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Bad BO a no-no at county libraries
Informal rule against foul-smelling patrons becomes official; watchdog urges a more 'compassionate way'
Nathan Welton
The Tribune
April 6, 2005

County library users can't scream, run, steal things, break stuff, fight, swear or view Internet porn, according to new rules.

They also can't smell bad.

That means library employees now have a legal standing to tell homeless people to go away.

According to long-standing, yet informal, rules that the county Board of Supervisors recently added to its law books, malodorous patrons can be kicked out.

If they don't leave, they might lose their access.

That, of course, doesn't mean librarians will police the stacks of books, said library director Brian Reynolds.

Instead, he said librarians will act with common sense and ask people to leave only if they're ruining the library experience of others.

"If you and I are sitting in a reasonable distance from each other -- 3 to 5 feet in our society, and you've done something that's so bad I can't stand to talk to you, then that becomes an issue," Reynolds said, noting that some people have smelled so bad that they've ruined furniture.


Rules specifically mention "body odor," which means employees can also legally kick out people who have medical disorders causing excessive body odor.

The policy does not appear to restrict the overuse of cologne or perfume, however. Those chemicals are known to cause asthma attacks in people with chemical sensitivities.

"I think that rather than smelling bad and having no other place to go, we should look into shower facilities," said Eric Greening, a county government watchdog.

He urged supervisors, who approved the rules last week, to tackle the issue in a "kind and compassionate way," instead of a punitive one.

Other communities have done that. When librarians in Santa Barbara ask people to leave, they hand out an information card detailing the nearest free shower and laundry facilities.

"We're not saying go to Holiday Inn and rent a room," said Carol Keator, director of the Santa Barbara library, which doesn't have a no-smell rule. "We're saying the homeless shelter has services there that would allow you to get a shower or whatever it is."

She added that her staff tries to focus on behavior instead of personal circumstances.

So do San Luis Obispo County librarians, Reynolds said.

If, for example, customers violate the no-sleeping regulation because of their medication, he'll let them stay.

He also said his staff would try to accommodate chemically sensitive asthmatics if necessary, and noted that the body-odor rule is seldom enforced.

"In 12 years, I can think of less than half a dozen incidences where people smell so bad that you can't get within 10 feet of them," he said, adding that an information card with free shower and laundry facilities is a good idea.


It is unclear how many similar laws there are in the state, according to California Library Association director Susan Negreen.

"I'm sure every library struggles with the line between individual rights versus the rights of other patrons to have a safe and healthy environment," she added. "Librarians hold dearly the right to freedom of information, and it's the core tenant of librarianship.

"Any time they make the decision to restrict someone's access," Negreen said, "it's very difficult for them to decide to do that."

According to the American Library Association, libraries should not restrict access of people who "merely inspire the anger or annoyance of others," and behavior policies should not be subjective.

Rather, such policies should "employ a reasonable, objective standard based on the behavior itself."

This objectivity guideline was effectively upheld after a homeless man, Richard Armstrong, tried to enter a Washington, D.C., library on a cold winter day in 1993. Guards told him to leave and clean up, so he challenged the rules regarding dress and hygiene.

He won based on constitutional rights violations; the judge said the rules were subjective, so enforcement would be arbitrary.

An additional case upheld a library's rules when a homeless man sued after being removed from the library 11 times. According to a publication by the Massachusetts Bar Association, librarians alleged the man would stare at patrons and bathe in the restroom.

Library users said they felt intimidated, and librarians said they had an obligation to keep the facility open for everyone.

Other officially outlawed behaviors at San Luis Obispo County libraries include going barefoot, not supervising children, bringing along animals, playing games, blocking walkways and sitting in "inappropriately" large groups.

The library's policy is that nobody should impede others' use of the facility, Reynolds said.

"We don't want people to behave in such a way that bothers others so it puts a crimp in their day," he added.