Recently there has been a bit of media coverage on incidents that have happened in public libraries . As a public librarian I find myself a bit bewildered by the tone of these articles and the outrage expressed by some citizens and librarians. What do they expect to happen in a public space? Where have they been for the past thirty years?
Are libraries safe places? I would argue that libraries in general are as safe as any other public space. Does this mean that it is a good place to just drop off your kids or to leave your purse sitting around? No. You should not expect your local public library to be any safer that the local shopping mall.
I would say to the “outraged” citizens and librarians who do not feel safe, that the library is much safer than many other private and public spaces. I feel much safer working in my library than I would if I worked at the local convenience store. If I where a banker I would worry about bank robbers with large caliber weapons pointed at my head. Here at the library, I know that I will have to deal with unstable people and potentially acts of violence, but I face the same threat when I walk with my family downtown.
Librarians, and anyone else, should not have to work in a hostile environment. So what should they do? Since my daughter was able to understand what a phone was both of her parents have taught her how to dial 911. Imagine that, a nine year old who knows to call the police if she feels threatened. If she can do it so can librarians. Librarians are public service workers and thus must accept the fact that they will have to deal with all kinds of situations and they may never feel 100% safe. They have the right and authority to call the police any time they feel unsafe, regardless of what they may perceive their administrators position to be. Be an adult and make the call.
Let’s face it, most librarians tend to be a fastidious lot, but the general public is often much less so. When you are in a public space you are likely to be exposed to the full range of unwashed and tasteless humanity. Many people, including librarians, seem to have this Hollywood image of what a library should be, but the reality is much different. Is any of this radical or new? Honestly I don’t know. I might imagine that the increase in homelessness (not intended to accusatory) and the current economic situation may be placing additional strain on individuals that may be more obvious in our public spaces .
Unless we are willing to give in to the bigots within our communities or turn our libraries into police bunkers, we will always have public space issues in our libraries. Just as most of us do not expect our library spaces to be the nearly silent edifices pictured in movies, we must realize that much of our personal security is in our own hands. Public libraries were intended to give free access to, well the public, thus the name.
- A very interesting and informative article was written by Chip Ward on Libraries and homeless people: http://www.alternet.org/story/50023/
- A recent series of articles about the Hartford, Connecticut Library: http://www.courant.com/community/news/hfd/hc-hartfordlibrary-may18,0,2336731.story (original article) & http://www.courant.com/community/news/hfd/hc-ctlibrary0606.artjun06,0,7150601.story (follow-up article)
- A recent ALA article on the Hartford library: http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6562745.html