A $42 million makeover has transformed Hartford Public Library into a gleaming expanse of glass and well-lit, open space that warmly welcomes visitors.
Measured by a dramatic increase in library visits, the invitation has been widely accepted. The changes inside the library's three floors went beyond adding space, reconfiguring the layout and increasing the number of books, DVDs and computers. It's become a busier place, noisier and more vibrant, something in which chief Librarian Louise Blalock - named National Librarian of the Year in 2001 - takes pride.
But it's also a place where the behavioral norms traditionally associated with libraries are often breached, according to interviews with staff members and internal library reports obtained by The Courant.
The reports document drinking and drug use, with staff members reporting that empty liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia are often left in the restrooms. Sexual activity has been reported on several occasions. The problems reached the point where the restrooms on the library's second and third floors have been locked, according to library staff.
Acts of violence inside the library, while infrequent, do occur: In January, a patron complained of being robbed at gunpoint inside a first-floor restroom; internal reports say a subsequent investigation by security staff was unable to determine what happened.
The library also has a theft problem. Without a security system in place, CDs and DVDs disappear with regularity.
Blalock says such incidents happen from time to time and she is reluctant to institute a more restrictive environment because the library is - and needs to be - a place that welcomes all, a view shared by several past and present members of the library board.
Stephen B. Goddard, a longtime board member and past board president, said the incident reports are "nothing new" and are minute compared to the half-million-plus visitors who use the library each year.
"In 24 years, from time to time there have been a handful of incidents," Goddard said. "I have chalked that up to what any public institution in a hyperactive environment is going to face in cities today."
"To Louise, things like the rights of patrons are paramount," Goddard said, adding that the board feels fortunate to have had Blalock at the helm for the past 14 years.
Blalock, who spearheaded the library's transformation, said she decided not to set rules of behavior or install security cameras or theft detection devices and instead emphasizes a free and open environment. She said she has directed her staff not to call the police if they can safely escort a patron out of the building.
As a draft statement of principle for the library puts it: "All customers have a right to use the library according to their life and learning style as long as it does not interfere with the right of others to use the library."
But some employees say Blalock has taken that philosophy too far and has failed to deal with the realities of running a library in an urban setting - something library officials in cities across the country are confronting as they grapple with homelessness, drug use, gang activity and other ills.
In the name of openness, they complain, patrons are forced to endure the misbehavior of others. The result, they say, is a chaotic workplace. Some staffers say conditions have gotten so bad they decided to go public with their complaints that the administration has failed to provide adequate security.
The inadequate level of security "has pushed us to a point that people feel that they have to go public with it," said David Ionno, vice president of AFSCME Local 1716, the union that represents library workers. "There's going to be an incident where a librarian is going to get hurt."
The breaking point, for some, came with back-to-back incidents earlier this year. The first was an altercation outside the library that continued inside, then back outside to Arch Street, where a young man was stabbed. That was followed the next day by an incident in which an 11-year-old girl was picked up by three young men inside the library, taken to a city motel and raped.
Those incidents may have gone beyond the norm, but those who work at the library say it is the norm that is troubling. Staff incident reports reviewed by The Courant document 60 incidents - most occurring since January 2007 - of alleged acts of criminal or disturbing conduct. Library officials such as Blalock and Goddard say the number of incidents pales beside the visitation at the main branch, which is expected to reach 415,000 this fiscal year, ending June 30.
Drinking and drug use are particularly worrisome to library staff members, who say they are often forced to deal with intoxicated and belligerent patrons - a job for which they say they're not trained or qualified. Internal reports filed by staff members this year include several episodes, including one in which a patron was caught drinking in the bathroom and harassing a visitor.