Don't judge a homeless book by its cover

· November 9, 2020

The following is a guest post by my dear friend and found family member, who is an Aspiring Librarian. We met at synagogue and bonded over the fact that we were marginalised within our religious community as men who are attracted to men, while also being marginalised within the gay community due to having chronic health conditions and disabilities. During the time I’ve known Aspiring Librarian, he became homeless and lived for some time in a refuge. Within the last year I encountered a couple of cases of librarians asking questions about delivering services to people who are experiencing homelessness. Knowing that Aspiring Librarian is a passionate self-taught learner, avid reader, and regular library patron, I suspected he might have some opinions to share on the subject, so offered to give him a platform to do so here.

Homeless Community

The first question Transgressive Archivist asked me to respond to was this one:

My first thought was: what is a community? It’s a construction. Communities are relative, not absolute. What does it mean to be homeless? There are different types of homelessness. You could be living in insecure housing, couch-surfing, sleeping rough, living in a refuge. All of these lead to very different experiences, not all of which are comparable. My experience of living in the refuge, for example: they turned you out for eight hours every day, where do you go? I used the library as my shelter, during the day. I have a large collection of books. When I was living in a refuge I wasn’t allowed to bring any of my books in, they had to go into storage. They didn’t have a library in the refuge. So if I wanted anything to read I had to go to the public library. Not that I managed to read much. It was hard to concentrate when I was dealing with the chronic stress of homelessness. Besides, the library’s selection of the types of books I like – literature, history, social policy, politics, sociology, anthropology – was very limited. Regardless, the library felt like a safe place from the outside violent world. It was a long way to go from the refuge and my only way to get there was to walk. All these experiences are specific to me and my circumstances living in a refuge. They don’t necessarily apply to people in other housing situations. There’s no homeless person tribunal. There isn’t a homeless community.

And what is a community to a librarian? Who are readers? Does someone’s housing situation affect who they are as a reader? People in the exact same housing situation might have different wants and needs from the library. Some homeless people might be writers seeking to promote their book. I doubt that homeless authors are invited to be guests at libraries, because of their social status. There’s stigma attached to being homeless. Not that you can always tell that someone’s homeless by looking at them. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Assumptions and Stereotypes

The assumptions that get made about you when you’re homeless are that you’re illiterate and don’t have skills. Everything gets dumbed down and you’re only provided with newspapers and magazines. It’s assumed you have no numeracy and computer skills.

I did have access to computers at one of the hostels. I used computers at the library occasionally, but just to look at the catalogue. I’m confident about using the catalogue to look up books. I know how to combine search terms using AND and OR to conduct complex queries. I’d say I’m a sophisticated library user.

I might not have a degree, but that’s because I didn’t get the right educational opportunities. I’m intelligent, capable and keen to learn, but didn’t have the financial resources and disability support, and wasn’t in the right social class to succeed in Higher Education.

I see librarians as gatekeepers guarding the books. I don’t feel like they facilitate access to information, they don’t teach me anything or train me. I’ve never had a librarian sit down and spend time helping me learn how to access information.

I think this is because of how librarians are trained and their professional values. I imagine that librarians’ values are about protecting their resources and their jobs. Not valuing their users.

This impression was reinforced when Transgressive Archivist put a second question to me from his textbook (Bawden & Robinson, 2012), which was set as part of an exercise on his librarianship training course:

“Should homeless people with challenging behaviour and poor personal hygiene be allowed to use a public library?” (p. 238)

What about everybody else with challenging behaviour and bad hygiene?! This question is biased. Many highly intelligent library patrons, such as professors and doctors, display challenging behaviour, but unlike homeless people their rights to use the library are never questioned. Instead they are considered “eccentric”.

Stereotypes go both ways though, there are also stereotypes about librarians: that only women are librarians, that librarians are very stern.

What Do Librarians Need To Know?

People experiencing homelessness aren’t going to talk about their situation with librarians. If libraries want to identify homeless library patrons and find out more about their needs then they should run anonymous surveys.

Libraries should offer services catering directly to homeless people. This should involve doing outreach in homeless shelters, asking people what they want to borrow. A service like this would have made me feel catered for.

Each year libraries should have a homeless day, where they take the books out of the libraries to the homeless shelters, to make them more accessible to people there.

Books Need A Home As Well As People

Libraries should donate books to homeless shelters if the library doesn’t need them any more.


Bawden, D. & Robinson, L. (2012). Introduction to information science. Facet Publishing.