Buildings and Facilities

Homelessness and libraries: an interview with Ryan J. Dowd

It may surprise you to hear that staff at public libraries interact with almost as many homeless individuals as staff at shelters do. But as Ryan J. Dowd, who has spent most of his career as Executive Director of a large homeless shelter near Chicago, observes, "Libraries are one of the few places in a community where everyone — homeless and not homeless — are likely to mix." He advocates for an empathy-driven approach to these individuals in his new book The Librarian's Guide to Homelessness.

You open your book by discussing some of the myths surrounding individuals who are homeless. In your view, which myth is the most pervasive and damaging?

I think there are two pervasive myths that contradict each other, and each cause a different type of damage. One myth is that homeless people are nothing like housed people. This “othering” of homeless individuals really allows us to view them as less than human, less than citizens and less than deserving of assistance. The related myth, though, is that homeless individuals are exactly like housed people. That simply isn’t true. A homeless individual has had a lot of different experiences that effects worldview, communication style, etc. If you assume that a homeless individual interacts with the world exactly like you do, then you are completely unable to empathize with the unique circumstances they face.

What is the Homeless Golden Rule and why do you write that it's the most important thing in your book?

The Homeless Golden Rule is that you should treat your homeless patrons no better or worse than any other patron. This is so important because homeless individuals are used to being singled out and treated as “other” (and usually “less than.”). Being singled out (and discriminated against) is a massive trigger for conflict with homeless patrons. Simply not treating homeless patrons discriminatorily removes a massive source of conflict.

When there's a difficult situation to deal with, often one's default is to immediately shift into problem-solving mode rather than taking a moment to empathize. What are a few pieces of advice you would give librarians for confronting difficult situations with empathy?

The first step is to slow down. Talking to an angry patron (homeless or otherwise) is uncomfortable, and so people try to rush the situation in order to get out of it. This is a mistake. Homeless individuals are constantly rushed and ignored, so when you try to rush the conversation, you send a clear message that they are not worthy of your time or attention. This is a trigger that escalates the situation, which—ironically—causes the confrontation to take much longer than if you took a little time to listen. So few people take the time to listen to homeless patrons. When you do that, it really resolves a lot of problems down the line (and saves time!).

Let's say a library patron approaches you to complain about a homeless individual. So now you have two overlapping situations to handle. What do you do? 

The first step is to determine whether the non-homeless patron’s complaint is legitimate. At one library I talked to, the patrons call the police every time a homeless patron even enters the library. That is simply an elitist misunderstanding of the role of the library as the last truly democratic public space in our communities. On the other hand, if the non-homeless patron has a legitimate concern (e.g. sexual comments) then that is a totally different matter. So, basically, if the concern is legitimate, then library staff should address the problematic behavior. If the concern is not legitimate, library staff should do their best to explain the role of libraries in serving everyone across the socio-economic spectrum (easier said than done, of course!).

On a day to day basis, how does librarianship's advocacy role fit in with serving the homeless?

I think that any effective advocacy begins with a relationship. When you take the time to hear the stories—and learn the names—of homeless patrons you immediately become a more effective advocate. The revolution is in the relationship.  

What are some first steps that libraries can take to partner with outside organizations?

Let’s start with the idea of hiring a social worker. I think it is great for libraries to have social workers, but I am totally against libraries hiring social workers. A far better approach is to partner with a local nonprofit to provide the social worker. There are several reasons for this:  1) A social work agency will do a better job hiring a good social worker, 2) A social work agency will do a better job supporting and supervising a social worker, 3) A social worker operating in a sea of librarians will not have adequate moral and technical support; if that person works for another agency, s/he can get advice from co-workers back at the main office.  4) When another agency has staff based in the library, there are more people caring about the library. That is huge.

Learn more about Dowd's book at the ALA Store.

Though fictional, The Public, a new film written and directed by Emilio Estevez, deals with these very real issues. The opening film of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, it stars Taylor Schilling, Alec Baldwin, Jena Malone, and Jeffrey Wright alongside Estevez. It centers on a group of homeless library patrons in Cincinnati. When brutal weather fills the city's emergency shelters to capacity, they refuse to leave the downtown public library at closing time, leading to a standoff. Check out the official trailer below.

Books hot off the press, Meet the Authors at the ALA Store in Orlando

Located just inside the Shuttle Bus Entrance at the Orange County Convention Center, the ALA Store offers products that meet the widest range of your promotional and continuing education/professional development needs—as well as fun gift items. Make sure to carve out some time in your schedule during the conference to stop by and examine the many new and bestselling items available!

ALA Store hours:

  • Friday, June 24            12:00 pm – 5:30 pm
  • Saturday, June 25       8:30 am – 5:00 pm
  • Sunday, June 26          8:30 am – 5:00 pm
  • Monday, June 27        9:00 am – 2:00 pm

ALA Graphics will feature a selection of popular posters, bookmarks, and promotional materials, including new 2016 Teen Read Week and Banned Book Week items. And stop by early to get your pick of conference t-shirts—they sell out fast! We’ll also be introducing several brand new items and exclusive gifts:

  • Libraries Transform Expert Badges
  • CSK Book Award T-shirts
  • CSK Book Award Pashmina (limited quantity and only available at the Conference Store)

ALA Editions and ALA divisions are excited to offer several new titles hot off the press, such as “RDA Essentials,” by Thomas Brenndorfer; “Engaging Babies in the Library: Putting Theory into Practice,” by Debra J. Knoll; and “The Librarian's Nitty Gritty Guide to Content Marketing,” by Laura Solomon. Come by the ALA Store for these special Meet the Author events:

Saturday, June 25      

Sunday, June 26      

Remember that you can now find titles from ALA Neal-Schuman and Facet Publishing in the ALA Store. You can also get free shipping on all book orders placed in the ALA Store (posters, bookmarks, and other gift-type items are not eligible for this offer).

Stop by the ALA Store to learn more about our eLearning opportunities. You can also arrange for a live demo of RDA Toolkit—just contact us by June 20 to request an appointment.

Prices at the ALA Store automatically reflect the ALA Member discount, so there’s no need to dig out your Member number. And remember that every dollar you spend at the ALA Store helps support library advocacy, awareness, and other key programs and initiatives!

Continuing the Conversation: 12 Essential Elements for a Safe and Secure Library

We just wrapped up the Warren Graham’s Workshop 12 Essential Elements for a Safe and Secure Library. If you didn’t have a chance to attend, check out Sean’s slides, posted below!

If you want more resources on this topic, check out Warren’s Book The Black Belt Librarian: Real-World Safety & Security.

Warren’s Slides are Available Here:

Continuing the Conversation: Making Space for Entrepreneurs and Independent Workers

We just wrapped up Meg Knodl’s ALA Editions Workshop Making Space for Entrepreneurs and Independent Workers. Meg introduced the attendees to this exciting new topic, and there was a lot of fantastic discussion on how library spaces can be transformed to accommodate a new and growing segment of the workforce. Whether you attended or not, feel free to chime in via the comments area with questions or comments.

The Readings for Today’s Workshop:

Resources Mentioned During the Workshop:

Meg’s Slides:
Making Space for Entrepreneurs and Independent Workers

Welcome to!

I would like to welcome you to and our open-forum blog. It is my privilege to be the Publisher of both TechSource (subscriptions, e-learning, webinars, and workshops) and Editions (professional and reference books, both print and electronic). My team is part of a larger unit at the American Library Association called Publishing.

The dirty little secret is that I am not a librarian, but I know a great deal about what librarians do, what they think about, and what they are concerned about.  But I never know enough; I will never be close enough to the action because I do not work in a library. So my colleagues and I depend on you tell us what is going on and what you need for your professional development. And here is a chance for you to do just that.

Something that we in publishing share with librarians of all kinds is high anxiety about how quickly our work world is changing. I am old enough (the proverbial 39, thank you Mr. Benny) to remember when the art and science of putting a book together meant having a hand-written manuscript typed by two different people (in order to ensure that the material was correct), comparing the documents, creating a master with hand edits, and sending it off to the compositor—who made galleys. (And why did we call them galleys, anyway. A galley is a long metal tray that holds type ready for printing.)

The galleys would be edited, read by the author, edited and corrected again, and sent back to the author. Changes would be made again until we finally had page proofs, which were sent back to the author and then to a proof reader. Cover art had to be hand drawn; even charts, graphs, and other display elements were hand drawn—we had an art department with lighted tables, for goodness sake.  And permission letters were a horrible bore—they took forever to do and get back. Did I forget the index……done manually? Once the art was in place and the index readied the second set of page proofs were sent off to the author. Corrections always came back, no matter how often you explained that an author could not rewrite anything! Finally, everything was sent to the printer, who put the book under the camera to make film, to make plates....and on and on.

Well, the back and forth still goes on, and we still go to the printer (for how long, one wonders). But it is all so wonderfully different now; still a lot of work for both author and publisher, but our output is more than just a physical book. It can be a PDF of the book you can print yourself; but it also can be an e-bundle that allows you to read one of our books on your Kindle or iPad or whatever your favorite device happens to be.

And of course, this is part of our shared high anxiety: Will an actual book disappear? Some may remember a quaint little movie “84 Charing Cross Road” with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins from 1986—a movie that glorified and revered not only books, but old books. In it are great scenes from the proverbial musty book shop in the basement of a London building. The staff was totally devoted to and knowledgeable about books, great ones and little volumes of seemingly no consequence other than the fact that someone wanted to own them and read them. To have them. Librarians and publishers alike are anxiously asking if patrons will continue to want and to own books. And no one knows for sure.

Now I have to confess my second dirty little secret: I have owned a Kindle for over two years, and I love it. Not only do I love it, I take it everywhere. My non-publishing friends are scandalized. But you are a book publisher. No, I respond, I am a publisher and my world has changed greatly. I want librarians to own our books, courses, and newsletters, but I don’t care if they buy an actual book or something they load on their Sony Reader. Just tell us by your buying decisions that we are publishing correctly for you. What I really want to know is if our content is helping librarians be better librarians, which is what ALA Publishing in general and TechSource and Editions in particular are all about.

So, welcome again to our blog. We want to talk about anything that has to do with books, with publishing, with libraries, with technology…..come join the party.


P.S. Many of you may have heard that Barnes & Noble is for sale. Leonard Riggio, the founder, will probably lead a group of investors and take the chain private (again). It was not long ago that the entire industry was in fear and trepidation about the power and control that the super store chains would have on the book world.  Everyone fretted that one company, with over 700 stores, would so dominate the market. They indeed did change the landscape. There are very few independent stores around. In 2001, B & N’s total market capitalization was $2.2 billion while Amazon’s capitalization was $3.6 billion.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. B & N today is capitalized at $950 million while Amazon is currently at $55 billion. Who’s the monster now…….?

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