Judging a Book by Its Cover: Identity, Homelessness, and the Public Library




Mazzone, Raphael

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Background: Identity is a major component within any community, but especially so for those experiencing homelessness. With homeless statistics on the rise nationally, cities and towns are being forced to address these issues in a variety of ways. Historically, the public library has provided a refuge for marginalized groups, and as one of the few remaining public spaces, the library is in a position no other government, social, or civic institution can match. Much has been discussed, from the library perspective, on providing services to the homeless; but little has been studied to find out how the homeless library user negotiates the public space of the public library, the interactions within the library, and their everyday struggles. Methods: A two-and-a-half-year ethnographic study was conducted at the District of Columbia Public Library, covering the 25 branch locations throughout the city, but specifically focusing on the central branch, the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Library. The MLK Library is a well-known, and well-visited, branch for many of the city’s homeless population, as it serves as a drop-off location from the local shelters. MLK was also scheduled for renovations, lasting up to three years, which would displace hundreds of homeless library users from their daily routine without any clear contingency plans from the library or the government. Participant observation was the primary tool for gathering data, including field notes from public programs, conversations with users in and out of the building, and observation of the main gathering place within MLK. This data was supported by in-depth interviews with library staff and administrative personnel. In addition, library policies and procedures were analyzed from a wide array of systems regionally and nationally. Findings: Analyzed thematically, through the lens of the Communication Theory of Identity, I identified conceptual relevance at each frame of CTI: the personal frame, the enacted frame, the relational frame, and the communal frame. In addition, a premise of the interpenetration of the frames is also presented. Conclusions: The library plays a vital role in the identity formation of homeless library users as well as the library staff. These everyday interactions build upon themselves, leading to new identities that are constantly being redefined within the public space of the public library.



Communication, Communication Theory of Identity, Homelessness, Identity, Public Libraries, Public Space