A Tragedy at the Library

des-moinesDes Moines, the capital of Iowa, is unknown to the outside world.  People whoosh past it on I-80 and don’t give it a second look.  Actually, Des Moines is a lovely small city, though no one would call it a tourist destination—and some even call it “Dead Moines.”  Perhaps you know it as Bill Bryson’s birthplace from his memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

Bibliophiles prefer Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, but regional literature experts occasionally check out the Des Moines Public Library’s special collection of Iowa Writers, which includes books by forgotten Pulitzer Prize winners MacKinlay Kantor, Susan Glaspell, Margaret Wilson, Hamlin Garland, and Edna Ferber. 

Here is why I have crossed the Des Moines Library off my list:   I am a coward.

On  September 17, a homeless man, David Franklin Smith, entered the atrium of the Des Moines Public Library, poured a flammable liquid on himself, and set himself on fire.  The staff put out the flames with a fire extinguisher, and Smith was airlifted to the burn unit at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City,  where he died.  The police concluded he committed suicide.

The world is so dangerous these days—random shootings, terrorism,  global warming, xenophobia, insane politics—and now a mentally ill man setting himself on fire.  We’re terrified by the things that happen day after day. 

Somehow, it is taken for granted that libraries must double as unaccredited centers for the homeless.  Libraries in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia have hired social workers to deal with the homeless and mentally ill patrons. 

Bravo!  I exclaimed when I read about these initiatives.  

But this problem has fallen in the laps of the libraries and should not be their responsibility.  It is terrific that they have stepped up—but what choice do they have?  Why doesn’t the govenment provide  halfway houses, more homeless centers, and even apartments for the homelesss?  Surely the streets–and the libraries–aren’t a good solution!  

What a tragic world! 

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