Monday, July 7, 2008

Library Safety and Security, Part I: Dayton Metro Library and Patron Perception

I recently ran across a Daytonology post from earlier this year about Dayton Metro Library's high volume of homeless patrons at its main branch. The main library is right next to the heart of downtown, while Cooper Park is located directly behind the building. The park's usage has been a particular source of controversy over the past few years; it used to serve as a site for homeless feedings until the city banned them in 2005. Now, with only one daytime homeless shelter in Dayton, Cooper--along with the library--remain a relatively safe rest area for the homeless.

As for the complaints that the Daytonology reader and blogger express, I'm a bit torn. On one hand, they're expressing questions and frustrations that are familiar to other libraries. I attended an Ohionet workshop a couple of weeks ago entitled "Dealing with Unacceptable Behavior in the Library: Protecting Patrons and Staff." Our library has witnessed a couple of serious rule violations this year involving non-student patrons, and I figured that we needed to clarify some safety procedures for managing future problems. But working in a private library that predominantly serves law students must have sheltered me, because I was initially surprised at how almost all of the public librarians and staff at the workshop expressed concerns about pervasive problems that they face. Some of these problems (such as vastly inappropriate sexual and bodily activity) pose quite a threat to the role of their public libraries as safe and democratic spaces. Concerns about drugs, prostitution, and homelessness at Dayton's mail library--as well as how those activities may affect staff morale and patron accessibility--should be no different.

Yet on the other hand--and at the risk of remaining naive--I would still agree with some of the more skeptical comments to this post. I normally go to the Wilmington-Stroop branch that is closest to my apartment, but have been to the main branch enough times to know that the homeless most certainly have not "overrun" it. I would also want to know more information about drug activity (admittedly, a possibility) and prostitution (quite a stretch) directly from librarians and staff before making such claims. And even in the case of illegal activity, it's reprehensible to automatically assume or insinuate that the homeless are the root source of the problem. Yes, the presence of homeless people during the daytime may still raise questions concerning space and usage. But as one commenter rightly notes, "If there is outright illegal activity going on there, then the staff and security guards are perfectly within their rights to tell a perpetrator to hit the bricks. If someone is not being disruptive, however, [then] they have a public right to use the public library."

So we must face the reality that there are several safety and security issues that can adversely affect patron perception of the libraries that they use. But they--we--also have to avoid lazy generalizations and stereotyping that can cloud one's assessment of these issues. How is this possible? I'm certainly not an expert, but I want to explore this topic a bit further in my next post, considering both public libraries and university libraries like Zimmerman that are more limited in access.

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