Being a Public Librarian Can Be Dangerous Work, Why Don’t We Acknowledge That?

From Electric Lit:

The day of the incident it had been only me and Ms. Roberts at the circulation desk. I was one month into the job and used to calling these kinds of things “incidents” by then. The yelling was coming from the Adult Fiction section, an area with four tables that made up the far-right corner of the larger square that was the library. Walls of tall bookcases made it into its own square, and it was impossible to see into it unless you were standing right within it. Only one chair, tucked in between the emergency exit and a single bookcase—the Fiction A’s—could be seen from the circulation desk. A few weeks earlier, a patron had overdosed while sitting in it, his skin already blue by the time someone at the desk noticed and called 911.

I knew it was Christian who was yelling before I reached him. He was a regular patron who kept his cell phone in a holster on his hip and a Bluetooth piece in his ear, loudly taking frequent phone calls until an employee would tell him to hang up or take it outside. The other two people sitting at the table with him kept their eyes fixed down as he yelled up at an older woman who was standing near him. I recognized her by the long flowing dress and colorful silk headscarf she always wore, but I did not know her name. The woman often annoyed other patrons by asking to borrow items from them—a cell phone, a tissue, a bit of their food—and would hover until she got a yes. Whatever she had asked him for that day annoyed him to a point where he had been saying “fuck you” for a while, obviously angry, but I don’t know that anyone expected what happened next.

Christian stood and used both of his hands to shove the woman backward as hard as he could. Her thin body flew into the wooden bench behind her and her head audibly cracked on contact before she rolled to the floor.

I instantly started to yell. “Out! Out! Get out!”

The other patrons finally looked up, most of them staring at me. I was the woman with pink hair, the newest hire who was usually the most patient and friendly at the circulation desk, yet here I was now, angry and yelling.

Christian turned toward me, shouting how he’d done nothing and I didn’t know shit. Spit was flying from his mouth. Two patrons I didn’t know were cradling the woman’s head as she lay sprawled out on the floor next to the bench. I tried to check for blood while simultaneously watching Christian.

. . . .

Libraries are often referred to in warm language: safe place, sanctuary, freedom granting, for all. There is the famous Jorge Luis Borges quote: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” And similar sentiments from Albert Einstein: “The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.” From Ray Bradbury: “Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.” From Judy Blume: “I think of libraries as safe havens for intellectual freedom. I think of how many times I’ve been told about a librarian who saved a life by offering the right book at the right time.” And Margaret Atwood: “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library.”

Warm understandings of libraries have long permeated our media as well: the Breakfast Club members find comradery in their school library, Hermione and Harry and Ron discover life-saving solutions and spells at the Hogwarts Library, Belle finds sanctuary and a sense of Beast’s humanity in his private library, Mrs. Phelps offers Matilda the beginning of her exit from an abusive home, the cast of The Magicians frequent the library for answers and deep conversations, and so on. 

. . . .

There is nothing incorrect about any of these beautiful assertions or imagined scenarios. But there remains a somewhat perplexing overarching social assumption that libraries are social equalizers and asylums from the rest of the world in ways that no other American institutions quite are—that libraries are good, as opposed to the bad people sometimes ascribe to museums and other shared spaces that have been criticized for being elitist and otherwise exclusionary or fraught.

When I tell someone for the first time that I was a librarian for seven years, their face usually lights up. Sometimes they want to tell me about their childhood library, or the last time they went to their local branch, or ask if I’ve read a particular book. Sometimes they just want to know what the work was really like. Was it quiet all the time? Did I read books all day? Did I have to go to school for that? Do I have glasses? Did I shhh?

They often tell me, last, about how much they love libraries. I tell them I do too.

And I do.

. . . .

In my own social circles, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like libraries, even if they haven’t patronized one in decades. According to the American Library Association’s (ALA) State of America’s Libraries Report  2019, there are more public libraries—16,568—in the United States than Starbucks cafés—14,606. 100 percent of those public libraries provide Wi-Fi and nearly 100 percent offer no-fee access to computers. The ALA’s 2020 report notes that “the popularity of libraries is surging” and cites a 2019 Gallup survey poll that visiting the library is the most common cultural activity Americans engage in “by far,” with US adults taking an average of 10.5 trips to the library, “a frequency that exceeded their participation in eight other common leisure activities. Americans attended live music or theatrical events and visited national or historic parks roughly four times a year on average and visited museums and  gambling casinos 2.5 times annually.”

The State of America’s Libraries reports are released during National Library Week every April as annual summaries of library trends, and they include statistics and issues affecting all types of libraries, including public ones. The State of America’s Libraries Report 2019 notably states that public libraries “are a microcosm of the larger society. They play an important and unique role in the communities that they serve and provide an inclusive environment where all are treated with respect and dignity. No longer just places for books, our public libraries serve as a lifeline for some of our nation’s most vulnerable communities.” The report goes on to note that “homelessness and addiction are two of the most difficult issues facing communities today. They often go hand in hand.”

The ALA notes on its website that “[unhoused people] face a wide range of challenges including lack of affordable housing, employment opportunities, healthcare, and other needed services. As many public  librarians know, with no safety net to speak of, homeless citizens often turn to the library for help.” It is common for libraries to be patronized by marginalized and vulnerable groups, whether they are in rural,  suburban, or city settings, for a wide variety of reasons including free access to a temperature-controlled environment, clean drinking water,  and Wi-Fi, and computers—because, of course, all public libraries are shared spaces. They do not exclude anyone, including people suffering from addiction, trauma, mental health struggles, and other internal, and often externalized, battles. 

That unhoused people regularly patronize libraries has become more commonly known in recent years and is a fact that impacts some library users’ desire to visit certain branches in their local library systems. Although there is no statistic on this, my own experience working within the DC Public Library system showed me time and again that the majority of middle- and upper-class library patrons who wanted to sit and work at a library preferred to visit branches in certain neighborhoods around the District over others, even if it was not their closest neighborhood branch. These same people would comfortably pick up holds from their local branch because it did not require them to linger in the space, but they opted for other libraries if they wanted to stay for longer than a few minutes. I have close friends in New York City, Portland, Seattle, Bethlehem, Buffalo, and DC who have similar practices and preferences. Some of them take their children to library story times as well, but again, there are branches in their local library systems where they would choose not to take their children and where they would prefer not to pick up books or try to work, whether that is something they can comfortably admit or not. It is obvious through data that libraries are still regularly used all over the country by people from all races and socioeconomic statuses, but the reasons they use libraries differ greatly. While library usage remains statistically prevalent and on the rise, I continue to be interested in the question of by whom, where, and for what reasons.

. . . .

Two weeks before Christian assaulted the woman, I had been in the Adult Fiction area reshelving books. The collection was often disorganized—a  side effect not so much of being understaffed, but of staff never agreeing whose job it was to reshelve—and the disarray often doubled how long it took to find the correct place for books on the shelf. Generally, I didn’t  mind reshelving, but I tried to never linger in the area. Male coworkers had warned me early on not to—female employees were particularly vulnerable back there. If something was going to go wrong, it was going to go wrong in the Adult Fiction area. 

I was on my tiptoes that day, impatiently searching spines for the letters PAT when I heard him from behind me. 

“There’s my White girl with a booty.” 

I went momentarily stiff and then shrank the only way I could shrink  in the moment—back down to flat feet, arms crossed protectively over my  chest, book pinned against my sternum with my pointer finger hooked  slightly on the plastic of the spine label, pressing my flesh into it. I had spent most of my adult life trying to avoid this exact situation: feeling cornered and vulnerable, especially around men. There was laughter—three, four, five male echoes of it—and I moved my body sideways instead of turning around to look. I tossed the James Patterson paperback on an otherwise emptied cart and beelined to our small back work office. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG’s reaction to the OP was that, if he had experienced anything remotely like what is described in the OP in ancient times when he worked in a large university library, he would have immediately quit and found a job waiting tables at a restaurant or something similar.

He understands that not everyone can make such a choice instantly, but it’s hard for him to believe that someone qualified to be a librarian couldn’t find alternate employment in most cities.

11 thoughts on “Being a Public Librarian Can Be Dangerous Work, Why Don’t We Acknowledge That?”

  1. “He understands that not everyone can make such a choice instantly, but it’s hard for him to believe that someone qualified to be a librarian couldn’t find alternate employment in most cities.”

    It took me seven years of doing temp work and odd jobs to find permanent employment after I left the library business – after ten years experience, 5 of which were as head of the electronic services division. Because people have this opinion about librarians: we’re quiet, meek and not really ready for the stress of ‘real’ work having spent our careers in the peace and quiet of sedate libraries.

    And there’s the fact it’s almost as much avocation as vocation, being a librarian. I still find myself pondering returning to the field I left almost two decades ago.

    • It sounds like I was a little flippant with my remark, K. Thanks for providing myself and, perhaps others, some additional clarity about the problems librarians may face in finding alternative employment.

  2. Waitresses have the same experiences that librarian had in the stacks, unfortunately. Feeling forced to leave a job you’ve trained for and are passionate about because you realize it’s unsafe is just depressing.

  3. My reaction is that the OP has not realized that she’s working in a homeless camp, that just happens to have a lot of books.

    So far as waitresses go, well, like libraries, there are good and bad. The good ones will have a manager in the hoodlums’ faces very quickly. (All too many places, of course, it doesn’t matter what kind of manager you have – because the government will very quickly be in their face about “discrimination.”)

    • I suspect that the daily experience of being a waitress in a bar full of drunken louts – London investment bankers say – is very different from anything PG normally experienced as a waiter.

  4. Many women – particularly those in jobs often held by educated and refined people, like librarians – are conflict-avoidant. Not with ALL people. Many can be confident and even somewhat abrasive with those who present no physical threat (such as those ‘horrible people’ who object to Drag Queen Story Hour).
    But, the ‘street people’ – those who are often dirty, smelly, chemically altered, and, many times, mentally unstable – cause an awkward refusal to set boundaries, confront their abuses of the library’s hospitality, and call in the cops.
    Fear? Surely, part of this is caused by a dread of physical assault. But, not all. Some of this is rigid adherence to the Liberal Gospel.
    What is the Liberal Gospel?
    One of its strongest tenets is that the poor (those whose income is largely provided by the government, but not earned) are uniquely to be catered to, given accomodations, and kept from contact with the Dreaded Po-Lice, who will surely and without ANY cause batter that poor person in a frenzy of abuse of power.
    And, that calling in the cops – no matter the cause – makes that Liberal complicit in that abuse. Just as guilty.
    Women are the most fervent believers in the Gospel. They are surrounded by other women, who (rather like the old-time fervent Stalinists) would turn in their own mother for breaking one of the precepts of that Gospel. And, women are particularly prone to avidly join in the shunning of any who fail to live up to ALL the rules.
    For a women to resist in any way, her verbal and/or physical abuse, puts her in a position to be One of the Bad Ones, and subject to harassment by her peers/superiors.
    And, Harvey W’s victims think THEY had it bad!

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