Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Home to the Homeless

Libraries offer refuge and support to those in need and help foster a new community approach to homelessness
Z! Haukeness from the Shine Initiative—a nonprofit based in Madison, Wisconsin—keeps a prominent profile in a glass room in the middle of Madison Public Library, where he and a coworker spend 30 hours a week helping patrons find housing and jobs and apply for food stamps. Some people come just to talk through hardships, he says.
Just before 9 a.m. on a Tuesday in Madison, Wisconsin, people line up on the corner outside Madison Public Library, waiting for the doors to open. Some of them have spent the night on nearby street benches or on the pavement near the building. They’re ready for a soft chair and dry air.
“First in, last to leave the library,” says Jane, describing herself and her homeless community. “It’s our routine.” Jane, who prefers not to give her last name, says she’s classified as chronically homeless.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development defines a chronically homeless person as an unaccompanied individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for one year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years. More than 610,000 people are homeless in the United States on any given night. Nearly two-thirds live in shelters or transitional housing, and the rest are unsheltered.
Jane says she didn’t start coming to the library until she became homeless. Now she’s drawn to it for many reasons; it’s one of the few places she can go where it doesn’t matter what she wears or whether she has money. She’s entitled to the same services and treatment as the person standing next to her in a designer coat.
The American Library Association (ALA) maintains in its “Library Services to the Poor” policy statement that it’s crucial for public libraries to recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society. The library has to serve as a uniquely egalitarian place. Moreover, library staffers have a duty to look out for the needs of poor and homeless patrons and strive to provide relevant services.
That’s a complex task for librarians who already face a number of challenges.
How do you make the public library a welcoming place for everyone when not all library users (or even staff members) feel comfortable around signs of homelessness? What if a homeless patron needs professional services beyond the library’s capability to fulfill? Madison Public Library and several other public libraries have come up with practical, innovative solutions.

The library allure

According to Partners Ending Homelessness, there are three patterns of homelessness. Situational homelessness can occur when someone loses a job, gets evicted, or suffers a particular financial or health crisis. Episodic homelessness differs in that it stems from patterns of behavior and can have multiple causes, including depression and domestic violence, and is more common among women and families. A third group—chronically homeless people—comprises less than 18% of the total homeless population.
Librarians who work with homeless populations should understand the different types of homelessness, says Ryan Dowd, former director of the Hesed House, a homeless shelter in Aurora, Illinois. Dowd says chronically homeless people typically present the most challenges for libraries. Homelessness for them doesn’t stem from poverty alone but from poverty combined with the lack of relationships or support systems.

“If you think about the variety of issues that face the homeless, in many ways they’re not connected to society,” says Jill Bourne, director of San José (Calif.) Public Library. “The library may be the only place where they can go to be connected. It can be a lifeline.”
"The library feeds my soul and my mind," says Dorothy Sterling, pictured here at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago. As a homeless patron, Sterling says she relies on the library to check in on the day's events.
“At the library, you can get on the computer and find out what’s going on in the world,” says Jane in Madison. “If Obama’s going to Zimbabwe, I know.” She also spends time online searching for jobs and affordable housing. The library not only helps her connect with the world at large but also helps her disconnect from aspects of her immediate surroundings.
Most homeless people don’t sleep by themselves on the street, according to Jane. They sleep in a community, often in the same spots, and it’s never safe. “Here there are boundaries,” says Jane, pointing to a computer pod at Madison Public Library. “Those people have their own section of the table. That’s their own space. That’s gold.”
Other homeless patrons come to the library because they need support services and aren’t sure where else to go. Nearly one-third of all chronically homeless people suffer from a mental illness, and about half face substance abuse problems, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
In his work at the Aurora shelter, Dowd noticed a high incidence of autism among homeless populations. Many people with autism spectrum disorders experience sensory sensitivity, which may add to the appeal of a library; they find a peaceful refuge from the noise and glare of the street.

Day-to-day challenges

Chicago Public Library posts policies online that prohibit sleeping and other behaviors sometimes associated with the homeless community. These include loitering, panhandling, bathing in the bathrooms, carrying in large or multiple bags, and offensive hygiene. Complaints from patrons have prompted other libraries to adopt similar policies.
But those policies pose unique challenges to homeless people. Homelessness is an exhausting lifestyle, says Dorothy Sterling, a homeless Chicago Public Library patron. Those who live on the street typically carry everything they own with them, and they’re afraid to fall asleep for fear someone may steal their belongings. “Most of the homeless, we walk all night,” she says. “Your body just shuts down. And I haven’t found a library yet that will let you be when that happens.”
Patrick Molloy, director of government and public affairs at Chicago Public Library, says the library enforces its policy against sleeping because of safety concerns. “It’s difficult to know if something could be wrong,” Molloy says. “The librarians will wake people up to ask if they’re okay.” Unless the behavior is illegal, he says the library gives patrons a second chance to follow library policies before asking them to leave. Patrons are then welcome back the next day.
“We always want to be open and welcoming to all,” says Anne Haimes, interim director of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System in Georgia. “However, we do need to make sure that everyone who comes in feels safe and comfortable.” The challenge for libraries is finding that balance. Haimes says for her library system, keeping a strong, flexible code of conduct helps.
And success can hinge on the word “flexible.” Many homeless people are victims of a shrinking social safety net, says Rene Heybach, senior counsel at the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Libraries need to address signs of homelessness in a nonstigmatizing way, she says, and look for ways to “make room under the public tent.”
Heybach helped craft legislation for the Homeless Bill of Rights, currently adopted into law in Connecticut, Illinois, and Rhode Island. The bill takes aim at city ordinances that ban activities such as sleeping and loitering in public spaces—activities inherent to homelessness. Such laws criminalize the existence of homeless people, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Among its protections, the bill states that homeless people cannot be denied access to public spaces solely based on their housing status. That’s a point to consider in regard to library policies, such as restrictions against carry-in items. Because of their housing status, homeless people may not have a place to store their bags and therefore can’t enter a building.
The best way to ensure open access is to keep an open dialogue, says San José’s Bourne. “Make it about sharing a space.” If a patron comes in with an oversize item and it’s blocking the corridor, San José Public Library trains its staff members to work the problem and not be too rigid about rules. They’ll ask, “Could you possibly fit that under here so people can get by?” she says.
Bourne says she’s also careful to ensure policies are broad enough to implement across the library’s entire user base, which includes university students. Students will often nod off while studying for exams, making a ban on sleeping impractical. Unless staffers can enforce policies consistently among all library patrons and not only the poor, they risk profiling based on poverty.
“We used to have a set of policies that read like the Ten Commandments,” says Bob Harris, recently retired director of the Helen Plum Memorial Library in Lombard, Illinois. At the advice of a security consultant, the library now sticks to one main rule: If you’re doing something that interferes with someone else’s use of the library, it’s not allowed. “Anything else? You’re probably okay,” says Harris. Unless they’re snoring, dozers go undisturbed.
When patrons complain, it’s usually not the presence of homeless people that bothers them, says Harris. “It’s the perception that they’re dangerous.”

What libraries can do

Many public libraries are working to overcome these misconceptions and break the public stigma of homelessness. It takes research, networking, and some ingenuity.
Leah Esquerra (right) is a social worker at San Francisco Public Library. She helps provide support to homeless patrons who gather at the library.

Know your homeless population

The Annual Homeless Assessment Report compiled by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development provides statistics by state as well as local planning bodies. School districts are a good source of information too, since they’re required to count and report on the number of homeless students. Other places to gather research include local food pantries, churches, community organizations that target services to the poor, homeless shelters, and transitional housing facilities.
The most knowledgeable source is, of course, homeless patrons already in the library. Not everyone will want to talk, but those who do can provide insight into why they visit and what additional services they would like to see the library offer.

Form a provider web

While canvassing for information, libraries should look for potential partnerships: service providers that can address the needs of their particular community. A San José study found that 60% of the homeless people in the city suffer from one or more disabling conditions. The library doesn’t have staffers trained to handle those issues, so they built relationships with agencies that do.
“Because libraries are the day shelter in a lot of cities, we have to find a way to knit together services,” says Bourne. Libraries can take a leading role in starting that conversation and building a consortium of service providers vested in helping the homeless.
In Lombard, Helen Plum Memorial Library trustee Kris Johnson convened several community forums at the library to discuss ongoing issues relating to homelessness. Every Tuesday, the homeless shelter near the library hosts a shelter night, and the neighborhood sees an influx of homeless people. Many would wait in and around the library until the shelter opened its doors at 7 p.m.
At the forum, the village president, board members, and representatives from area churches and organizations talked about how to improve the situation. Now, a staff of community volunteers hosts a movie screening at the library before the shelter opens, serving popcorn and cocoa donated by Johnson.

Bring resources in-house

Once, when homeless patrons needed help with personal problems like addiction or domestic abuse, libraries could offer only a referral and direct them someplace else. That’s not always effective, since many homeless people suffer from low self-esteem and have difficulty trusting, says Dowd. Other agencies may have failed them before, so they could decide it’s not worth the risk.
But the public library is different. It already has the trust of the homeless community, many of whom stay at the library all day. “It’s like a home,” says Sterling. By bringing resources in-house, libraries can help ensure homeless patrons have access to services critical to their welfare. 
In 2008, San Francisco Public Library became the nation’s first public library to hire its own, full-time psychiatric social worker, according to Michelle Jeffers, chief of community programs and partnerships. Soon after the social worker started, the library hired four health and safety advocates (HASAs), each of whom were formerly homeless themselves.
HASAs help promote services to the poor, including a resource fair that the library hosts in partnership with Project Homeless Connect. Every month in the library’s auditorium, agencies set up booths offering resources and services geared to the homeless, such as eyeglasses, vaccines, shoes, and haircuts.
Public libraries in other cities, including San José, Madison, Philadelphia, and Salt Lake City, also have social workers in-house. Z! Haukeness from the Shine Initiative—a nonprofit based in Madison—keeps a prominent profile in a glass room in the middle of Madison Public Library, where he and a coworker spend 30 hours a week helping patrons find housing and jobs and apply for food stamps. Some people come just to talk through hardships, he says.
One hardship of homelessness, the inability to bathe, has caused ongoing problems for public libraries. San Francisco Public Library now has a possible solution: mobile showers. When a local nonprofit, Lava Mae, began retrofitting former city buses with private showers for the homeless, SFPL staffers lobbied to have one parked outside the central library. Open to all, the free showers would include soap, shampoo, and towels.
Lava Mae’s founders are looking to expand their model to other cities, according to the nonprofit’s website.

Create welcoming spaces

During the planning phases of Madison Public Library’s recent building renovation, director Greg Mickells met with several social service agencies to discuss how to make the library a more inviting and functional space for all patrons, particularly Madison’s homeless community.

The new facility features workspace for 10 different social agencies like the Shine Initiative, as well as redesigned work areas for patrons. Unlike computer banks where people sit in rows, the library’s work areas look more like pods: clusters of three computer desks with partitions spread throughout the library. This arrangement provides more privacy—a valued commodity among homeless patrons.
Madison Public Library's central library created work areas that look like pods: clusters of three computer desks with partitions. This arrangement provides more privacy, a valued commodity among homeless patrons.
Librarians can also expand their collections to include materials on poverty and homelessness, and make sure everyone has access to checking them out. ALA recommends removing restrictions to owning a library card. “There are a lot of educated homeless people,” says Sterling. “We like to read and to learn.” She adds that she arrives at the library as soon as it opens to surf the web, and attends the library’s free seminars on issues relating to consumer credit and the law.
Some libraries allow patrons to use a shelter address when applying for a library card. About 2% of all the cards that Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System issues are courtesy cards for people without a permanent address, says Haimes. Of those, 95% go to homeless people.

Offer targeted programs

After learning about a program at the Dallas Public Library called “Coffee and Conversation,” SFPL’s Jeffers says colleagues decided to try the idea. Homeless patrons gather to share experiences and struggles and talk about why they come to the library. An informal coffee klatch can help stir up ideas for a host of other programs.
Another good source is ALA’s toolkit, “Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness through Library Engagement.” The source contains a list of programs of interest to homeless people, such as mortgage or rental assistance, help applying for government benefits, and health programs.
Libraries like Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System also offer free GED classes on-site that draw unemployed or underemployed people who may be experiencing episodic homelessness. A report from the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness shows nearly 50% of homeless parents are high school dropouts. Obtaining a GED can offer the pathway to gainful employment, and for some, a way off the street.

Train staff

“When you see a homeless person, you see the bags and the raggedy coat, [but] you don’t always see the human,” says Harris of Lombard. “I try to look directly into the person’s eyes.” He says he learned about the importance of making eye contact and other tips from Dowd’s YouTube video, “A Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness.” It’s now required viewing for all staffers at Helen Plum Memorial Library, which serves a large homeless population.
The video offers some insights into what it’s like to be homeless and can help foster sensitivity toward related issues. Dowd recommends treating homeless people no better or worse than anyone else; they don’t mind rules so long as they’re applied fairly. “[The] catch is how they’re enforced,” he says. Underpinning all his advice is one principle: Show respect.
“People just don’t understand being a homeless person,” says Sterling. “If you respect them, they’ll respect you.”
That simple concept isn’t always simple in practice. Each person in the homeless community has a story about how he or she got there. Some of those stories include abuse, mental illness, and posttraumatic stress. As a result, homeless people can often feel cast off from society.
Libraries can work to change that. In addition to providing vital resources, library staffers can engage their communities in better understanding the issues surrounding homelessness. But they can’t do it alone. Working with other advocates and social agencies, libraries can create resource-rich spaces where homeless patrons feel welcome, intellectually engaged, and connected with their communities.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ebook Discovery

Finding the library/publisher sweet spot
Libraries and publishers are in the business of connecting readers and authors. Bestsellers make up the majority of traffic in public libraries, but how can libraries, publishers, and others in the ecosystem team up to help readers discover the best fit for their tastes?
This is the brass ring that supports a diversity of thought and reading experiences, creates markets for more authors to survive and thrive in their profession, and elicits the joy of finding a new title for a reader. It is also a clear way for librarians to further demonstrate their professional value in a world of information abundance. Ebook discovery through libraries was the theme of an American Library Association–sponsored workshop at Digital Book World (DBW) in New York City in January 2014. I joined a talented team of presenters—including Nora Rawlinson from EarlyWord, publishing consultant Maja Thomas, and Wendy Bartlett from Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library (CCPL). We had two goals: increase awareness of how libraries support discovery and brainstorm new opportunities to enable discovery through libraries. It was a broad-ranging conversation about the physical and digital assets libraries can mobilize, and we flagged several issues for further consideration and development. Because the DBW session was geared to a nonlibrary audience, the following summary supplies arguments that librarians can use to demonstrate their value in the 21st-century reading ecosystem. It will also serve as a jumping-off point for exploring how libraries can enhance their resources and foster new partnerships.

Physical assets

Many libraries begin developing young patrons’ reading habits early with lap-sit and storytime programming. Summer reading programs and promotions like Teen Read Week encourage reading for pleasure, while adult literacy efforts ensure that millions of people will become confident readers. Creating a love of reading is vital, particularly as almost one in five people recently reported not reading a single book in the past year, according to the Pew Research Center. Literacy is one factor, but gaming, social media, and streaming video increasingly compete for people’s time and interest. On average, library users read 20 books in a year, compared with 13 books for nonusers.
Libraries are often characterized as physical places that offer information access, but in a deeper sense they encourage information discovery. Our 16,400+ public library buildings, for instance, are “discovery centers” that remain indispensable as many brick-and-mortar bookstores close. The Codex Group, for example, has found that while book purchases are frequently made online, most of these buyers discover the titles elsewhere. Maja Thomas emphasized this message during the DBW panel, pointing out how library displays and programming promote books—including publishers’ backlists—and help build the fan base for genres and authors even more successfully than online retailers.
A physical space in the digital age serves as a hub where people can connect with physical collections, librarians, and their neighbors. Public libraries host more than
3.75 million programs in a year, attracting nearly 87 million people. Library programming supports cultural and civic engagement and exposes people to print materials and digital media on such themes as Women’s History Month and the anniversary of the March on Washington. Library spaces also give patrons opportunities to use technology and build digital literacy skills. Technological innovations are continually emerging, and libraries play a role in extending their reach beyond early adopters.
Digital displays promoting new e-titles, QR codes linking to book reviews, or public events connecting readers with one another and authors (in person or by videoconference)—all of these physical and virtual resources make libraries a third
space of discovery beyond home and the workplace.

Digital/virtual assets

Library “virtual branches” are an increasingly vital complement for people to connect with information and resources whenever they find it most convenient—including when the physical building is closed. New York Public Library, for instance, now draws 22 million web visits in a year, the second highest of any city agency. This continues to grow as libraries expand their reach with social media and seek greater integration across platforms to improve usability. Library websites are the most common transaction point for circulating digital materials. In 2013, six libraries exceeded 1 million digital checkouts through OverDrive. CCPL has seen its digital circulation grow from 35,000 to 806,000 in three years’ time.
Wendy Bartlett and Nora Rawlinson shared some examples of libraries that are actively expanding their digital services.
  • Libraries are partnering with distributors to improve ebook browsing, checkout, and reading on a range of devices all within a library catalog entry, rather than force a patron to visit a vendor site. CCPL patrons can now read book samples right out of the catalog, which could account for a 25% increase in circulation in January 2014 over the previous year. Baltimore County (Md.) Public Library also reports an increase in circulation as a result of its catalog integration work with 3M.
New “discovery layers” break down silos and feature the kind of displays that grab users’ attention. Rawlinson contrasted the Chicago Public Library website before and after implementing the BiblioCommons discovery system to show how the library is better equipped to feature new or award-winning titles and staff picks.
The user experience is also the focus of ReadersFirst, which in January 2014 released its Guide to Library E-Book Vendors, rating how well each vendor makes the ebook experience seamless for readers and responds to library needs through software enhancements.
Noted as still missing from the library mix are the ability to integrate and offer easy access to book trailers and other online extras like reading guides or coloring-book pages for young readers.
  • Another example of a digital analogue is a portal that serves as an online “reading room” for kids and teens. This online space leads them directly to youth titles, bypassing adult titles and their covers. These materials are still included in the main digital library for anyone to browse for ebooks across the collection.
  • Library content must be easily accessible via mobile websites and apps. Geared for smartphones and tablets, mobile-ready access points have helped improve the process of downloading digital content. Library app collections become a fast channel for promoting titles and other library resources and services.
Two library services recently recognized as cutting edge translate the physical browsing experience into the virtual realm: the Orange County (Fla.) Library
System’s (OCLS) Shake It! mobile app and Scottsdale (Ariz.) Public Library’s Gimme! mobile website and search engine. With each shake of their device, OCLS readers get recommendations from across the catalog, check availability, and place a hold on or download chosen materials. Gimme! asks readers to select from a menu that includes “gimme a clue” or “gimme liberty or gimme death” to retrieve staff-selected titles that range from The Face on the Milk Carton and self-published ebooks to Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly.
  • Social media technology is a growing part of the mix, with Pinterest and Facebook playing major roles in promotion and community engagement. CCPL, for instance, hosts a weekly “Night Owls” session with a librarian “talking books” with readers. Harris County (Tex.) Public Library encourages discovery through its “Book of the Day” feature on its Pinterest account, as well as compiling and sharing staff picks.

Librarian expertise

Library staff members are at the intersection of the physical and the virtual. Recent research from the Pew Research Center found that people see librarian assistance as a top library resource. In addition, the DBW audience clearly valued the expertise and reach of thousands of librarians who work in public, school, and academic libraries.
Librarian readers’ advisory both uses and goes beyond digital algorithms to ensure that the right title finds the right reader at the right time. Cuyahoga County, for instance, offers two customized, online readers’ advisory options: 3 for 3 and
Read Intuit. In 3 for 3, readers share the last three books they read and liked, and librarians suggest three more. Read Intuit digs more deeply into reader profiles with questionnaires tailored to adult, young adult, and kids’ titles. Customized lists of titles are then emailed to readers and placed in the “my lists” section of their online library accounts.
Both Bartlett and Rawlinson talked about using digital advanced reading copies (ARCs) from services like Edelweiss or NetGalley as a discovery tool for librarians. Combined with advance reviews from publications like Booklist, ARCs allow librarians to test-drive, order, and promote new titles before they are published. These services also help drive traffic and conversations on Rawlinson’s EarlyWord website; the recently launched LibraryReads website corrals readers’ advisory library picks.
Book awards that range from Caldecott to Printz to Carnegie recognize and expose high-quality writing to readers of all ages. ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Teen Book Finder app increases the visibility of these award-winning titles.

On the horizon

The publishing and lending ecosystems continue to blur lines and roles. More authors are self-publishing. Libraries are building their own digital content distribution platforms and even taking on some local publishing roles. Amazon lends ebooks to its premium subscribers, and we can imagine other players will introduce similar options to their product mix. While Simon & Schuster is the only publisher currently requiring that a purchase option be included with library lending, “buy-it-now” options for patrons, as well as other commercial partnerships, could provide some compensation or credit for libraries that connect authors and readers. Partnership opportunities—with indie bookstores and digital start-ups—likely will abound for the nimble library. At the same time, serial subscriptions and mobile reading apps will again challenge how we acquire, expose, manage, and build our collections.
Data and privacy
Customization and location-aware recommendations are increasing popular services that demand personal data. How will libraries both protect and leverage patron data that we manage or that may be in the hands of third-party distributors?
Some libraries are beginning to allow patrons to opt into personalized offers and recommendations by turning “on” their circulation history to library staff.
Other data-related questions that arose in the DBW session included analyzing turnover rates more closely, gaining a better understanding of how long a patron will wait for a title and whether a patron will return to the library collection after an extended wait, and finding out how readers engage with books—something that circulation stats alone can’t tell us. What data can help us better serve our readers or make us more valuable to commercial vendors, and what is the trade-off? These questions swirl around Big Data usage in general.
One theme from the DBW session could be seen as a complement—or a challenge—to librarian expertise. Bartlett and Thomas talked about the value of patron-driven acquisition. Readers can bring titles to the librarian’s attention that might otherwise have been missed—the classic benefit of crowdsourcing. “This is an example of the way the world has dramatically changed: Instead of top-down decisions, user desire can bubble up and influence purchases,” Thomas noted.
Crowdsourcing can also be a driver for discovery. Users often want to share their passion for a book by developing their own book trailers for the library website or inserting reviews or user tags into library catalogs. Suggestions from DBW included encouraging patrons to develop and share their lists of favorite books, asking them to describe two emotions they felt on reading a specific title and share this somehow with other readers, or examining the reading lists of other community members for ideas on acquisition and programming.


The DBW session ended on an optimistic note for opening a new front for discussion among librarians, publishers, and others around ebook discovery. Rawlinson and Thomas noted that publishers and librarians live in separate worlds, often driven by conflicting forces. Could further conversations about improving discovery build productive new bridges? Promoting discovery appears to be a rich vein for librarians to mine as we hone our expertise and publicize our value in the 21st century.