Sleeping in the Library

Last month, I responded to someone on LibraryTwitter that I don’t follow about the ethics of allowing people to sleep in our libraries. Presumably, I only saw it because someone who I do follow liked it.

The beginning of a LibraryTwitter fist fight.

Over the next few hours this guy — I’m just going to assume it’s a dude — myself, and a few other participants argued for or against allowing people to sleep in our respective libraries. I don’t know, but I’m guessing that most of the participants were in public libraries. Not that that matters. I think in this case the argument is the same regardless of your primary patron base.

You see from the dude’s choice of tone that he is firmly in favor of allowing sleeping in his library for — I guess? — civil rights reasons. He has a point. Libraries are one of the last places on Earth wherein people do not have to justify their existence or pay money for a service. But he went so far as to call no-sleeping policies “discriminatory” in his argument against them. He somehow thought that not allowing anyone to sleep in our facility meant that we had a vendetta against homeless people. That, unfortunately, is not what “discriminatory” means. If we allowed certain populations to sleep and not others, that would be discriminatory, but we have a blanket ban on sleeping. The Dean of the Library and the President of the University could be sacked out on the benches of the diner booths behind rolling white boards and they would be awoken and told they couldn’t sleep there. We wake students and members of the public, alike, all the time. No one is allowed to sleep in our facility.

I sympathize with my sparring partner. I, too, used to advocate allowing sleeping in my library. I used to argue that while it may not be the intended use of the library, we had a space in which our patrons felt comfortable enough to willingly lose consciousness for a while when they needed to. Time has passed, though, and my job has changed. I have a lot of responsibilities now that I didn’t have when I was making that argument.

My argument now, as seen above, is that disallowing sleeping in a library is a public safety issue. It is visually impossible to determine if a person is simply having a nap, or if they’ve overdosed, or slipped into a coma, or even died.

We, as librarians, have created spaces in which any number of social needs are being met, or at least aided, that may not have occurred in generations past. We, however, are not social workers and can’t actually supply all needs to all people. In the same way we are not a homeless shelter, and we especially are not doctors. I live and work in a desert environment in which much of the year outdoor temperatures are in the triple-digits. I recognize the need for my facility to act as a cooling center for those in need. It does so for any patron who wishes to abide by the posted rules of conduct. Sleeping is against those rules of conduct and those members of the public caught are asked to leave. Repeat offenders are banned from the library.

Sleeping is against the rules of conduct for the reason I mentioned above. We, as personnel untrained in medical skills do not have the ability to judge the difference between sleeping and a serious medical condition. You, if you are the supervisor on duty or other muckety-muck you are putting yourself and you staff in a position of being responsible for the health and safety of a vulnerable patron who has lapsed consciousness. This is an ethically dubious position, at best.

I am all for providing a safe space for our patrons with minimal interference by rules, regulations, and direct monitoring. However, I think one of the most basic tenants of “safe space” is that one is not at significant risk of medical trauma or death in that space. Assuring that your users are awake and alert is a big part of making sure your space is actually safe. I find it a dangerously irresponsible attitude, as expressed by my sparring partner, to use the assume-everything-is-fine method of practice in the name of providing a “safe space.”

Another participant in that day’s discussion tried to counter my “we’re not doctors” point with, “Yes, we’re not doctors, so why are we waking people up to make sure they’re not dead?” One does not need a medical degree to check for responsiveness. A person who cannot be awoken needs serious medical attention, if a “sleeping” person in my library could not be awoken then 9-1-1 would immediately be called and they would get whatever help they needed at that time.

Imagine assuming everything is fine that a patron has been sleeping in your library’s comfy chair for the last three hours and then it’s time to close the building. You shake the individual speaking to them that it’s time for them to leave. They do not respond. You shake harder with no response. You call the ambulance and they come to your library to attend to the person only to discover that the person had died sometime that evening. Are you really emotionally prepared to live with the fact that an innocent person died while you ignored them? Is this something that morally or ethically you are willing to accept in the name of a safe space? This is the calculation you make every time you think. “It’s fine. They’re only sleeping. They’re not bothering anyone.”


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