Reading the landscape of public libraries as place : experiences of homeless men in public libraries in Vancouver, BC

Reading the landscape of public libraries as place : experiences of homeless men in public libraries in Vancouver, BC

Some homeless men are very frequent public library users, but are rarely asked by librarians for their opinions about libraries. Semi-structured individual interviews of 23 homeless men investigated how they used libraries and explored their understanding of the library as a place in downtown Vancouver, BC. Despite not being eligible for regular library membership privileges, often due to simply not having an address, 14 participants were still very frequent Central Library users. Homelessness is a high risk lifestyle and 4 participants who purposely avoided street danger in the Downtown Eastside found a safer niche within the Central Library, while 15 participants purposely chose to physically distance themselves from the stigma of homelessness and mostly kept to themselves while they were at the Central Library, which was often daily from opening until closing. Public space in libraries is especially valuable to homeless people who have no private space of their own. Amenities such as washrooms, comfortable seating and access to the Internet, which are not as freely available elsewhere as they are at libraries, made the Central Library the preferred library among all participants. Just like many of the other library users at the Central Library, participants enjoyed very ordinary library experiences, such as reading for pleasure, learning, playing online games, searching the Internet and sending and receiving emails, and some of the most frequent users created a new social identity for themselves as library users, which is far more socially acceptable than the stigmatized social identity of homelessness. Being a frequent library user gave some participants a routine and stability and the anonymity of being an ordinary library user at the Central Library gave participants an opportunity to be treated respectfully by other library users. Seventeen participants believed that using public libraries had greatly improved their lives and used libraries as transition spaces to improve their circumstances. Some participants who were frequent library users said they would like to have their own library membership for the Central Library, perhaps as much to give them a sense of belonging in their own community as for borrowing library materials.

PUBLICATION DATE: 2013
LOCATION: Vancouver, BC, Canada