Not Your Childhood Library

Central is a five-story building that gets quieter the higher you go. Dillon Young, the library’s services manager, walked me around one day—the stacks, the study rooms, the gas fireplace that no longer works. Library staff were wheeling books around on red carts. We passed dozens of snoozing men. The main library in St. Paul, across the river, doesn’t allow patrons to sleep, but Minneapolis Central does, as long as they’re in a chair, not at a computer, and their face is exposed. Young said, “It’s not without its tensions.” We stopped to check on an alarmingly motionless man whose eyes were slightly open. My first thought was overdose, given the prevalence of fentanyl and other opioids. But the man was just sleeping. Anne Rojas, a librarian who works the main information desk, later told me, “If you’re out on the streets all night, you don’t get much rest.”

When the sight of marginalized people makes another patron feel uncomfortable, the library tends to hear about it. “There are massive unmet needs in our society, but it should not fall to the library to try to meet all of them. It would be better if other county departments, non-profits, etc. could attempt to meet those needs, and allow the library to be a library,” one person wrote, in a recent library-system survey, adding that Central had “alienated traditional library users.” In another survey, a patron complained about “people sleeping like a flophouse.” These types of remarks are rare, though. In the second survey, ninety-six per cent of respondents reported positive experiences, though they’d prefer more parking and cleaner desks. One patron griped, “Never do you see any conservative-leaning books on display.”

Librarygoers have correctly pointed out that employees probably didn’t receive training for the job that they’re currently doing. Nobody becomes a librarian to break up fistfights and tell patrons to quit peeing in the drinking fountain. “A lot of people come into the public library, or go into librarianship, and are shocked by the fact that it’s not their childhood library,” Rojas said. “It can be exhausting to see so many people who need so much, or who have so little.” In the early twentieth century, one of Countryman’s employees was said to have quit because he was “tired of doing ‘missionary work.’ ”

At Central, uniformed security officers make regular rounds and carry pepper spray, and there are panic buttons for staff throughout the building. In recent years, patrons have been written up, escorted out, and banned—for anywhere from a day to a year—for violating a no-trespass order; drinking (malt liquor, beer, brandy, vodka); smoking cigarettes; smoking meth; shooting up fentanyl; using a crack pipe; calling people “bitches” and homophobic slurs; calling security officers the N-word, “dirty-ass wigwam,” and “motherfucker Somali pig”; spitting at staff; flipping people off; peeing on the floor; masturbating at a computer; having sex in the rest room; telling security “I will fuck you up” and “Suck my dick!”; threatening to return with a gun; and punching a woman in the back of the head for no apparent reason, according to the hundreds of incident reports that I read via a public-records request. Four hundred and twenty patrons were banned from Central in 2023, according to the library, though most disruptions were minor enough to manage without involving the police. (About six hundred and twenty thousand people visited the library that year.) One patron recently wrote, on Reddit, “Given that my wife and child witnessed a fistfight with thrown chairs in a library, yeah, I’m all for these kinds of bans.” Scott Duimstra, the director of the Hennepin County Library system, told me, “Whatever’s happening out in the world walks through our doors.”

Until fairly recently, “there was a mentality of push and pull between library staff and security,” Young, the library-services manager, said. A county security official once told him, “You guys want to keep people in, and we want to kick people out.” The new model for hiring and recruiting security is embodied by Brandon Butler, a big guy with calm energy who was promoted to security supervisor because, as Young put it, “he recognized the humanity in our patrons even when he had to enforce the rules.”

Security officers undergo training in de-escalation, crisis intervention, implicit bias, and “trauma-informed” response. “A lot of people are just struggling with mental-health issues,” Kayla Goley, the security division’s training coördinator, explained in a recent Webinar. She mentioned responding to a call involving a man who could not stop screaming about the cost of replacing his birth certificate; by speaking to him slowly and calmly, Goley learned that he had just lost his mother. She told the Webinar participants, “When people are in a crisis, their brain is in survival mode.”

Social workers began embedding at libraries when it became clear that libraries attract patrons who might never show up at another government building. Hansen-Miller, who previously worked at a hospital, calls it “meeting people where they are.” The San Francisco Public Library, in 2009, became the first of the nation’s seventeen thousand or so public libraries to appoint a full-time social worker. Social workers and social-work students can now be found in libraries from Denver to Philadelphia.

In their book “Whole Person Librarianship,” Sara K. Zettervall and Mary C. Nienow, a librarian and a social worker, respectively, noted that in 2018 alone the number of collaborations between libraries and social workers doubled, to more than a hundred. They wrote, “With the advent of libraries serving as safe spaces in the midst of unrest (see Ferguson Public Library) and librarians rediscovering the power of information literacy post-U.S. election, many more of us are searching for tools to foster empathy and understanding in ourselves and our communities.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *