The Public

cover of The PublicThe Public is my kind of movie. The hero is a flawed character with a shady past who has been given a second chance. He uses this opportunity to help those who are in the same bad place that he used to occupy. The plot pitches the underdogs of society against the forces of bureaucracy, political ambition and law and order. The move poses moral dilemmas such as ‘whose side of right are you on’ and ‘are you one of us or one of them.’ The good guys win the battle but not the war. The struggle continues.

You probably think that you’ve already seen this movie. The plot and characters may sound familiar. It is a popular and successful Hollywood formula. It has hit the silver screen in many variations. But you haven’t seen anything like The Public before. Because this movie is set in a public library and the hero is a librarian. That is a Hollywood first. Media portrayals of librarians are seldom kind and never heroic. The ageing rule bound spinster is the typical stereotype. But Mr Goodson is different. The public library saved him from a life of homelessness and addiction. He knows what it feels like to be down and out. Now he wants to help the homeless people who take shelter in his library during a bitter mid western winter. When a homeless patron dies of exposure right outside the library the scene is set for a confrontation between the Establishment and the Public Library.

I won’t say any more as I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. But I would urge you to see The PublicWe have ordered four copies, and you can place a hold on them in the online catalogue. It goes to the heart of what we are trying to do at Thunder Bay Public Library (TBPL). I have written and spoken extensively about the need to transform TBPL from a traditional, to a community led and needs based library. I’m often asked what a needs based library looks like and I can now answer that question by saying – go and see The Public.

The Public was inspired by Chip Ward, the Assistant Director of the Salt Lake City Public Library, and his article What they didn’t teach us in Library School: The public library as an asylum for the homeless;The Salt Lake City Public Library has created a place where the diverse ideas and perspectives that sustain an open and inclusive civil society can be expressed safely, where disparate citizens can discover common ground, self-organize, and make wise choices together. We do not collect just books, we also gather voices. We empower citizens and invite them to engage one another in public dialogues. I like to think of our library as the civic ballroom of our community where citizens can practice that awkward dance of mutuality that is the very signature of a democratic culture.’

The Public was written and directed by Emilio Estevez, who also played the main character, Stuart Goodson. Estevez is very clear that ‘It is a moral imperative for libraries and other public spaces to help the homeless and other populations in need. If you possess a beating heart that is as close to an inarguable statement as you are likely to hear.’ He also points out that ‘I learned quickly that what most librarians went to school to study and earn a degree in has very little practical application on the floor. A modern-day librarian is now a de facto social worker and first responder. It’s not unusual for librarians to be trained in the use of Narcan, a nasal application used to treat opiate overdoses’.

There are many good examples of needs based public libraries including Denver Public Library’s response to the opiod crisis and Peterborough Public Library, which recently opened up its basement as a temporary homeless shelter.

John Pateman – If you have a comment about today’s column, we would love to hear from you. Please comment below!

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