Make Yourself at Home

A fortyish man wearing a wrinkled baseball cap, jeans and a dirty nylon jacket steps into an elevator at the Dallas central library and directly in front of the panel of buttons. He insists on pushing the buttons for the others in the motley group assembled on board, including an unshaven man with a newspaper under his arm who emits grunts and a distinct smell of bourbon.

"Second floor. Ladies lingerie," the man hogging the buttons says. He grins and looks around. No response.

"Third floor. Ladies lingerie," he says at the third floor, again looking for a reaction. The joke meets the same reception, and he walks off.

On the fifth floor, men use the library's Internet computers, some to view pornographic Web pages. A motherly looking woman in white tennis shoes, shorts and a T-shirt stands at the help desk asking about using a computer. The librarian gives her the number of one available.

"That's the same one that I had yesterday," she says. "I hope the stinky guy isn't sitting next to me again."

Downstairs, a large man in dreadlocks and an overcoat way too heavy for a day with temperatures in the upper 80s lopes through the tiled lobby toward reading tables. What one librarian calls the "socially marginalized," otherwise known as homeless street people, occupy chairs at most tables.

One man in a baseball cap and ratty clothes, carrying a stained but full canvas shopping bag, sits with his elbows on a table resting his chin and face on both hands. He looks straight ahead blankly. He doesn't sleep. Sleep isn't allowed in the library or around it anymore. The man suddenly stands up and to no one in particular says, "Sheeeeit," and walks toward the exit.

This is the J. Erik Jonsson Library, the city's flagship public library, and no matter where you call home, what reality means to you or how bad you smell, as long as you stay awake and sober you can always come here. The result, according to librarians and police, are bathrooms that are sometimes beyond peep-show-booth disgusting, where homeless men and women bathe at sinks, write obscenities on the walls or worse. Men and women with little else to do in a downtown short on services sprawl about the brick plaza outside the entrances with their bags and frequently engage in drunken arguments and brawls.

During the past 12 months, Dallas police were called to the library's address 117 times. Complaints include thefts, sexual and physical assaults and vandalism. A sampling of the more serious reports seems to indicate the library's patrons have had encounters that would scare just about anybody, hardened by the streets or not.

Last July, a security guard was called to the library's eighth floor in response to a report of a man sleeping. The guard woke the man and took him to the elevator. Once the doors closed, the man attacked and beat the guard unconscious.

In October, a 20-year-old woman was using a library computer to access an Internet chat room when the message, "I'm going to hunt you when you leave the library," appeared on her screen, one police report says.

Last month, a 20-year-old woman told police that she was in the library when someone came up to her, started yelling at her and then slapped her face and ran.

Also during the year, a child was sexually assaulted (details of the case were withheld by police), and there were numerous reports of men publicly masturbating.

Librarians generally avoid speaking out about how the right of the homeless, drug-addicted, alcoholic or mentally ill to inhabit public libraries can make it uncomfortable for themselves or patrons. Recent additions of Internet-access computers and easy access to pornography haven't improved things at public libraries during the past few years either. (The library is still assessing the effect of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld a law requiring anti-porn Internet filters at libraries receiving federal money.)

At libraries of all sizes, the Internet has opened up new avenues for street people, in some cases providing their only identity and stable place in the world, homeless advocates say. But it isn't uncommon for "marginalized" patrons also to view graphic pornography, something that leads to the occasional confrontation with a librarian or report of a patron's open fly and exposed penis. Some of those close to the issue say that all of the bad images and real-world street person encounters are calling the public library's very mission into question in Dallas and elsewhere.

"The new user population, the new patrons as it were, is displacing the serious, the established, the kinds of patrons that the library is actually there to serve in the first place," says Blaise Cronin, dean of the school of library and information science at Indiana University. "What seems to be happening in some institutions is that the library's role or mission has been transmuted into that of a social welfare agency by default and that there is little those who are the public face of librarianship can do about it."

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Charles Siderius
Contact: Charles Siderius