I’m sure some of the other entries to the Carnal Carnival on body odor will examine the origins and meaning of body odor, but that’s not my goal here. Public libraries and libraries for most universities are open to the public. Public libraries have the mission of serving the community. This includes families and children and job seekers, immigrants, and homeless, among other groups. Some of these people can be very stinky – particularly the homeless, although some immigrant groups that don’t do the whole deodorant thing can give them a run for their money on a warm summer day. I’m hoping to pull together some funny stories here, but first, let’s look at some more serious aspects.
There’s an excellent post by Kim Leeder on the group blog In the Library with the Lead Pipe. The author takes a nuanced view of what service means, and how libraries deal with homeless. There’s an ALA policy on services to the poor, but as the author points out, there’s a lot of hypocrisy. We’re supposed to serve these people – they need our services more than other groups – but we have rules against them and we do not always welcome them into our libraries. The problem is balancing the needs of the homeless with those of the rest of the patrons. The presence of homeless can make other patrons feel unsafe and if nothing else, uncomfortable. And the smell can create a nuisance. Also cited in that same post are some local ordinances that ban body odor in libraries. When I worked in the public library, we definitely had some stinky patrons, but unless they did other things like scream or throw things, we didn’t kick them out.
What should libraries do about stinky patrons? What should libraries do about patrons bathing in the bathroom? Referring to services is helpful, but not enough. Particularly because there aren’t always services and the services that exist come with strings.
I asked the Library Society of the World members on friendfeed for stories and got a different problem: library staff. Librarians who have supervised student workers (and sometimes regular adult workers) have had to counsel employees to wash. There are definitely some stinky undergrads so it’s good that they’re getting this advice. Having staff members in public service positions who are offensively stinky is not a great way to be welcoming. (and welcoming is part of the reference guidelines). Of course there are also people who wear WAY too much heavy perfume causing noses to twitch in people without allergies but causing sickness and lost work time in people with chemical sensitivities.