Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Footpath Library

Philip Harvey
The shift from print-only reading to apps, e-books, i-pads, and online overload has caused a u-turn in our experience of reading itself. Sit in a peak-hour train some morning and we see in microcosm the reading habits of contemporary society. Maybe a few commuters read the morning paper picked up at the station kiosk. A decent number read hardcovers or paperbacks of differing standards, while a few are immersed in downloaded texts. A couple of students read their spiral-bound class notes. Quite a proportion of the carriage are busy tapping apps, while the rest read the graffiti going by outside the windows, if they are reading at all. The trees are beautiful on an autumn morning.

Few people are more attentive to the changing nature of reading habits than librarians. This is not because of any threat to their livelihood, but because it is their job to know what readers want and how they want that reading delivered. Expectation is a standard, if not usually quantifiable, measure by which librarians order and process reading matter for their collections. Nowadays a collection is not just what is in the building but what is out there in the multiverse of the world wide web.

The physical fact of the printed book remains a constant, whatever the urban myths about digital replacing print. Most librarians are beyond such simplistic views. After all, it was library science that helped propel the internet revolution, with a librarians’ need for proper management of all written resources. We live today in a world in which online and ink line necessarily co-exist. Despite the rumours, there will never be a time when everything in print has a digital twin. The primary human sense of vision is irrefutable: we will read whatever is put in front of us, whenever the mood suits.  

Some readers do not have such access to books. Some readers cannot afford to catch a train. They will not be found downloading the sequel to their favourite thriller, or indulging in facebook chitchat, for the simple reason that they don’t have the device. I am talking in particular of people who live on the streets. Odd as it may seem to some, they are the very people who front up at libraries in the morning, as much for the warmth and comfort as for the books. But even then, they are often the ones who are not members of any library, because they cannot pay the fee and do not have an address a librarian can enter on the database. But there is an answer.

Australia leads the world in its awareness of the reading needs of the homeless and disadvantaged members of our society. This may be related to the fact that Australia is one of the best-read countries per capita in the world, where more people spend time reading books than going to sporting events. Reading is a national pastime.

The Footpath Library, in particular, is a concept that has steadily grown. ‘Enriching lives by giving books’ is not a slogan so much as an ancient statement of value, a philosophic tenet familiar to all educated individuals. Many homeless and disadvantaged people who never go into a library, or couldn’t join if they did, get access to books through this volunteer service, which helps reach those who might otherwise be isolated from learning and live without the possibilities of human contact, even through something as ordinary yet enlivening as a book. 

Boredom and isolation are common realities of the homeless and disadvantaged. Reading fills the hours with meaning. Reading helps us all make connections, wherever we may rest our head. Attention is drawn to other possibilities in life. By locating Footpath Libraries where they meet in refuges and clinics, or congregate each day for breakfast programs and in shelters, people on the street connect with those offering support, but also with those who have written the books. The librarians take the books to the readers, rather than the readers coming to the librarians. And the librarians in this case are not usually trained professionals but the volunteers, donators and supporters who run these special collections. So far there are outlets in three cities: Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne.

In this way, Footpath Libraries build community by meeting the intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs of their users. Such objectives are the standard aims of any library and, like any library, the librarians must have a selection process so they are not inundating themselves and their clients with material that falls outside the policies of the collection. In this case, the donation guidelines are clear about receiving high-quality books of fiction and non-fiction, including dictionaries, simple cookbooks, parenting, and self help, as well as geographic, and car magazines.

More tellingly are the books that Footpath Libraries, out of respect for the customers, will not accept. Top of the list is true crime, but the list includes books that cause the average reader at home to pause and reflect: travel, wine, and restaurant guides; get-rich-quick and other financial guides; coffee table books; home decorating, gardening, sewing and other domestic occupations; sport (unless biographies); any books with suicide, depression, or drug themes; computer manuals; encyclopaedias; and religious material. Another forbidden genre that makes us stop and think is used crossword puzzle books. If these are on the list, it means such expendables are sometimes donated.

Today many people complain about the overload of information they have to read each day, while truth is we are spoilt for choice. We not only have more paper product than ever covered in vowels and consonants for our eyes to feast upon, but electricity lights up our reading day and night, without end. The Footpath Library reminds us that this is not a universal condition. It strives to connect the wider community with homeless people, creating for them a sense of belonging. It is the start of a new conversation, found inside books.


  1. I find the restriction on religious material rather puzzling. I can't help but wonder whether this so-called "respect" for the homeless might be due to anti-religious prejudices of the organisers - who might see it as exploiting the homeless, as proselytising the vulnerable. There are quite a number of religious people among the homeless who's spiritual needs won't be met because of this restriction.

  2. Yes, I noticed that as well. 'Religious material' covers a huge range of literature, not all of it helpful for those in a vulnerable state. It is unlikely though that the organisers are anti-religious. When you read the list of places where Footpath Libraries operate in Australia, most of them are religious houses, churches, and church-related outreach. That said, I agree with you that the spiritual needs of the homeless are a priority needing to be met.