My time at ALA was spent largely exploring two rather disparate interests; service to the homeless, which had its own Preconference on the day before ALA actually began, and Readers Advisory sessions. The most enjoyable national speaker I made time for this year was Stan Lee, and he did not disappoint! He was great fun, and obviously amazed by the adulation that follows him around. See an excerpt here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIleEa0GZ-0. I did stop in to listen to Ilyassah Shabazz (part of an interview here): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obqt44sD3S4
The President’s Program with Lois Lowry and Jeff Bridges, which started out promising, ended up being a rambling mess which I walked out of. It seems as though they were both under strict instructions to talk only about the new movie of The Giver, which is coming out this summer. Had they been allowed to follow their own paths, it might have been a real highlight of ALA this year. As it was, it was pretty sad. No excerpt appears to be available of their talk but here’s Lois Lowry talking about her library experiences as a child: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPfWfXYvg2w
On the plus side, the preconference was an eye opener and the sessions on RA were mostly excellent. Here’s a (not so short) short course on what I found noteworthy:
Serving People Experiencing Homelessness in Academic and Public Libraries Preconference :
Halfway through the conference, we changed the name of the conference from Serving the Homeless to Serving People Experiencing Homelessness. This was done after we were challenged by the representative from the National Coalition for the Homeless, David Pirtle, who pointed out that Homeless is WHAT “they” are, not WHO. An important distinction, which deserved to be considered. Even as we began to try out this new way of referring to the homeless, we found ourselves reacting differently, even to the information being presented. Semantics do matter, people! Try it yourself and see. His reminder that they, too, would rather be at home did not fall on deaf ears. The organization NCH, http://www.nationalhomeless.org, whose main work is to work for useful legislation and to educate the public, does work with libraries to create programs which help both staff and the public to better understand the truth behind homelessness, rather than the myths that seem to rule both our policy decisions and our sometimes inexplicable lack of empathy for people living in day to day survival mode. David had several suggestions, including having programs and events designed to interest people experience homelessness, having providers come into the library, and providing a secure space for their baggage and possibly hiring one of them to secure and watch over excess baggage that we don’t want coming into the library.
Especially interesting was the Winston-Salem Public Library, who got a grant which they used to hire a Peer Support Specialist. A PSS is someone who was at one time homeless, and is therefore able to speak to (and probably does in fact know) many of the people experiencing homelessness in the area. The person chosen makes all the difference, of course. In their case, their PSS, David, was an amazing young man. His ability to connect with people at the library was so pronounced, they are now working very hard to maintain his position. We hope to get a look at the training that he and other providers created to help develop heightened sensitivity among both the staff and the public. They invited providers to use their meeting rooms, created specific programming, including classes on how to expunge debt, which I thought would be worth trying here. Other ideas that were tried in Winston-Salem include a Second Run Cinema (relatively current movies that would be shown on a regular basis), art/writing classes (as a therapeutic activity, they have been shown to be very valuable in a variety of settings) and bringing providers of services to this group to the library, both to dispense services and to help create sensitivity training for both staff and the public.
Other speakers included Scott Muir, an academic librarian in Arizona, Sydney McCoy from Frederick County Public Library System in the DC area, David Singleton, the director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library, Jean Bosch from Ft Collins, Colorado’s Old Town Library and Julie Ann Winkelstein, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of TN, Knoxville. Julie Ann, whose doctorate was on GLBTQ teens reminded us that current statistics are alarming. It is estimated that 40% of those currently experiencing homelessness in America are youth under the age of 18.
She asked for one specific thing that could be done tomorrow at many libraries around the country. Can’t we provide at least one gender free bathroom on our premises? Any bathroom which is single use and lockable could be considered gender free, we just need to change the signage.
But I think the biggest takeaway from the entire day of discussion and lecture was this: Libraries need to stop wringing their hands and hoping that this “problem” will just go away. We will not end homelessness ourselves, but we can do the same things we do for other constituencies. Programming, collaboration with outside agencies and considering the issue as worthy of discussion, education and respect seems like a good start.