The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness: An Empathy-Driven Approach to Solving Problems, Preventing Conflict, and Serving Everyone. By Ryan J. Dowd. Chicago: ALA, 2018. 248 p. Paper $51.30 (ISBN 9780838916261).

Public libraries are an invaluable resource for people experiencing homelessness. However, librarians often struggle with how to address the unique needs of those patrons—what do we do when their needs clash with library policies or the comfort of other customers? Ryan Dowd, the executive director of a large homeless shelter in Chicago, draws on his years of experience to provide a set of tools that enable librarians to better serve people experiencing homelessness while improving compliance with library policies. His approach emphasizes empathy, treating all patrons with respect while recognizing the special challenges faced by homeless individuals. Dowd explains how demonstrating empathy enhances our ability to resolve or avoid conflict before resorting to punishment.

The guide begins with an overview of homelessness, including the “top ten homeless myths.” He examines one myth in depth, “Homeless people are just like me,” listing a variety of ways that homeless people experience the world differently than housed people. Understanding these differences is at the root of empathy and lays a foundation for his approach to serving homeless patrons. Dowd then outlines evidence for using empathy as an effective tool in helping people follow rules without punishment, including the psychology of social interactions like reciprocity and building relationships. The majority of the book is a list of tools that librarians can use when interacting with homeless patrons, followed by common scenarios and suggestions of how to address them. Dowd offers over sixty tools, each with a catchy name (e.g., “The Your Momma”: How would I want people to treat this person if she was my relative?). Each tool connects back to the evidence for empathy-driven enforcement and is supported by his own experiences in the shelter. He includes advice for staff on the floor as well as tips to help managers coach staff in empathic enforcement. Dowd’s guide is easy to read straight through or refer back to as needed. Librarians could even create a list of the tools with a brief description for quick reference. The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness offers both insight into the lives of people experiencing homelessness and specific practical tools to improve services to that population. This book is highly recommended for public librarians, including frontline staff, managers, and administrators. Through empathy-driven problem solving, libraries can strengthen their relationships with homeless patrons and create a more harmonious environment for customers and staff alike.—Jessica Givens, Circulation Manager, Moore Public Library, Pioneer Library System, Moore, Oklahoma


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