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What the movie Emilio Estevez's The Public (2018) got right about libraries

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
The Public, a new independent film directed by, written by, and starring Emilio Estevez, came out in select theaters in early April 2019. The film takes place in a public library in Cincinnati where many itinerant city dwellers spend their days making use of the facilities. On a particularly cold night, Cincinnati residents without homes decide to stage a peaceful protest by choosing not to leave the library at closing time, leaving city officials at a loss as to what to do.

Excited at the prospect of seeing a film set in a public library, I attended a screening of the film. Although the film contained some groan-worthy elements and perpetuated some librarian stereotypes, here's a list of things the movie The Public got right.

  • Crowds waiting for the doors to open. Although it didn't happen every day, many times I would look out the window before opening time and see a crowd of eager faces, ready to access all the library has to offer. It sometimes struck me as funny, seeing what looked like a horde outside, but it was also a heartwarming sight. And totally rejects the idea many have that people don't go to libraries anymore 
  • Many libraries serve as resting place for those without housing. Although I lived in a suburban county, there were still plenty of individuals coming through our doors without housing. For many, regardless of housing status, the library is a place to go where all are welcome.
  • A patron asked to leave the library due to a smell. In our library security manual, a section was dedicated to correct protocol to follow if patrons complain about another guest's body odor. This is a situation that librarians do handle on occasion, and hopefully by following the correct procedures you avoid being sued. 
  • Ask me anything. During one of the film's funnier montages, a litany of guests are shown asking questions at the service desk. People do call the desk or approach in person to ask for information about many topics -- from grocery flyer prices, to phone numbers, to homework help questions. 
  • Books saved my life. Although not every librarian has an addiction story, most of us do have a strong "personal why" to share when people bother to ask us why we became a librarian. Whether books were a friend when no one else was around, a window into another world, or a teacher when we needed to learn, librarians are passionate about their jobs and reading.
  • I'll leave when I'm **** well ready. Being a librarian doesn't exempt us from public disdain. The film shows a patron being told the library is closing with a sarcastic retort in reply. Almost nightly, despite numerous announcements that the library was closing in 15, 10, 5, minutes, patrons would choose not to leave promptly. If you approached them, they might ignore you, or worse, yell at you. Librarians do often face multiple forms of verbal abuse from our patrons; we try not to take it personally.
  • There's a fight in the bathroom. Although I never had to break up a fistfight in a bathroom or convince a nude man that he needed to put clothes back on, I can testify that there are risks to working at the library. During my time in a public library, I experienced or observed others experiencing stalking, indecent exposure, verbal harassment, and racial microaggressions. I once had to calmly usher patrons to our emergency shelter during a tornado (with some refusing to go), and once arrived at the library only to find all the windows smashed in and glass on the floor. Librarians are public service workers with all that goes along with that.
Although The Public isn't a perfect film by any means, it did shed some light on what librarians endure each day.


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