In a comment to yesterday’s entry, Beach Bum asks
What I am most curious about is what did these libraries do 40 years ago? Is anyone that worked there back then still there? I doubt it, but it would be interesting to find a retired librarian who worked in any library and ask what was done then. Did they spend all day kicking out barefoot people during the warm months of the year? Or did they conveniently make those rules after going barefoot went out of style?
I’ll try to answer that.
Over a hundred years ago, nobody in America even considered bare feet a problem. There is an interesting anecdote in “Great Thoughts from Master Minds”, Vol. VIII, A. W. Hall (London, 1887) that contrasts American egalitarianism with European snobbery:
Mr. Matthew Arnold (says the Boston Herald) was greatly struck by the democratic government of our reading room when he was in Boston. He came in here one day and saw a little barefooted newsboy sitting in one of the best chairs, enjoying himself apparently for dear life. The great essayist was completely astounded. “Do you let barefooted boys in this reading-room?” he asked. “You would never see such a sight as that in Europe. I do not believe there is a reading-room in all Europe in which that boy, dressed as he is, would enter.” Then Mr. Arnold went over to the boy, engaged him in conversation, and found that he was reading the “Life of Washington,” and that he was a young gentleman of decidedly anti-British tendencies, and, for his age, remarkably well informed. Mr. Arnold remained talking with the youngster for some time, and as he came back to our desk, the great Englishman said: “I do not think I have been so impressed with anything else that I have seen since arriving in this country as I am now with meeting this barefooted boy in this reading-room. What a tribute to democratic institutions it is to say that instead of sending that boy out to wander alone in the streets, they permit him to come in here and excite his youthful imagination by reading such a book as the ‘Life of Washington!’ The reading of that one book may change the whole course of that boy’s life, and may be the means of making him a useful, honourable, worthy citizen of this great country. It is, I tell you, a sight that impresses a European not accustomed to your democratic ways.”
(I’ve emphasized “barefoot” words.)
So, when did the change happen, and why?
I’ve highlighted before, in “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service”: It’s Really Fairly Recent, how those signs first appeared in the 1960s in order to keep out hippies. Libraries were somewhat slower to adopt that kind of prejudice.
The late 1980s or early 1990s were the time that libraries started creating barefoot rules. Even then, it took a while for many to jump on board. The Fairfield County District Library enacted their first barefoot rule in 1997. They then modified it in 2007, adding
If a child has learned to walk, the child must wear shoes
to the prohibition. There wasn’t any incident. What happened is that some kids were running around, causing problems. So, instead of solving the problem of kids running around, or enforcing what they already had, they added that sentence.
The earliest barefoot rule I can find is from the Schenectady Public Library, in 1984, when they had a rule that said
WHILE IN THE BUILDING, PLEASE DO NOT
* Enter with Bare Feet
But that seems to be among the first.
It seems that the major genesis of library shoe rules are the result of a homeless man, Richard Kreimer, who used the Morristown, New Jersey library. Kreimer, to say the least, was a royal pain in the butt. He was dirty. He smelled. He had shabby clothing. He stared at other patrons. He talked loudly to himself.
In May of 1989, the Morristown library created its first written behavior policy in direct response to Kreimer. While the library was authorized by the New Jersey legislature to make written rules, they’d never done so before. I suspect that most libraries didn’t have written rules, either, and that things were just handled informally. However, Kreimer was driving the Morristown librarians so nuts that they decided they really needed formal rules in order to effectively deal with him.
So, they wrote rules. One of them said:
9. Patron dress and personal hygiene shall conform to the standard
of the community for public places. This shall include the repair
or cleanliness of garments.
That was directed at Kreimer’s clothing that was tattered and torn, and often dirty. But it is also terribly vague and overbroad, from a legal standpoint.
At this point the ACLU and other civil rights groups got involved. After all, libraries are a public space, and they should not be able to toss people for vague reasons or for reasons that go beyond what is necessary to curb any disturbing behavior. They needed specificity.
So, a new rule was negotiated.
Now, if you were going to make a rule for dress that was more specific than “conform to the standard of the community”, what do you think would pop into the librarians’ heads? Since the 1960s, you’ve seen and heard about “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service”. You figure there is some sort of valid reason behind it (something more than keeping out hippies).
So, this is what they came up with as the new, more specific rule:
9. Patrons shall not be permitted to enter the building without a shirt or other covering of their upper bodies or without shoes or other footwear. Patrons whose bodily hygiene is offensive so as to constitute a nuisance to other persons shall be required to leave the building.
Now, keep in mind that Kreimer appeared in the library neither shirtless nor barefoot. That is just part of what the library considered part of conforming to the standards of the community when they had to make a rule of dress more specific.
And then the lawsuit was filed. In 1991, the judge at the District Court level tossed the rules that were being enforced against Kreimer (that’s how long the lawsuit took) as vague and overbroad. For instance, one of the other rules that was considered vague said that you could not “annoy” another.
The thing is, the judge tossed all the rules. There was one problem with that—since there Kreimer went neither shirtless nor barefoot, there was nothing to legally challenge that rule on. In order to challenge a rule, or law for that matter, it generally needs to be enforced against you. So the judge later modified his order to keep the shirt and shoes rule.
That meant that part of the rule was kept only because nobody had challenged it. That meant that there was no evidence at all, one way or the other, about that part of the rule. It was simply reinstated as having been unchallenged.
By the time the case made it to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (1992), that shirt and shoes portion got treated as if there really had been a hearing and evidence about the validity of that rule. But there hadn’t.
There was a lot of media coverage of Kreimer’s case. That coverage was not just in newspapers, but in all of the journals for librarians. And the story that they often read was that shirt and shoe regulations had been approved by the courts. Not only that, but for any librarians who decided that they needed their own written behavior rules, the Morristown case gave them court-approved language. Thus, whenever a library created rules, they often just copied them from Morristown. When you look at library’s online rules, many, many of them still use the same language as Morristown.
It’s even worse than that. Many people don’t understand legal issues. I’ve talked to many librarians who thought that the Morristown case required them to have a shirt and shoes rule, as if it were a national law, not just the result
So, that’s how the meme spread and so many libraries have ended up adopting shoe rules. Some libraries took longer than others. Some (I’ve mentioned this before), only made their shoe rules when they saw me in their library. They didn’t make their rule because I was causing trouble (I wasn’t) but because now they thought “it was the thing to do”, and then they rationalized reasons why they might need such a rule (bare feet are supposedly hazardous).
So, what did librarians do 40 years ago with a barefooted patron? As long as the person wasn’t causing trouble, they let him or her in. After all, a library floor is probably among the safest places in the world to go barefoot. It is only as rulemaking was formalized due to Kreimer that they decided they had to do something about a non-existent problem.