, a trained librarian knows these questions are sincere.

It would have been nice if The Public had included in these montages telephone calls, as many people appear to think libraries have literally all stored knowledge. Some patrons call for all sorts of information: telephone numbers of local and international businesses, how to remove acid from water, whether to place fruit in refrigerators or freezers, what bus routes take them home, scores for various teams and/or for their horoscopes. Perhaps the most curious question I have had came from an 80-year-old woman who calls almost daily.

She asked whether the HIV virus was so small that it could slip through a condom. It isn't up to us to ask why a senior who by her own admission has been celibate for decades would need or want to know such things, but there it is.

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Now, I think it would be good to touch on the gist of the story. The Public makes its case that as libraries are de facto day shelters for the homeless population, they can and perhaps should be de facto or even de jure night homeless shelters. Granted the circumstances were extraordinary: a fierce winter that had already taken two lives and with all other shelters full.  I've read a few comments and reviews that to my mind imply such a step would be good.

I imagine those who think as such have a good heart. Simultaneously, those who think as such rarely offer their own homes for the homeless to sleep at, but I digress.

While the idea of using public libraries as emergency/backup homeless shelters in extreme circumstances is not at heart a bad idea, there are legal and logistical issues to contend with.

All the material at a public library belongs to the government as it is usually tax dollars that pay for all the material. Otherwise, you wouldn't have people shout "I PAY YOUR SALARY!" to the staff, which has happened to me twice in twelve years. People do damage materials which have to be replaced. Having the homeless or any population stay without authorization opens up the possibility for damage or theft.

Perhaps here one could say this group of sheltered individuals would not be left alone to run amok but would be watched. Here, I would ask who would do the watching? Is it fair to ask a library staff member, already coming off an eight-hour day, to stay another eight hours to monitor a group of adults? Would it be fair to make another staff member come in for 'an overnight shift'?

Even so, should an issue come up said library staff member is in no position to stop anything. He or she cannot physically handle or restraint someone, they are not trained to respond to emergency situations or mental health issues and would be severely outnumbered in case someone or a group pose a physical threat.

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Despite the almost cuddly portrayal of the homeless in The Public, some of the homeless population in libraries can be dangerous and mentally unstable. The Public touched only briefly on mental illness with the character of Big George (Rhymefest), who thought he could shoot lasers out of his eyes that would kill someone. I think the idea of Big George again makes mental health issues among the homeless almost cutesy.

From my vantage point, the homeless who do come into the library can be aggressive and delusional. These delusions at times can be almost funny to an outsider: a patron in a perfectly even tone can tell you how the CIA finally stopped sending UFOs over to their house or how their 'cousin Michelle Obama' keeps hounding them for money.

Others can be from merely talking to people who are not there (sometimes in their own language) to people who are literally ranting and raving. Unilaterally declaring a public library an emergency homeless shelter with no notice runs the risk of putting staff members' lives at risk, not to mention other homeless. Who can be so sure that a homeless patron finds him/herself in the grips of a mania that leads to someone's death?

It would be, in my view, highly irresponsible to dangerous to place any person's life at risk, and this is not even taking into account health issues. What if a homeless man had a contagious disease? What if another has a physical disability?

If the answer is having security and/or EMT staff at the ready we still have issues.Said security would have to be paid, would have to be well-trained in physical and mental health emergency management and would need time to prepare and organize. Some libraries simply cannot afford security, sad but true. In these cases the staff might have to rely on the police to come, which could also result in escalation whether or not they actually arrive. Same for EMT.

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We also face a curious issue: that of actual rest. If The Public is to be believed, the homeless men there didn't actually take shelter from the storm. They instead were there to have a slumber party. In the film, the homeless are not seen sleeping but instead playing games, eating pizza and going online. I imagine most homeless would not be essentially partying at 1:30 in the morning if this scenario were actually taking place.

I think The Public erred greatly in making the library into this place of endless frolic. I think it also is disingenuous to never show where they would sleep if they actually did. Floors can be rough and there would not be enough couches, chairs and tables to accommodate everyone. I've seen people argue over specific chairs. Can one imagine what would happen if a group of people decided they would have 'their usual' chair overnight?

There are a wide variety of issues as to why a public library would be a poor homeless shelter without proper preparation. It is one thing if the local government decided to allow people to stay overnight on an emergency basis, but there is a wide difference between a teen lock-in and a shelter. In the former there is planning, there is staff (perhaps with security) and there is a group that is within reason that has also prepared to spend the night at a library. In the latter there is none of the above.

The Public suggests that the whole group are similarly within reason or at the most have mildly amusing delusions and who are there purely due to financial downturns. In reality, this group would have had people who were alcoholic or drug addicted, some not of sound mind and some that could be a danger to themselves or others. Some could be a mixture.

I would not feel comfortable putting anyone's life on the line under those circumstances.

In retrospect the idea of having a library as an emergency homeless shelter is not a terrible one. It would again depend on what the local government decided. However, there would need to be planning and coordination. One can empathize with their plight but The Public did offer its own suggestion: the Church. Near the end a preacher who was also running for Mayor came to the Central Library to offer supplies. He was more than able to have done so prior to this crisis.

I find myself intrigued by The Public, and as a side note I offer that no one I know refers to the library as 'the public'. Most if not all of my colleagues refer to it as 'the system' (which would not have been a bad title either). It raises important issues, and I have so long hoped and advocated that more libraries have homeless and/or veteran services available at their locations. It would be very good to see libraries be places where these populations can find help.

That again would require public and/or private contributions. If we are to minimize homelessness the answer is not to let them have a pizza party in the library after hours. However, at least in one sense The Public does mirror my job: it allows for a wide space where all sides of an issue can be studied. Granted the film was more advocacy than even-sided, but I for one welcome the conversation.

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