Elsewhere on this page, Sue Feder suggests the...

IN A LETTER

July 27, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

IN A LETTER elsewhere on this page, Sue Feder suggests the librarians at the Pratt's central library get tough, like their counterparts in New York, and intimidate away people who don't belong there.

This would make the library more like a library, rather than what it sometimes seems to be, "a bus station with books," in the words of one critic of the growing use of the library's reading rooms as a haven for the homeless and other unfortunates. Those poor people deserve a warm, clean, safe place -- but why at the expense of readers and researchers? (For that matter, why of bus travelers?)

But, alas, it will never happen. It's against the law to limit libraries to the benefit of those who want to study, etc. It is even against the law to forbid menacing and disruptive bums the use of the library.

U.S. District Court Judge H. Lee Sarokin recently ruled that the Free Public Library of Morristown, N.J., could not enforce rules which limited the library to those "reading, studying or using library materials." He also objected to the rules' forbidding "staring with the intent to annoy." He also objected to this rule: "Those whose bodily hygiene is so offensive as to constitute a nuisance to other persons shall be required to leave the buildings."

Judge Sarokin said the First Amendment guaranteed the right to stink. He said it was a form of expression. He said this was obvious from the fact that underarm deodorant had not been invented in 1787. "James Madison was a heavy sweater," he said.

No, just kidding, he didn't say all that. (He really did invoke the First Amendment, though.) At least, I don't think so. But he may have. He said stuff even sillier. I quit reading his opinion after he said that one person's "nauseating body odor" was "another person's ambrosia."

The Pratt used to have a rule about waking people up who sleep in the reading rooms and asking them them to leave if they kept going back to sleep. Now the staff thinks that in the light of Judge Sarokin's ruling, they can't even do that.

I know it sounds heartless to complain about these poor losers using the libraries, but as a New Jersey official put it, "If a public facility cannot be regulated in such a way as to favor its intended use, then its availability for those for whom it was originally intended may be threatened." Younger school children especially may be turned off from using libraries if they come to resemble flop houses.

Nothing will be done. Librarians are too nice. They may not be in New York and Jersey, but they are here. Back in the 1960s, when mental hospitals began using new drugs and "de-institutionalizing" a lot of patients, an administrator at one such hospital briefed the Pratt staff on what to expect.

He said psychiatrists were advising the ex-patients to go to the Pratt to while away idle hours. "Other people may be hostile to you," they were being told, "but the librarians at the Pratt are kind."

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