Library Heroes: Cincinnati Library Helps Put Spotlight on the Role of Libraries in Homelessness

Have you heard about Emilio Estevez’s film The Public? It’s about a group of homeless people who seek refuge in a public library from a dangerously cold Midwestern night, and the conflict that arises around the role of libraries in serving homeless patrons. It’s an important and pervasive issue impacting libraries across the nation. The library is a place that should be open to everyone, but it can be a challenge to balance the needs of all patrons in a way that doesn’t compromise the library’s original mission.

The Public was filmed at the central branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (PLCHC), one of the busiest libraries in the world. Estevez chose Cincinnati because he has family roots in the area and because it was a believable location for a night bitterly cold enough to threaten the lives and well-being of the homeless. Though the scenario portrayed in the film is fictional and did not really happen in Cincinnati, the library’s leadership recognized the importance of bringing this social issue to the forefront. “We decided to open PLCHC to Emilio and his film crew because it was a valuable opportunity to contribute to the public conversation about the role and mission of libraries as it pertains to serving all populations, including those who find themselves temporarily or chronically without shelter,” explains PLCHC Executive Director Kim Fender.

It was important to both Estevez and PLCHC that the library remain open throughout filming. They didn’t want to make a movie about how important the library is to the community and then cause the library to be inaccessible to patrons. So they filmed mostly at night, and the filmmaker was conscientious about breaking down the set every night to leave little or no footprint that would interfere with the daily workings of a library that serves as a central hub in its community.

In terms of the conversations the filmmakers and PLCHC hope to start with their project, it’s about changing the perception of libraries’ and librarians’ obligation or moral imperative to serve all constituents to the best of their ability. “Overall customer service is lacking in library education. Library students think it’s about their knowledge of literature and research, but people skills are actually far more critical to success for today’s librarians. That’s really what they’re doing every day: serving all the people who come to them,” Fender opines. She believes the key is making real connections with individuals and taking action, which is something librarians can be well suited to do, and something she praises PLCHC staff for doing exceptionally well.

Fender also hopes the film helps to highlight the fact that homelessness is a complex and many-faceted problem that affects many more people than most realize. Kim Fender explains, “People tend to think of the homeless as a stereotype—disheveled, unwashed, panhandling, perhaps intoxicated, sleeping on the streets—but that’s really just a small portion of the homeless population. There’s a whole array of people who are living without permanent housing. People might live in their cars or sleep on friends’ couches. The homeless can include whole families, young single people, military veterans, people who work but can’t find affordable housing, the mentally ill. Maybe it’s just temporary, and they need the library to look for jobs or access assistance programs or search for housing or communicate with loved ones. Maybe the library is the only place they can go during the day when shelters are closed. We cannot turn them away.” She says that libraries across the nation, not just PLCHC, are coming up with ways to serve the entire spectrum of patrons who come their way. She’s excited to help bring awareness to the challenges they face and the ways libraries are rising to meet them.

You can see an exclusive screening of The Public and attend a Q&A session with Emilio Estevez at the 2018 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans in June.

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