19 August 2007

"It takes the facts a long way."

There are many lives of much pain, hardship, and suffering, which, having no stirring interest for any but those who lead them, are disregarded by persons who do not want thought or feeling, but who pamper their compassion and need high stimulants to rouse it.

Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, Ch. 18

Stanley (not his real name) is an occasional visitor to my library. By any standard, Stanley is poor. He is shabbily dressed, he doesn't smell very good, and he looks like he needs a decent meal. I've known Stanley for a couple of years now. I suppose many would call him a loser, but I just see him as rather lost. You could say he's a couplet short of a sonnet.

Stanley likes "to go on the Internet" to research what he will only describe as his "condition." So now and then he shuffles into the library and goes to work. He sits for hours intent on the monitor in front of him, like Mr. Dick labouring on the famous Memorial. Mr. Dick shows young David Copperfield a large kite he has made completely out of his closely and laboriously written manuscript: "There's plenty of string ... and when it flies high, it takes the facts a long way." (David Copperfield, Ch. 14) Stanley uses the currents of cyberspace for a similar purpose. Yet despite all his efforts, he never seems to accomplish much and his condition persists.

Stanley had a hard time of it when the rules changed at my library. The large University system I belong to now requires that external users authenticate for any kind of Internet use beyond our own or the government's websites. In order to get his temporary log-in, Stanley has to show some ID and sign a form each time he visits the library. People like Stanley don't possess much in the way of identification, so after much concern and hand-wringing on his part, we settled on a faded birth certificate and his proof-of-age card from the Manitoba Liquor Commission. Once he got the hang of logging in, Stanley happily continued his research.

A couple of weeks ago one of my staff poked her head into my office, sighed, and informed me that Stanley was looking at an "inappropriate" website. When I walked over to his workstation to see what was going on, there was Stanley heedlessly violating the rules, right in the middle of the library and in full view of my staff and other patrons. I asked if I could speak with him in my office, and he meekly accompanied me, apologizing the whole time for causing any problems. Although I am well aware that some patrons like to wander too freely on the web, I have never caught anyone in flagrante delictu. How to deal with Stanley? I explained to him that, as a public service supported by the taxpayer, the library could not countenance the use of its computers for such things, and so on in my most officious manner. Stanley looked back at me with that curious blank stare he reserves for representatives of authority, nodding his head and interrupting frequently with apologetic ramblings. Then he said something that surprised me: "I wasn't trying to make any trouble, but, like, you've got my ID and all, and I thought that since I had to go through all that signing-up stuff, I was free to do whatever I wanted with the computer." I didn't know how to respond to this, so I simply repeated my explanation, gave Stanley a warning, and obtained his promise not to stray from the straight and narrow.

After Stanley had left I realized this was not a cynical evasion on his part. In his own half-baked reasoning he was quite serious. How ironic that the University's move to restrict Stanley's access to the web had had the opposite effect. Having listened to all our official claptrap and complied with all our fussy regulations, he had somehow become convinced he had been given licence to use the library's computers for something more than his usual wool gathering. In fact it was only since the imposition of authentication that Stanley had tried pushing the limits.

Stanley's strange excuse led me to reflect on the various ways society seeks to regulate and "enclose" the lives of the disadvantaged. However justifiable the imposition of authentication, however expedient for security-obsessed managers and the technicians who guard the unapproachable complexity of their systems, it represents yet another form of enclosure, another hedge on Stanley's freedom, another symbol of his dispossessed state. Should I have banned Stanley from using my public access workstations? I couldn't bring myself to do it. Yes, he occasionally deviates in unacceptable ways from his normal pursuits, as we all do. But by and large Stanley is making legitimate use of my library to improve his health as he sees fit, researching his "condition," and even seeking reference help to find websites.

The state of Stanley's health is intimately entwined with the state of his pocketbook. This is something Mr. Micawber could expostulate about at length:

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and - and in short you are for ever floored. As I am! (David Copperfield, Ch. 12)
There is much talk these days about the determinants of health and how poverty is at the top of the list. From the Second Report on the Health of Canadians and Strategies for Population Health we learn that:
  • Only 47% of Canadians in the lowest income bracket rate their health as very good or excellent, compared with 73% of Canadians in the highest income group.
  • Low-income Canadians are more likely to die earlier and to suffer more illnesses than Canadians with higher incomes, regardless of age, sex, race and place of residence.
  • Social status is linked to health. At each rung up the income ladder, Canadians have less sickness, longer life expectancies and improved health.
  • Large gaps in income distribution lead to increases in social problems and poorer health among the population as a whole.
Health libraries are part of the civil commons, which protects and enables the access of all members of a community to basic life goods. Is it conducive to Stanley's health to be deprived of access to information by the very institution that is supposed to be dedicated to providing it? Creating a healthy society must also mean finding ways to include the Stanleys who inhabit the margins. Or do we pamper our compassion and need high stimulants to rouse it?


'What do you think of that for a kite?' he said.
I answered that it was a beautiful one. I should think it must have been as much as seven feet high.
'I made it. We'll go and fly it, you and I,' said Mr. Dick. 'Do you see this?'
He showed me that it was covered with manuscript, very closely and laboriously written; but so plainly, that as I looked along the lines, I thought I saw some allusion to King Charles the First's head again, in one or two places.
'There's plenty of string,' said Mr. Dick, 'and when it flies high, it takes the facts a long way. That's my manner of diffusing 'em. I don't know where they may come down. It's according to circumstances, and the wind, and so forth; but I take my chance of that.'

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Ch. 14