Definitions of the World, Unite!

by Howell J. Malham Jr.


Emilio Estevez’s new film, “The Public,” is about the social conflicts that arise when a public library suddenly becomes an emergency shelter for people who are without homes during a cold snap in Cincinnati.

While it’s a piece of fiction, it mirrors real life:: As Estevez said in a recent interview in Mother Jones, he was inspired by a story that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 2007 that explored this emerging reality at libraries across the country. Rather, realities — that of homelessness in America and the new utility of libraries as shelters.

Twelve years on those twin realities are still with us. An AP story ran in January 2019 about the rising number of people who are without homes seeking some kind of protection from inclement weather at libraries throughout central Colorado as a result of overcrowding at officially designated shelters.

What’s interesting is how the librarians are dealing with the challenge and the rising number of complaints from other library patrons:: They aren’t calling the cops. They’re hiring social workers.

Rather than tightening the constraints of what a “library” is, as tradition defines it, the librarians along Colorado’s Front Range have actually removed them; and in the process they are joining the people in need of shelter by further subverting the social expectations of how one should behave in those public spaces that contain vast collections of books, periodicals and other media for the public to read and borrow.

It’s a vivid case study for social innovation as we define it, which begins by identifying the social norms related to a problem that involves a plurality of actors (i.e. people).

In this case, it’s the norms connected to mutual expectations that are created and held in place by the everyday words that we use to designate groups of people, places and things in our world.  And the social behavior that ensues as a result of those expectations, informed by such words, like “library” for example.

We call this Configuration, one of six innovation lenses we use at GreenHouse to investigate how words shape behavior in social settings, particularly the behavior among actors that reinforces the status quo, and other kinds of words that have the potential to disrupt it.

Once upon a time, when we said the word “library,” there were mutual expectations — cues and clues embedded in that single word — about how members of a society should behave in such a place with such a name: flip through index cards, hunt for reading materials, check out books; return them by a due date. All done in the pursuit of knowledge or leisure or both, while speaking in hushed tones, if one is to speak at all.

In Colorado, and other states in the U.S., the word “library” now means something different to a growing number of people.

It means home.

Although the innovative librarians on Colorado’s Front Range haven’t officially changed the designation of public libraries to public shelters, expectations of how one should behave have, in fact, changed as a result of how those librarians have reacted to the rise in the number of patrons in those spaces who are in search of shelter and warmth.

Actually, they’ve changed twice.

First, as a result of overcrowding at missions and shelters, libraries became de facto shelters for those without homes, which was causing mild social unrest among one group of actors— visitors who still cling to traditional expectations that come with the word “library”.  This is the real conflict at the heart of Estevez’s movie.

By hiring social workers, expectations of what should occur in a public place traditionally known as a “library” changed a second time:: The move has made those de facto shelters more like temporary way stations to provide help to those most in need — quickly.

By changing up the actors within a public space without altering the name of the space, librarians and social workers aren’t necessarily changing the definition of “library” so much as they are expanding it.

Once a place of refuge, a veritable shelter from ignorance, a library now has a second definition as a shelter from the storm. ::