Running an urban public library is in part a balancing act. The library must be open to all who want information, but must be ready to deal with the small percentage of patrons who misbehave.
A recent Courant article on the Hartford Public Library suggests the pendulum had swung too far toward access, at the expense of security. The story described problems with patrons using alcohol and drugs or engaging in sexual activity in the restrooms, as well as the theft of CDs and DVDs.
Prompted by the article, the library's directors are creating a task force made up of board members, patrons and staff members to address the issues. The group will include a mental health professional for advice on handling crises. The plan is to hire a library security consultant and to develop security benchmarks from other urban libraries. The board is also looking into anti-theft devices.
These problems aren't new to Hartford — or to other urban libraries — but have been exacerbated here by the $42 million expansion of the downtown library completed late last year, which has resulted in larger crowds. Attendance was up 74 percent in the first three months of this year over the same period last year. In the first quarter of 2008, there were 26 incidents reported at the downtown library involving disturbances, drugs or other untoward behavior.
The library's directors have taken the first steps to ensure the safety and comfort of staff and patrons. Libraries are vitally important to cities; they've provided the spark of literacy and learning to countless new arrivals and other residents over the years. This critical function, as important today as it ever was, cannot be derailed by a few bad actors.
The library incidents underscore another problem. Among the small number of troublemakers are homeless people and unsupervised mental health patients. Not all such folks cause trouble; some read or play chess. But those who cannot behave in the library need another setting, preferably with services available.
The city's homelessness task force can be a help here by creating that setting. The newly expanded library has scores of wonderful programs, from lectures, films and mayoral debates to English as a second language classes, films and homework help. It's become a focal point of the community. It should not be a default day shelter as well.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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