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The Homeless and the Libraries - The Right to Knowledge for All

by Susanne Bernsmann, Stiftung Digitale Chancen
Published on: 27.08.12
Source: Eigener Bericht

Teilnehmende des Satellite Meetings -The Homeless and the Libraries - The Right to Knowledge For All- in Tallinn, Estland

In 1990 the American Library Association approved the 'Policy #61, Library Services to the Poor'. This policy was created based on the belief that "it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies." It includes sixteen objectives to accomplish this goal, from promoting food via eliminating fees for those people who cannot afford to pay them to creating low-income services.

The IFLA's Library Services to People with Special Needs (LSN) Section hosted the Satellite Meeting "The Homeless and the Libraries - The Right to Knowledge For All" within the scope of the 78th IFLA General Conference and Assembly in the Tallinn Central Library, Estonia on August 10th 2012. Veronica L C Stevenson-Moudamane, Chair of LSN welcomed the participants and pointed out the conflict that many libraries want to provide services to ALL that means they want to address the homeless but in reality this target group does not come to the libraries. She introduced the Satellite Meeting as an opportunity to consider this conflict and to learn from local good practice cases how to address homeless people. She stressed that there are inspiring examples that need to be spread out.

In his keynote speech about access to libraries as a human right and equal library services for the homeless Dr. Ismail Abdullahi, ALA Councilor-at-Large Chair took up the antagonism mentioned above and reported that a only small number of libraries are taking care of homeless issues while often library policies and laws ban "offensive body odor", bathing, or sleeping. This behaviour may disturb other library visitors - but if an old woman uses an obstructive perfume or a student is napping half an hour while learning in the library usually no other visitor complains. For those organisations that are addressing the homeless it is important not to stereotype them as 'problem people' with special offers but rather to include them. Homeless people want to use libraries like everybody else and do not want a feeling of 'otherness' with the 'stigma' that they are people who need help. Providing resources is THE task of libraries. Like this the homeless could have access to information they need in their daily life - e. g. where to get free food, where to sleep, where to get a free hair cut, where to get free clothes; or where to rent clothes for job interviews. For a lot of homeless people using the Internet in libraries is the only possibility to receive messages and information from other people abroad when not owning a postal address. So the Internet opens them up the opportunity to participate and maybe to change their lives.

The project 'Digital Literacy 2.0' builds on the same approach: Attracting new target groups to libraries by use of Internet and Web 2.0 offers related to their daily life. Susanne Bernsmann presented for the Germany based 'Digital Opportunities Foundation' (Stiftung Digitale Chancen) the two-step approach of the project: staff at non-formal learning places like libraries will be trained for the provision of ICT based non-formal learning offers to disadvantaged groups like homeless people. In the second step adult learners from socially disadvantaged and learning distant groups will be provided low level offers for the use of Web 2.0 with the objective to make them curious thus elevating their motivation to learn and empowering them to participate in social life. Like this the project will lower the threshold to libraries and to information and learning itself.

In Tallinn it was also discussed that the presence of homeless people in the libraries and their inclusion in the everyday activities may change the attitude of staffs and other library visitors. Homeless people are a very diverse group with different individual needs, interests and life stories. Library staffs often do not have the qualification or resources to serve special groups. The Bibliothèque publique d'information (BPI is one of the project partners in ‘Digital Literacy 2.0) in Paris reported that homeless people usually come to the library e.g. to watch TV programs they like, some of them sit alone at the same place every day not getting in contact with other people and only seldom use any other offers. BPI reported this as an additional challenge.

Sanja Bunic from the Zagreb City Libraries, Croatia recommended to go where the homeless are to engage them - e.g. in the shelter - to show them what the library offers. Most of them do not know the local services - the staffs have to 'cross the bridge” to reach them. Another efficient approach seems to be cooperation with volunteers who work with homeless people and ask them to act as link between the homeless people and the libraries - "these people really know the needs of the target group and can give good advices for the daily work", says Bunic.

Public libraries can play a major role in initiating and seeking out new ways to support the homeless in their community. They can actively experiment with a variety of approaches and adjust services and programs based on the feedback they receive. As a résumé drawn from the Satellite Meeting 'The Homeless and the Libraries - The Right to Knowledge For All” can be drawn that Information Society has the potential to make a difference to the lives of people who often feel marginalised or isolated because of their social and cultural situation.

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