The Good, the Bad, and the Other: The Library Community vs the Communal Library

Photo courtesy of Stones15woon

Over the past few weeks, I have had several opportunities to consider the confluence of library institutions and neuroatypicality.

Most folks are probably familiar with categories that fit under the general umbrella of neuroatypicality: mental illness, autism, being ‘on the spectrum’. I use the collective term rather than the individual due to the varying reactions people have to the conditions by which they are affected. Some consider themselves part of the disability community, while others view themselves as simply engaging with the world in a different way that, save for social strictures, would not negatively affect them. However diversely individuals see themselves, though, they are likely to be clumped into the same, generally bothersome category once they step through the library’s doors and interact with staff and other library personnel.  In addition, thanks to the burgeoning problem of homelessness, which is especially prevalent in my home state of California, libraries are oftentimes a magnet for those who are desperately seeking a way out of the situation which their neuroatypicality has oftentimes thrust them into. Mentally ill people are estimated to make up 6% of the national US population and 25-33% of the nation’s homeless population (Mental Illness, 2009). The question is, what are we librarians, aspiring and otherwise, supposed to do about it?

This issue is nothing new in the library world: the Public Library Association branch of the ALA displays a “Social Worker Task Force” agenda on their webpage that was established back in the summer of 2018 (Social Worker, 2018). What has changed is my building awareness of differences between the established library community and the communal library, the patron pool that staff members seek to cultivate versus anyone who wanders in in order to make use of the library’s resources. From large scale passage of state bills regarding rent control to conversations had in the backroom of my current library internship, the issues of displacement, dehumanization, and library policy are being constantly negotiated. For many, it is another item on the list of topics the committee needs to go over at the next meeting. For me, it is a reminder of how easily I traverse through worlds of people that speak of “the mentally ill” and are oh so confident in their ability to armchair diagnose and weed the worthwhile from the sick.

No one looking at me would match me with my mental health records. I am fully cognizant that what separates me in my cushy position behind the reference desk and the woman who sits for hours in front of a public computer, surrounded by bags of all that she owns, is a chain of sheer luck; where privilege led to opportunity and opportunity won me stability. It would be easy to think that this stable beginning would last forever, but I went to college just after the 2008 Recession began; and I did not need to be economically devastated to start believing that life is not one of ability and disability, but of temporary ability. Through my own small corner in my public library, I see a country where there are more empty houses than homeless people (Ask Wonder, 2014), and I know that, however wonderful libraries become at welcoming those who are coded as “different”, homeless or otherwise, it is but a Band-Aid placed on a blocked artery. Refusing to explain away bigotry as another symptom of Asperger’s humanizes one’s perspective and may even lead to a change in standardized policy, but it is a stopgap in long line of stopgaps; and I do not know when the US will be ready to realize that being communal is an impossibility when one insists on picking and choosing the community.

There are various radical solutions that I could propose to the above situations that I imagine most would not be willing to hear. They all involve a seismic shift in ideology regarding what it should be possible to buy in US society and, more importantly, what it should be possible to hoard while people have the freedom to sicken and die on the streets. Libraries open their doors to all patrons who are decently attired and do not disrupt. However, the buck stops at different places depending on the library and their history with those who are overtly autistic, overtly homeless, overtly different in a way that prevents them from being as good an actor as I am. I have no idea whether, overall, things are getting better or worse. I only know that the conversation must be had and libraries must be one of the places in which to have them.


Ask Wonder. (2014). How many vacant homes are there in America? Retrieved September 16, 2019 from

National Coalition for the Homeless. (July 2009). Mental illness and homelessness. Retrieved September 15, 2019 from

Public Library Association. (2018). Social worker task force. Retrieved September 15, 2019 from

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