I noticed mention of a complaint about body odor the minutes of a Wisconsin library last week. Unfortunately, this is a topic that comes up periodically, and is a somewhat sticky situation to deal with. How does a public library balance its desire to be welcoming to a diverse population, against its desire to keep one person’s use from infringing upon the rights of others?
In the history of this topic, the landmark case is that of Richard Kreimer, a homeless man who sued the town of Morristown NJ, when the Joint Free Public Library of Morristown removed him because of complaints about his personal hygiene. A 1991 federal court ruling in Kreimer’s favor was overturned the following year, but he was awarded $150,000 in damages. And apparently, Mr. Kreimer continues to file lawsuits against those who he claims violate his civil rights.
There are many, many examples of libraries with policies that prohibit users from disturbing others because of their poor personal hygiene. I understand that—but I also understand that sometimes such policies may discriminate against the poor and the homeless, among others. I don’t presume to know, but it seems to me that for Mr. Kreimer homelessness may be a life choice—however, for many, it is not. In the current economy, some people may be one paycheck (or less) away from homelessness. For many of these people, the public library, the heart of the community, the people’s university, is a place of refuge, a place where they may find resources to help them change and improve their lives.
So as you craft your library policies to deal with this issue, I ask you to also keep in mind the needs of those people you are trying to remove from the library. The post Welcoming the Homeless Into Libraries (from In the Library With the Lead Pipe) may help you look at the problem differently. Here’s a quote:
I’d like to dedicate this blog post to some of the wonderful libraries that have met the call for help in their communities, and I’d like to share their stories from my research and reading on this topic. Perhaps their stories can inspire the rest of us to greater understanding of the plight of the homeless. Perhaps they can remind us of our ability–and responsibility–to work with local organizations to create programs and services to assist the needy in our own towns and cities.
For more on the topic, see:
- Library Services to the Poor (ALA)
- Critics Say New Houston Hygiene Rules Target Homeless (ALA, 2005)
- Ordinance Bans Body Odor in Libraries (LA Times, 2005)
- Public Library Bans Offensive Body Odor (UPI, 2009)
- Why So Many Homeless @the Library?
- Outreach Resources for Services to Poor and Homeless People (ALA)
- Bromhidrosis (Excessive Body Odour)
- Telling An Employee She has Body Odor
- Are Public Libraries Criminalizing Poor People?