Spartanburg Library, Homeless Patrons, and the Golden Rule

A South Carolina library's "tender and attentive" approach
Spartanburg County, South Carolina
Todd Stephens


"Our library doesn't have a social worker. We're all social workers here." - Todd Stephens, county librarian, Spartanburg County Public Libraries

At TechSoup for Libraries, we like covering the latest technology innovations in libraryland. This time of year, we thought it fitting and proper to cover one of the oldest of human innovations — human decency. We found it alive and well at the Spartanburg County Public Libraries in their work with homeless patrons.

I found out about Spartanburg Library's work in this area when I chanced to meet Lisa Lyon who runs the Lanier Library in North Carolina. I asked her if she has come across any extraordinary library work in the southeast lately.

She told me about county librarian Todd Stephens and his old fashioned southern approach to a challenge that most libraries across the country have — homeless patrons trying to live in his libraries.

The Setting: Spartanburg, South Carolina

Spartanburg has a total urban population of around 180,000 in upstate South Carolina.

Like so many urban areas, especially in mild climates, it has a significant homeless population, enough to warrant 26 nonprofit homeless shelters.

The Spartanburg Library has lots of homeless patrons who come every day to use the computers, read newspapers, wash up, and just take shelter in a nice place out of the weather. They are welcomed there. One homeless man has been there every day for the last 12 years.

A Haven for All

Spartanburg Library county librarian Todd StephensLibrarian Todd Stephens is a native of Spartanburg who came to the profession late in life. He has directed the county's 10 branches for 16 years now. He thinks of himself as a nontraditional librarian.

Todd Stephens' approach is not for the library put on all of its programs, but for it to be the home for everyone else who does. He wants his libraries to be havens for everyone, including performance arts nonprofits in the region.

In the last five years, the Spartanburg library program's budget has gone from $60,000 per year to $200,000. Their special programs include art events, craft clubs, book clubs, live concerts, theatre, dance, and symphony programs. The main library has its own park.

The Tender and Attentive Policy

Spartanburg Public Library interior

Tradition is important in the South, and Spartanburg Library has a deep history of being hospitable. The library's founding mother, Mrs. Helen Fayssoux Kennedy, set the precedent in 1885 when she donated land and her husband's books with the goal of expanding access to knowledge in the community.

The library was a place of equal treatment and social justice in the civil rights era, and the tradition continues. Todd Stephens delivers a "laying the cornerstone" speech to staff members about the importance of free and equitable access to information on a regular basis to reinforce their way of doing things.

One of the ways Spartanburg Library's tradition is practiced nowadays is their approach to homeless patrons. It is not so much in their procedures, but rather in their application of the golden rule.

For example, someone greets all patrons at the door and personally engages them. Transient homeless patrons are offered a temporary library card and also a tour of the library, including expectations on how to use the bathrooms and what to do if they're frustrated or need help.

The experience is personal and not institutional. Todd Stephens explains:

 "Our policy here is to be tender and attentive. We are not a community with a homeless problem. We are a community with people who are homeless who have problems."

In practice, according to Stephens, this means, "If someone has a medical problem, we help them to research it and deal with it. Our job as public servants is to do what we can to help people work through problems. We care for each of them like we would our wealthiest patron. We treat them with respect — period."

We're All Social Workers Here

The key people at the main library working with homeless patrons are the library's nine security staff members. Most of them are former public safety officers who have special training in local social services.

Stephens gives an example of how they do more than keep the peace in the library. "We all pay attention and are attentive. My head of security noticed that a homeless person had broken glasses. He knew the right place and called them to make arrangements to get the glasses fixed."
Stephens shared another example. "Recently a disabled man stopped me and told me that he needed a ride to the bus station. I went ahead and finished up what I was doing and drove him, just like I would have if he were a family friend."
Of course, the library has to enforce rules. Stephens says, "Our behavior policy is equal for everyone. We set the boundaries of behavior. The staff has been trained to physically deal with behavior problems. They're trained to look relaxed and nonthreatening and listen to patrons' issues respectfully, to be accepting of who they are."

Expanding Public Access to Technology

I've often seen homeless people in libraries creating a fuss when their time is up on the computers in my local California library. Spartanburg's answer to this issue is to have plenty of public-access computing stations. They have time limits but try to be flexible when they can so that homeless patrons can get up to an hour and a half of computer time.

The library is also working on increasing comprehensive wireless bandwidth so people with limited data on their phones can have Internet access. The library wants to help people who are homeless or living in their cars after hours and outside of the library.

Tips from Spartanburg Public Library

For libraries interested in the Spartanburg approach, Todd Stephens does recommend some concrete things to try. They include

  • Hold staff training days in which homeless veterans, homeless advocates, and shelter workers come to deepen the staff's understanding of issues facing homeless populations.
  • Get out of the library regularly to see who in the community can help with social services. Invite them to be involved in the library.
  • Encourage librarians to serve on local nonprofit boards, homeless shelters, and other human service agencies. Spartanburg staff members are now on 36 different nonprofit boards.
  • Listen to your mother. Todd's mom told him, "It’s not about you; it’s about the person you help along the way."  

I have to confess that I've been craving some reassurance of human decency out in the world. It was a relief to get a chance to talk to Todd Stephens about how fervently he applies it. I suspect that Spartanburg Library isn't alone in its application of the golden rule. It is an ancient innovation that is at the heart of what libraries do. 

Jim Lynch photo

About the Author

Jim Lynch is TechSoup's director of GreenTech and a regular contributor to the TechSoup and TechSoup for Libraries blogs. 

He has been interviewed extensively over the years on a wide variety of technology topics by The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, PCWorld, and many other news outlets.