- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Librarians increasingly are dealing with smell — not noise — in maintaining decorum as fragrant vagrants camp out among book stacks.

“Body odor is an enormous problem,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, a deputy director at the American Library Association. “When it disturbs someone else’s quiet reading because their body odor is so bad, we can tap the person on the shoulder and let them know there is a problem.”

Libraries in the District and surrounding counties are among those facing such problems.

“We have trouble with poor hygiene,” said Wanda Wagner, branch manager at the North County Library in Glen Burnie, Md. “If other patrons complain that they find it offensive, we go and talk to the person about their hygiene. And if it is a really serious situation, we ask them to leave and not come back until they have taken a shower.”

Miss Wagner said the library staff routinely deals with the same homeless people, telling them to “at least give the appearance” of reading a magazine or newspaper if they want to use the library as a shelter.

She said napping vagrants usually get a wake-up call from librarians. If they keep sleeping, they are told by a security guard to leave for the day.

D.C. public libraries had an “offensive body odor” policy, but it was struck down in 2001 by a judge who said it was unconstitutional and could not be applied uniformly.

For example, the smell of a heavily perfumed woman or a painter in overalls could also be considered offensive, the judge said.

“Body odor is something that we cannot regulate as a library,” said Monica Lewis, a spokeswoman for D.C. libraries.

At the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, homeless people can be seen sleeping at tables or covering themselves with newspapers in the aisles.

Mrs. Lewis said the library policy is to ask nappers to move around or use library materials. If they don’t, security officers might ask them to leave. She said many homeless in the library are using computers to e-mail family members or are doing research to find jobs.

Libraries across the country have varying ways of dealing with the homeless problem, including the enforcement of traditional policies such as dress codes and no eating, sleeping or drinking.

In Columbus, Ohio, for example, a requirement that library patrons must wear shoes was challenged by a member of the local Barefoot Society, she said. However, the courts ruled that the requirement was not discriminatory because it was a safety issue.

The emergence of computers and the Internet in libraries also has turned librarians into pornography police.

Most libraries have stations in which patrons can surf the Web or check e-mail for a limited time for free — but some abuse that privilege and look at Internet porn.

The D.C. public library system has no set policy on Internet use, but has separate computers for children.

Internet pornography also has been a problem at Virginia libraries.

Some state lawmakers this year attempted but failed to pass legislation requiring libraries that receive state funding to install and use Internet filters that block pornography.

Federal law mandates that public libraries put blocking technology on computers as a condition for receiving federal money. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 upheld the use of anti-pornography Internet filters in public libraries.

In Alexandria libraries, the policy is posted on the walls and the rules pop up on the computer screen when a patron logs on.

Rita Gale, spokeswoman for Montgomery County public libraries, said if anyone complains that a computer user is viewing porn, librarians will ask the person to “view something else.”

Mark Schwartz of the Alexandria public library system said librarians are trained to approach people breaking the rules and tell them what they are doing is illegal. And if they don’t stop, the police will be called.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide