Palaces for the People

Cortland Free Library is chartered to serve the city of Cortland as well as the towns of Cortlandville and Virgil–but like all libraries in the Finger Lakes Library System and beyond, we welcome everyone who comes through our doors.

In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in people experiencing homelessness. This isn’t just here in Cortland; it’s across the country. It makes sense that we see folks experiencing homelessness in the library, because libraries are one of the few places you can spend the day without spending a dollar. Andrew Carnegie called libraries “palaces for the people” for a reason; they are vital to our community’s social infrastructure.

In Guidelines for Library Services to People Experiencing Homelessness, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) says:

Homelessness is a worldwide challenge for millions of people. As central locations for essential resources for all community members, it makes sense for libraries to be part of the caring community that seeks to address and even ameliorate the effects of homelessness and poverty. In addition, libraries can provide education to the housed community members regarding the lives of those who are experiencing homelessness.

Stereotypes, prejudice, and stigmatizing attitudes can create barriers between those who are housed and those who are not, and these negative attitudes can also affect library services, policies, and resources.

“When someone who is experiencing homelessness enters a library, they come from an unstable or unpredictable living situation, where they must live their private life in public,” Julie Ann Winkelstein notes in Libraries and Homelessness: An Action Guide. “If you are housed, think about all the activities you pursue inside your home and imagine being watched and sometimes judged for pursuing them.”

She continues: “Experiencing homelessness…can include not having personal connections that create social capital. Because of these challenges, using a library can mean more than the critical resources provided.”


Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness Training + How You Can Help

The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness by Ryan Dowd is an excellent book and training we took here at CFL that helped us learn more about what it’s like to experience homelessness. I’ve recorded a short video (also embedded below) in which I share highlights from the training; I also talk about what the library can and can’t provide for folks experiencing homelessness.

The library provides the opportunity to connect with others; to access information; to use a computer or connect to WiFi; to read; to get help from staff; to use the restrooms and water fountains; to attend programs; the list goes on. (And that’s all for everyone, no matter your housing status.)

Unfortunately, there are also many needs we can’t meet, at least not in our current form: showers, laundry, a safe place to sleep, storage for personal items, after-hours phone charging.

This is where you come in. You can help advocate for a low-barrier, year-round shelter in Cortland (something that does not currently exist outside the warming centers at Grace & Holy Spirit and Salvation Army that are open through New York State’s Code Blue initiative November through April). You can donate to organizations like Loaves & Fishes, CAPCO, and Catholic Charities; volunteer at those places, and at the library; and help educate others about the realities of people experiencing homelessness.

This is a population that is dehumanized more than any other.

It’s my hope that by practicing compassion, open-mindedness, and humility, we can help clear a path towards social wellbeing, unity, and growth for our community.


A Note on our Code of Conduct

Last but not least: a reminder that we expect everyone to abide by our board-approved code of conduct while on library premises. Please review the code of conduct here and bring any violations to the attention of library staff. Know that the code of conduct will be courteously and firmly enforced by staff, no matter a patron’s housing status.

This letter also appeared in our e-newsletter dated 1/31/2024.