Under Siege

Photo by Annie Spratt from unsplash.com

I try not to be a Danny Downer when it is my turn in the Saturday morning TKZ barrel. That’s what I am today, however. 

There is a simple reason for this. Our libraries are under siege, and not from lack of funding. The barbarians are at the gate and in the parking lot.

I posted a blog here several months ago about one of my local library branches and how wonderful it was. I stand behind every word.  I think that many of us take them for granted in several ways. They were here for us when we were children and we assume they will always be here as a place to borrow free books, music, films, and graphic novels, among other things. We also might tend to forget that libraries were and are also places where kids could go to study. Additionally, libraries were also the original “safe space” before that term got co-opted by college students. Back in the day parents and teachers used to tell kids who were lost, were being bothered, or just needed a quiet place that they could go to “the library.” 

The problem is that the space we know and love is being disrespected. People used to know how to act in a library. Everyone used to know, and if someone forgot the librarian said “Shhh” and you “shhhed.” That increasingly is not the case. Folks are using the space for naps, panhandling, hookups, and worse. They are harassing library workers and patrons, sometimes while under the influence of adult beverages and controlled substances and sometimes not. I’ve been to a couple of branches locally where I have had to walk a gauntlet of aggressive requests for money as I walked through the doors. I can deflect that type of thing quickly and effectively enough. What about the parent who isn’t so prepared, who is just trying to take their little kid into the library for storytime? They’ll probably just stop going. Then what? 

Don’t take my word for it about this. I found several articles regarding this issue, though it was this one that resonated most strongly with me. What reminded me about this issue, however, is a recent murder that took place in Columbus, Ohio, I don’t live in Columbus, but my profession occasionally takes me close to the area where the murder took place, a neighborhood called Driving Park. The killing occurred in the parking lot of the library that serves the neighborhood.  The library building, which was built a few years ago to replace an older facility, is the one bright spot on the street, which is not a commercial destination for anyone living outside of the neighborhood. I occasionally will stop in that library and browse for a few minutes if I find myself running early to an appointment. My observation is that the people who do use it — primarily students who live in the area — are well-served. The library does not suffer from a lack of resources. It’s a place where students can and do go to study quietly and without disturbance, where reliable online access is more likely to be obtained than it might be at home, and where the librarians are happily kept hopping by the requests for help. 

You can read an article about what happened at the Driving Park library here.  The police have the alleged shooter in custody. What is clear is that this incident didn’t occur because of an argument over who was going to check out the last copy of American Dirt.  It didn’t happen because two people wanted the same parking space. No, the reason for the killing was a street beef which caused more than a dozen knuckleheads to gather in the library parking lot because it was convenient. This is in a neighborhood where parents walk their kids to the library to give them a chance to do well. 

There is some discussion occurring under the radar on a nationwide basis about what to do. Some systems are retaining special duty police officers. There are some librarians who are objecting to this on the basis that the presence of a police officer makes the library less “welcoming.” I understand their point, though I would submit that the sight of a drunken adult dropping a dooky on the carpet in front of a five-year-old isn’t exactly a welcoming sight, either. Neither is the sound of gunfire or the sight of a knife fight.

I don’t know what we do here. The problem isn’t going to get any better on its own. It’s only going to get worse. And while the problem, in general, isn’t confined to libraries in disadvantaged areas it certainly impacts them harder —  places where libraries are needed the most — than those located in areas that are financially better off. The mother quoted in the article I linked to above is, I would guess, going to be less likely to let her child go to the library, with her or without her, if it is no longer assuredly a safe place — a safe space, if you will — either inside or out.  The kids are being scared away. The parents of those kids are being scared away. So where does a kid like that go, someone who could turn out to be anything from a teacher to a doctor to an astronaut with a little encouragement and a lot of available resources?

Is this a problem near you? If it is, are you hearing about it anecdotally or is it being reported in your local media? I take the sense is that it is happening primarily in metropolitan areas as opposed to those with smaller density populations. Am I wrong? 

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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

31 thoughts on “Under Siege

  1. Mr. Downer…

    Like you, I’m a library lover, and, alas, this is not just a library problem – most public places that one would assume to be safe spaces are wrestling this same issue – my day-job with the safety-net hospital here in Unnamed-Large-Metropolitan-North-Georgia-City is similarly “under siege” – including the gauntlet of requests, sidewalk sleepers, and a shooting – similar to the one you mentioned – at the busy intersection up from the ER entry… and I witnessed (unrelated, I assume), fisticuffs in the same intersection last summer…

    As to the libraries here, we have an extensive network of branches from the main downtown to the sleepy suburban-meets-rural, with a pretty incredible web-site that allows me to check out books,, music, moves, et al., from across the region, and pick-up/return them at my local bricks-n-sticks facility.

    Nothing’s been in the news about our libraries here quite so dramatic as what you shared, but there are a few locations where “urban campers” take up day residence and more… sometimes it’s “off premises” – as in on the sidewalk or approaching driveway where no one knows who really has the authority to “Shhh” ’em…

    The city-county system has been undergoing a series of renovations that have resulted in better sightlines down the stacks from the desk, shorter stacks, better lighting and brighter finishes which seem to work to deter the lurkers, and the smells of new carpet and paint and old books seems to be working…

    I understand the need to avoid the siege mentality – perhaps the security presence can be attired librarian style and taught the Dewey Decimal system…

    Still hopeful, in any event…

    g

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    • Thanks for sharing, George. Re: hospitals…our local Children’s Hospital was in a high crime area and came up with a unique solution. It bought up the area, built new housing, and rents/leases it to employees. Problem solved. 
      As far as problems in common areas are concerned…a local record store that has been in business for almost fifty years and continues to be the definition of cutting edge “hip” solved the problem by setting up speakers (behind security mesh, of course) and blasting classical music at all hours. The troublemakers left and the regular customers appreciated the irony of the solution.

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      • My local library here in Melbourne, Australia used that technique of playing classical music in the foyer in late afternoons/evenings. While I never heard of any real trouble, the library is next to a shopping mall and a train station and there would be groups of “loud” youths hanging around. I would occasionally see the security guards from the mall having “stern conversations” with some of the kids. I haven’t heard the music for a while – and haven’t seen the youths either. I don’t know if it worked or whether they just got bored and moved somewhere else.

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        • That’ very interesting, Garth. Thank you. Hopefully they have moved on. I’m glad that your troubles were kept at a minimum.

          One particular point of interest you mentioned is the proximity of your local library to a shopping mall. As originally conceived in the United States malls were intended to be places for more than shopping and were to include libraries, among other things. The other things made it into the mix but somehow libraries never did, at least to my knowledge. Hmmm…

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  2. What a shame. I’m not aware of any issues with our county libraries (we have 2–very small county). Our libraries have always been welcoming places. In fact, we’ll be going there tomorrow for a presentation on mushrooms–one of the Hubster’s hobbies.

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    • For those who may not know, Terry will be joining us as a regular blogger on alternate Wednesdays beginning February 19 (hope I have the date right!) so welcome, Terry, and thanks for stopping by today. I’m not hearing much if anything about this problem in less populated areas. I hope the quiet continues. Thanks again, Terry, and we will see you on the 19th!

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  3. This is not a problem in our library (in a smaller county in Virginia). I go there sometimes for peace n quiet and space to write. Maybe our library is different because it’s really small . . . not a “cool” and convenient place to hang out.

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    • That is good to hear, Priscilla. I think that the “convenience” aspect, which should be a strength, can be a weakness if it’s close to a troublesome area. I’m glad your space there is safe. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Funny this should be today’s topic. On waking today I was thinking about all the gloom & doom predictions of ‘climate change’ and was thinking that we didn’t have to worry, humans will destroy themselves long before the natural earth does.

    I agree with your statement that this is a much broader issue than just libraries and personally, while I won’t say I’m a constant news listener, I have not heard of problems like this at my local libraries (urban). In this day & age no place is a safe harbor, unfortunately. I will check next time I go–I don’t know have our closest library already utilizes a security guard or not–I’m thinking they do. Let’s hope they never have to be utilized. If they do have security, I’ll have to ask next time I see them.

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    • Thanks, BK. From the sound of things you are fortunate. Alas, every place is safe until it isn’t. It doesn’t take many incidents at all to flip the sign from “safe” to “no-go.” I hope you can get to enjoy yours for a long time to come.

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  5. The abuse of libraries is widespread, no doubt about it. But I think it’s primarily in the big cities, and that’s where the aldermen and women and local officials have to get involved. Some of the branches in Chicago look and smell worse than an old bar room. I live in a small Northwest Indiana town where story time for kids is robust. We don’t have problems. Yet. The librarians remind me of Ms. Edwards, our librarian in Lansing, Illinois, many, many years ago. If you made a peep, you were out. Or worse, she called your mother if you acted up. ….I guess we have to appreciate our institutions and remain vigilant, but in this climate today, with funding for arts decreasing, it’s probably a matter of keeping close tabs on who we elect and who is in charge. We have to say something, and do something. Thanks for the post. A good reminder.

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    • Nancy, I think you nailed it re: “she called your mother if you acted up.” I remember those days. It was even worse if your mother told your dad about it! That said, almost all of the libraries in the Columbus area have been rebuilt or refurbished in the last several years at considerable expense and the problem has gotten worse, not better. The problems we’re having locally (and in a lot of large metropolitan areas) seem to be coming from what is outside the walls of the library rather than from what’s inside. Maybe more security funding is the answer. Maybe it’s bigger than that. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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  6. Joe,

    Thanks for the post and the links.

    I live in a rural area of Ohio that has not had such a problem. Interestingly, our main County Library, is across the street from a low-income area. And one of our library employees has been very active in providing activities during after-school hours and evening hours for school age children. Whether that has made a difference in the problem you’re discussing…I don’t know. But there is strength in numbers, and hopefully the program will continue to be popular with the kids who have been benefiting from it.

    I really like the solution your local record company has used to deter campers. I’m almost certain that authors would donate audible books to the libraries to blare from speakers into the parking lot and sidewalks all night long. Maybe law-abiding citizens would pull up chairs, fill the parking lot and sidewalks, bring their popcorn, and treat it like a concert – an author reading without the author having to be present.

    Have a good weekend.

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    • I hope a library employee at a location experiencing the problems Joe’s post describes persuades management at the facility to set up an exterior speaker system and experiment with this proposal.

      Two potential issues that occur to me are that projecting sufficient noise to deter undesirable loitering might result in: 1) speaker sound wafting into the library every time an exterior door is opened 2) noise levels intruding into neighboring homes/businesses.

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    • Steve, I love that idea. Many libraries have audiobooks already so all it would take is some outside (protected) speakers and advance publicity. Well played! Thanks for the idea and for sharing your own local experiences.

      This reminded me…when my sons were young and misbehaved I would make them kneel down and listen to a CD of Gregorian chants. For those who don’t know…that consists of monks singing hymns in Latin. It worked!

      You have a great weekend as well, Steve. Thanks. And stay warm!

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  7. From the title of the article, I thought the topic would be about MacMillian Publishing and the tax-paying book haters instead of the two-legged barbarians. My library is part of the MacMillian resistance as are most of the libraries in North Carolina, and the city is happy to spend lots of bucks on the physical library. (See below)

    For my city, it’s drugs. A black friend described the problem as stupid black kids in gangs killing each other for the right to sell drugs to even stupider white people. So far, they’ve been happy to kill each other, relatives, and anyone unlucky enough to live in the general area where they live. The library isn’t that close to the mayhem, and I’ve heard of no problems in that area. Meanwhile, the city has put millions of dollars into a major refresh of the library, particularly the outside lots to include an outside venue for performances and a farmer’s market. In house security guards have always been a feature so the city has been proactive on that front. Knock on veneer that our big white bastion of books remains safe inside for the people who use it.

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    • Marilynn, how do you really feel? Seriously, I feel you’re on target. I won’t speak to your MacMillan comments, which are off-topic, but for those assembled who are unfamiliar with what Marilynn’s means about MacMillan please check out this article: https://www.wgbh.org/news/local-news/2020/01/06/inside-the-e-book-war-waging-between-libraries-and-publishers The MacMillan issue is prominently featured under the heading “The New Normal? Delaying and Denying Access.” BTW, it’s not just MacMillan. Amazon won’t sell the books under any of its imprints to libraries. Period.

      Marilynn, I have heard comments identical to those made by your friend from my own friends and acquaintances. It’s not just drugs, although that is certainly a large component of it. The genesis of the street beefs in which some of these individuals engage can be anything from an innocent brushing of shoulders — apparently the words “Pardon me” are outside of the lexicon — to “poaching” which can start by looking at someone’s girlfriend (or boyfriend). Reading would keep them busy and out of trouble. Thanks for commenting.

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  8. I live in the PNW, in a smallish town by comparison. Maybe 90,000 soaking wet. We have a local library out on the west side, and one downtown. The one downtown is not in an area I frequent, so I’m unable to speak knowledgeably about it. But the west side branch is a popular spot-across the street from a shopping center-and they host indie & trad authors, have a story time for the wees, etc. I’ve never heard of any issues there. If there are issues, it’d most likely be at the downtown branch. But our local media hasn’t covered anything.

    It’s too, too bad that we have come to this. Can we get a Readers United Against Library Shenanigans (RUALS) started?

    It seems like every day we’re moving closer to a Book of Eli society.

    Scary.

    On a side note, Joe: I need to get a look at some random police reports (research for my WIP, which includes a kidnapping, rape, and murder of a four-year-old girl). How can I go about that? I used to work at our local Sheriff’s Dept., but it was almost 40 years ago and things have changed. Shameless, I know, but do you have any ideas? Just need to know what they look like now.

    Thanks.

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    • Deb, it sounds like you have a smokin’ library there, very similar to what we are fortunate to have in my community of Westerville.

      Re: The Book of Eli…oh, absolutely. We’re closer than it appears at first blush.

      As far as looking at random police reports is concerned…the way in which you (or anyone else who might be interested) can do that varies markedly between municipal jurisdictions. Most will let you look at a specific report and sell you a copy. Others have reports which may be sanitized to some degree online. If you do a search of, say, “Corvallis police reports online” you might find something. If you don’t care where the reports come from, you can check the City of Columbus Police site, which includes an alternative for searching by location/date/crime type. Start at http://www.columbuspolice.org/Reports/ by clicking on the “Get Started” button and then click on the location/date/crime “go” button. You have all sorts of alternatives, from parts of the city (Zones 2, 3, and 5 are the most interesting) to the entire city, or you can also select reports by crime. Good luck! Hope that helps.

      I have also been told by a number of real estate friends that, if you are new to a city and want to know about the area you happen to be in, all you have to do is go into a fast food restaurant. If the salt, pepper, and sugar packets are displayed, it’s a good area. If you have to ask for them, it’s not.

      Anyway, good luck Deb and feel free to contact me if you have any questions.Thanks for being here today.

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        • Great, Deb! Point of clarification…this just applies to fast food places like McDonald’s, BK, KFC, etc.

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  9. Oh, that sounds dreadful, Joe. {{{hugs}}} I can’t even imagine how disheartening that could be.

    We’re lucky around here, in our quaint country community. The library remains a safe place for children, adults, and well-behaved dogs who’ve learned how to shush. 🙂

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    • Thanks for sharing, Sue, but don’t tell anybody. The Visgoths will hear about your slice of paradise and invade!

      Those well-behaved dogs…can I assume with a degree of certainty that they are not beagles?

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  10. It is sad to hear of violence reaching out even to the libraries, but I am not surprised after seeing national news and traveling to more urban areas in other states.

    Crime in general is low here in Idaho, so our public areas, especially libraries are safe places. Then, Idaho doesn’t have a high population, Boise Metro area being the biggest at 600,000 with over half the entire population of the state. (1 million). The small community we live in has a population of 4000. We drive to The City (45,000) a half hour drive away to do our big shopping. In the 40 years our subdivision has existed, there has not been a single crime, none.

    So, in conclusion I am happy to report that our libraries are flourishing, the one in our little community and in the other towns and cities. Even Boise library felt safe when we visited there.

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    • Cecilia, I have a friend who moved here from Boise and regrets it every single day. Idaho Thanks for sharing. I’m glad that you are still living in what passes for civilization these days.

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  11. Here in my town people still respect the library. Thank goodness. Unfortunately, the library I went to when I was a kid in Memphis is no longer a library…it makes me sad because I spent a lot of days in that library. I hate what’s happening at the library in Ohio. That’s just sad.

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    • I’ve lived long enough to have libraries disappear as well, Patricia. I’m happy to hear that libraries are still places respected by all in your town. I hope we can get things back to normal — whatever that is — here. Thanks for stopping by.

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  12. Hi Joe,

    Libraries nation-wise are definitely dealing with these sorts of challenges. I worked for Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon, for 32 years (retiring to write full-time at the end of December). Our system was full-funded, especially compared to other systems. We had a finely honed set of behavior rules, and many of our branches, as well as the Central Library, have library security officers.

    Many of the behavioral problems stem from homelessness, along with alcohol and drug abuse. We worked very hard as a staff to make sure the library system is a safe space, but it was challenging at many locations. Lots of incident reports. I was fortunate in that my particular branch had very few such problems.

    Patrons who violated a rule or rules could be excluded from library premises for an extended period of time, including up to three years. (My favorite rule violation was failing to follow the reasonable direction of library staff, in case we had to exclude someone for the day).

    As others have noted, it’s a set of challenges society as a whole face. Libraries are open to one and all, as they should be, but that means they carry additional burdens.

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  13. Hi Dale,

    Thanks for the in-depth comments. I was hoping to hear from a couple of folks who either were presently or had been on the front lines of dealing with the problem. I have a friend who left employment in our local system several years ago because of the problems you outlined. It sounds like a day-to-day battle.

    Good luck with your new job!

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