Safety in Libraries: a Continuum

Civil Liberties, Diversity, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Policies

By: James LaRue, former Director, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom

Consider the following scenarios:

Shadow of patron opening a book between library shelves
  1. A patron enters the library wearing a MAGA hat.
  2. There is a Muslim study group in one small meeting room, and about an equal number of Proud Boys (an alt-right group very active these days in the Pacific Northwest) in an adjacent room. The groups park in the same parking lot, walk past each other within the building, and visit the same restrooms.
  3. An older white man reads the paper. Then a boisterous group of teenagers settles into the next table. They’re talking and teasing one another, and the older man looks up in annoyance.
  4. A young Latina does her high school homework, alone at a table. A group of burly white men in their early 20s sit down at the next table, and start making comments about “illegal Mexicans” who are “vermin.” There are sidelong, sneering glances at the young woman.

I’ve had many discussions with librarians about what it means when we talk about safety in the library. I’d like to offer an approach I’ll call the continuum of safety, offered from the perspective of the patron, the person who uses the library but is not a member of the staff. My goal is to establish a framework for the supervision of public space, in keeping with the values of the profession. In future blogs, I’ll try to dig into this a little deeper.

The continuum

Let’s call the most positive end of the continuum “welcoming.” The patron experience is personal and positive. Users are greeted warmly and by name. Staff immediately offer a book, a movie, a program they know in advance will be of keen interest. This is the ongoing renewal of a pre-existing relationship. Patrons know that the building is abuzz with interesting options. Many patrons know and trust each other. The library is clean, comfortable, and altogether pleasant.

Continuum arrow

The next point on the graph is “friendly and professional.” While they may not have a personal history with every patron, staff are unfailingly positive and polite. I believe that one of the most important things library workers do is simply to smile at strangers. Patrons know that they can have a healthy and productive experience. They know staff will be helpful as needed. The social environment of the library is courteous and mutually respectful.

The next point is “neutral.” By this I do not mean ideologically ambivalent. I mean that the library experience is just ok, the midpoint of the continuum. The staff doesn’t interfere with patron use of the library. Other users mostly keep to themselves. There may not be awesome service or interactions, but people are assured the quiet enjoyment of the premises. The library itself is neither sparklingly new, nor decrepit. It remains, however, accessible to all.

Now we move to the areas of concern. Let’s call this next position on the continuum “discomfort.” Patrons share space with people whose backgrounds or perspectives may be very different from their own. There can be tension between them. Some groups distrust others, based either on prior experience, or beliefs about their beliefs. Generally, two elements of the library — norms of behavior predicated on policy, and the supervision of space by staff — still allow everyone to be reasonably confident that violence will not result. Discomfort can also be physical: poor light, broken windows, distressed furniture. There is the potential for conflict and injury.

The next step over is “harassment.” A group or individual is actively interfering with the library use of another. These kinds of behavior certainly include physical confrontation short of violence — deliberately blocking someone’s path, or looming over or surrounding someone, for instance. But harassment can also include speech, as in deliberately offensive comments whose intent is to make someone uncomfortable or unwelcome. This is not just discourtesy or rudeness. It is intimidating behavior. The library definitely feels unsafe, and that lack of safety is objectively observable.

Finally, there is the threat or manifestation of “physical harm.” Pushing. Shoving. Knocking over possessions. Brandishing weapons. A library facility can also be dangerous. Some libraries in the United States have collapsing roofs, dark and dingy stairwells, or are located in high crime areas.

Library worker response

The vast majority of library experiences fall into the first three categories. Most library patrons are safe both physically and emotionally, aren’t harassed, and aren’t in imminent danger. I’d like to emphasize, too, that for some, the mere presence of content whose perspective one finds offensive LGBTQ materials that conflict with one’s religious beliefs, or religious materials that condemn one’s sexual identity do cause genuine discomfort and even emotional pain. But we cannot resolve that discomfort without deliberate suppression of both sides. The library mission is access to the world of stories and ideas. Library staff can be non-judgmental and supportive; but we cannot require that attitude in all library users. We can only set boundaries of behavior, and, in some cases, offer a forum to consider issues more deeply.

At the bad end of the continuum — violence and physical harm — it’s clear that action is required. Human beings do misbehave, do injure one another, and a prompt phone call to the police is sometimes the only right answer. Libraries cannot abandon the physical safety of their users.

Similarly, few librarians would argue that patrons should be allowed to harass one another. Anyone who works in public space has been called upon to tell someone to knock if off, or risk expulsion. While patrons targeted by harassment do feel unsafe, our interference is not predicated on our ability to discern their feelings. It is based on observable behavior that that actively interferes with their right to use the library.

But there are significant grey areas in the distance between harassment and discomfort. Let’s go back to the original scenarios.

  • A patron enters the library wearing a MAGA hat. The courts have given “strict scrutiny” to any government activity which restricts the right to express a political opinion. Many key court cases have clearly indicated the use of clothing to express “speech” (Tinker, which addressed students wearing a black armband to protest the Vietnam War, is one example). Wearing a cap with a message does not itself constitute harassment.
  • Muslims and Proud Boys in adjacent rooms. While there may be discomfort, one might argue that the library is providing something in short supply: a place where people who disagree can coexist, non-violently. But staff would and should be alert to a behavioral shift.
  • An older white man reads the paper, then teenagers get loud around him. Again, this would be discomfort on the part of the older white man. Even when the staff intervenes to adjust volume levels (provided that they don’t hold only teenagers to that standard), we’re still not talking harassment.
  • A young Latina bears the brunt of comments about “illegal Mexicans” who are “vermin,” and sidelong, sneering glances. This behavior has clearly crossed the line. Although this is speech, it is intended to interfere with the right of a patron to use public space. This is the moment for a strong statement to the men about norms of behavior, and a warning that further misbehavior will result in being expelled from the library.

In many places in America, including libraries, we find ample evidence of privilege. But library policies exist not to protect the powerful; rather, they allow everyone to examine the evidence of the culture, and to articulate their own stories and concerns. Clarity about the difference between speech and action, about when library staff need to step in to restrict speech, is essential.

Hateful conduct

During my time as director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, we collaborated with the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services (ODLOS) to craft a resource to aid library workers in their response to difficult situations: “Hateful Conduct in Libraries: Supporting Library Workers and Patrons.” This guide can be used by libraries as they initiate conversations among staff members and within their communities. The guide is divided into three sections:

Postcard of the Hateful Conduct in Libraries resource, with quotes from newspapers about hateful conduct in libraries
  1. Proactive Preparation (What strategic steps can I take to prepare in the event hateful conduct situations occur within the library?)
  2. Responding to an Incident (What do I do if hateful conduct is directed at me, a colleague, or a patron, and how do I follow-up?)
  3. Meeting Community Needs (How do I balance access to all viewpoints while also identifying and supporting historically marginalized perspectives?)

Each section begins with a list of questions received by the ALA related to hateful conduct and free speech, followed by statements to consider before, during, and after a hateful incident. Each section ends with suggestions on how to support library staff and patrons.

Jamie LaRue is a former public library administrator, former director of OIF and the Freedom to Read Foundation, and a current consultant and speaker.

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