Libraries May Survive Internet, But Not Mental Illness
What's the greatest threat to public libraries? People not reading? The allure of the Interwebs? Hypervigilant parents who don't let their kids go to the library on their own? Or is it the persistent presence of unstable, smelly and potentially dangerous mentally ill people who use libraries as day centers?
A new survey--but beware: it was commissioned by an interested party--says the disturbing behavior of mentally ill patrons makes others less likely to use public libraries.
In the District, libraries director Ginnie Cooper moved earlier this year to set new rules that make it harder for homeless or mentally ill people to set up camp in the libraries; although the city denies that that's the intent, it's clear that the rules are designed to ameliorate the #1 complaint many users have about the libraries--that they have become de facto shelters for people who have nowhere else to go. The rules prohibit people from entering libraries with more than two bags, and they ban sleeping in the libraries.
Now, the Treatment Advocacy Center, a northern Virginia organization that pushes for more aggressive care and treatment of the severely mentally ill, has published a survey of librarians nationwide in which 85 percent of those responding reported having had to summon the police to deal with disruptions caused by mentally ill patrons.
Many librarians have traditionally defended the right of disturbed homeless to stay in the libraries, a caring and good-hearted gesture on the part of a profession that puts great weight on protecting liberties. But many of those same librarians have grown frustrated by their inability to maintain a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere for patrons who might not want, say, their children hanging out in a place where some pretty scuzzy characters are acting out.
"Our nation's libraries are turning into daytime shelters for people with severe mental illness who need to be in treatment," said the study's author, E. Fuller Torrey, founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center. "The fact that libraries remain a safe haven from violence and life on the streets for people with mental illness is a sad commentary. Doing so devalues human life and the importance of libraries in our communities."
The center says a majority of librarians surveyed said that the number of disturbed patrons has been on the rise, and that dealing with people with psychiatric problems takes up a disproportionate amount of the librarians' time.
Whether solutions like the rules changes that the District has imposed will help rebalance the mix of people in the libraries remains to be seen, as does whether such restrictions will pass muster with the courts. In Washington, a federal court judge threw out a previous effort to curb the use of libraries by the mentally ill; the judge said the city had no right to screen library patrons according to how they looked. (Whether smell can be taken into account is not an issue that has had a definitive airing in the courts.)
Good librarians will keep trying to find a constitutional way to protect libraries for the people who make good use of them--but the real solution lies in a different sector of government altogether. The real solution is to stop pretending that the mentally ill people who roam the streets and camp out in libraries are having the time of their lives, and start giving them the care they need, in a decent and humane setting. Just because a past generation went too far with institutionalization does not justify our current policy of forcing the deeply disturbed to wander the streets like vagabonds.
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