How to get your library to change its lending policy

posted by Mike on November 17th, 2006

[Download the mp3 of “How to get your library to change its lending policy”]

Here’s a podcast of Mike Benedetti & Kevin Ksen talking about how Worcester residents convinced the library to change its policy on lending to the homeless.

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Kevin Ksen
Pictured: Kevin Ksen, and a pumpkin-based microphone placement.

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Here’s an edited and revised transcription of the podcast.

Pie and Coffee: In 2006, the Worcester Public Library was convinced to change its lending policy. Specifically, a policy about lending to the homeless. It discriminated against people who were homeless, and people in certain kinds of transitional housing. Whether or not you think this discrimination is appropriate or not, that’s another issue.

So Kevin, how did people find out about this policy?

Kevin Ksen: Dave McMahon, co-director over at Dismas House, a program for ex-prisoners and students–one of the residents of that house, who is a volunteer at the library, went to check out a few books one day, and was told, “Sorry, you live at Dismas, you only can check out two.”

Because that was the policy. Regular people could check out like 40 books, but if you were on the list of residences, the blacklist, you could only check out two.

Right, and so he was both startled and embarrassed. Here he was, somebody who was a volunteer working in the library, and in front of people in line behind him and his co-workers he was being told, “Sorry, you’re one of those people, you can’t have as many books as everybody else.”

And so Dave made some initial inquiries around that, and eventually there was a paragraph or two in Worcester Magazine that I caught and I made a mental note about it.

I followed up with Dave a few months later, and he said he’d had some conversations with the library, and nothing had really come of it. So I started percolating with other folks, “Is this something we should be paying attention to?”

After that, in January, I decided to put a public records request in to the library, and really find out, “What is this lending policy? And is there a list?”

A public records request is like a formal request, it’s like a state law or something.

Right, so there’s a state law that if something exists, and it doesn’t fall into one of a few categories of being personnel records, or public safety/police investigation material. There’s some categories that are exempted, but, otherwise, if something exists, whether it’s on paper or in digital format or whatever, then it’s public.

So that initial little blurb in the paper said that the library had some addresses that you couldn’t borrow from. So that implied to me a list, which implied it would have to be something that exists.

I think one of the things that I learned from this was that some of the folks that I would have expected to know about this sooner, or respond to it, didn’t. So in some ways expecting the social service system that was directly being impacted, because it was some of the shelters in that group, or residential homes. There was no strong, quick reaction against it.

Yeah, I was part of the Catholic Worker community on Mason Street at the time, which was on the highest level of being blacklisted, and none of us had any idea that our house was on the list. The policy was only a couple years old, so all the permanent residents were grandfathered out of it.

But even after the initial blurb in Worcester Magazine came out, it didn’t hit the radar screens of agencies across the city. They may have seen it, but it just didn’t make priority level.

In some ways it reminds me of organizing around the anti-panhandling campaign. Hee was this issue that just didn’t resonate or reach a priority level for the agencies to respond. Like, “We think that’s badm but we’re busy.”

So you filed your information request with the library, and they complied pretty quickly with that.

They complied, responding with a list of the properties, the addresses that were blacklisted, as well as what the written policy was.

So how did things then move to the next level with different activists in the community?

Well, once I saw the list, we published it on Worcester Indymedia, we put it on Pie and Coffee and other blogs. [Ed. note: I think we kept these posts “hidden,” and passed around the lists less publicly, until the policy turned up in the mainstream press, so as not to be seen as being too agressive.]

Folks like Real Solutions started talking about it, started to hand it out to agencies, saying, “Look at this list, what do you see in this list?”

And he types of things I started hearing were: surprise at some of the places on there. Places like Worcester State Hospital, an institution dealing with folks with mental illness. Or AdCare hospital, which is primarily working with folks dealing with substance abuse issues. It wasn’t just homeless shelters, it was residential programs for people in recovery or teenagers.

People started talking about what wasn’t on the list. It was such a weirdly-constructed list. There was one shelter that’s two buildings. If you were in one of the buildings, your address was on the list. If you were a homeless person, family, living in the other shelter your address wouldn’t be on the list, and you would be fine.

To get away from the details of the policy: then a meeting was arranged with the library.

Real Solutions, folks from Legal Assistance Corporation, and the ACLU were invited along. And we sat down with the board to talk with them.

It was some of the members of the library board, it was the chief librarian, and lawyers for the library. It was a sort of random collection of people concerned about the policy and people from the library.

It was an interesting meeting for me, because beforehand I wasn’t convinced that this policy was so horrific. And after talking with the library about it for an hour, I was totally convinced it was irresponsible.

I think seeing the lack of thought that had gone into the policy, they talked about all the thought that had gone into it, but if you paid attention . . . .

When we started asking real questions about it, it seemed like actually they just threw it together. And so the meeting happened, and people offered suggestions on each side, and nothing really came out of it.

At that point Legal Assistance said they were interested in pursuing this further. They were horrified by that meeting.

And the library was not receptive to the suggestions that were being made in the meeting. People would make all sorts of suggestions out of left field, right field, center field.

So at that point, Legal Assistance in Worcester stepped forward and said, “We would like to pursue this. As a legal entity and a bunch of lawyers, we need clients.” So they started conversations, other people started conversations, looking for families or individuals that had been hurt by this policy.

I was frustrated that it had to go to a lawsuit. I don’t like resolving things that way.

We tried for an hour in that meeting with the library, which for the most part was cordial, but it wasn’t going anywhere.

And they talked about how they were part of a regional network of libraries, they couldn’t change their lending policy.

So the lawsuit came out, and actually they came up with some pretty good clients, not who you would expect. There was a woman who fled an abusive relationship, if I remember, with her kid, and she’d been homeschooling the kid. And she was in this transitional shelter thing, and the library was like, “You’re in the transitional shelter, you can only check out two books.” So she can’t homeschool her child anymore, because she can’t get enough materials together for coursework.

The more we all took the time to ask some questions, the more things came together really easily.

When I first heard about the policy, I was like, “Oh, this is just a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals saying homeless people should be able to check out a bunch of books and then throw them down the storm drain.” And once we started asking questions we realized that not only were a lot of people getting caught in the crossfire, who the policy wasn’t trying to target in the first place, but that the policy was put together really sloppily. There were plenty of non-institutional places where a lot of transients live that were not even on the library’s radar.

And that actually came out in the press. They were asking the library, “Show us some statistics.” The press was asking the library the same kind of questions we were asking, and the library was like, “We don’t have it,” or “No comment,” or “Whatever.”

So the lawsuit seemed to drag on for awhile, and then the library board came together and put out a completely new policy, which didn’t mention people who were homeless or in transitional housing at all. It seems like the lawsuit it still dragging on, but the policy got changed.

And I think the lawsuit will get dealt with soon. I think the city’s just dealing with bigger things.

It’s important for us to look at the steps that pulled this together:

  • The public records request was really important. People in the community saw a glimpse of something that might be askew, and said, “We need to know more about this.” We should all, no matter what community we’re in, ask: What is the policy in my city? And if it doesn’t seem clear, find out how to make a public records request and get real details.
  • Another key thing we did was quickly look for partners. There was a community-based group, Real Solutions, working on this. We reached out immediately to Legal Assistance, and made sure Legal Assistance was at the table asking questions that some of us may not have thought about. We worked quickly to pull in the social service agencies in the city. I don’t feel they were good initially around this. But once people started asking some questions, it was the social service agencies that found these great people that had been really hurt by this policy.

I think these are the things that people in other communities can do. Ask these questions, and look for the partners to move forward.

It was very encouraging that it got changed, and it got changed certainly within a year of people being aware of it, more like nine months.

I have a phone call in to the Fitchburg Public Library, which still has a discriminatory policy, and they’re refusing to talk with me until the lawsuit it settled. But once the lawsuit is settled I’ll find out if they keep their policy or change.

The Worcester Public Library was able to change their policy, even though they were part of a library network that had a different policy.

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