The Public Services Gap: A Major Reason for Professional Drift Towards Radicalization

I’m sitting here theoretically pissed off. Not at any goofball librarians or 30-something college “professors” somewhere glibly crapping on intellectual freedom, but at the system. The System, man.

Somewhere RIGHT NOW in a theoretical public library in some theoretical town –maybe even mine– there is a profoundly mentally ill patron sitting at a computer, hunched at his screen, sending nonsensical, bizarrely-spelled emails to people in paranoid snippets with attached YouTube videos of advertisements completely unrelated to the text (as if anything could be). He can be smelled from ten feet away, easily. This hypothetical patron is known to literally every person in this theoretical town, who make pitying faces and use kind tones of voice when they discuss that rail-skinny citizen who never dresses appropriately for the weather and who limps from place to place. They worry, slip him money, try to help here and there.

“So sad,” they say. “I hope he gets some help.” This is all just hypothetical, of course.

He has encounters with theoretical police who I have theoretically seen with my own theoretical eyes offer him theoretical money from their pockets for a hotel room. He refuses, giving delusional reasons about family on their way in a van to pick him up or, perhaps, he is staying with a friend. I have seen the conjectural “mobile crisis unit” have lengthy conversations with him, in theory, and, as he isn’t an IMMEDIATE danger to himself and says that he is eating and drinking regularly (despite looking like a Treblinka inmate), they can’t really do anything. Hypothetically.

But this hypothetical patron KNOWS and TRUSTS the library and its staff and, so, he spends as much time he…uh, I mean…there as he can. He is degenerating every day. Sentences are word salad. Responses make no sense. He is slowly dying. Theoretically.

State law says the bar for involuntary hospitalization is quite high, rooted in “reforms” from the 1970s. Even if an “interested party” swears an affidavit and testifies in court, nothing beyond a 72-hour assessment can be done, unless the person is actively violent. Stab yourself in the eye and you’re golden. Slowly starve yourself to death or sleep outside in -20 degree weather and, well, it’s a free country. Good luck, wild man!

A public library staff has to watch all of this, every day.

Imagine for a moment the effect such frustration would have on empathetic souls, which librarians frequently are. The powers that be are doing nothing, from staff’s perspective. Someone is suffering. It’s blisteringly hot or freezing cold and patrons are stuck in the elements, too mentally sick or addicted or just plain dumb and damaged to save themselves, but not sick enough for empowered authorities to really help. So who stands in the gap? Often it’s library workers. In many places, they are the ONLY people in that gap, and they know it.

So I always advise conservative Fanatics who get down on librarians to consider that librarians get to see the homeless guy dying, the gay kid (who says his parents say they’d disown a “fag”) crying, the black kid who comes in with his white adopted mom getting misidentified as not being a part of his own family, the addict flopping around on a bathroom floor, the teenage girl looking for information on herbal abortifacients because the law just changed, etc. They get to see all kinds of injustices and tragedies and public services often don’t exist or are too hogtied by procedure and law to break through. And yet the librarian remains.

Radicalization of the sort happening in our profession doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When librarians are put in the position of scrambling to figure out how to help people who, with hope in their eyes, ASK for it and the librarians have nothing to offer…Or when the edgy schizophrenic makes a desk worker feel unsafe but doesn’t actually utter a threat…Or when a dirty needle gets stepped on in an employee parking lot because junkies congregate there…these are the kinds of thing that, in my experience, start shifting attitudes away from neutrality and into Fanatical territory.

It’s Christmas present every day in some public libraries, and some librarians have to believe that Ebenezer Politician doesn’t “wish to see them” because, well…are there no libraries?


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