When the Los Angeles Central Library reopens this fall, seven years after an arsonist set it on fire, it will have all the accouterments of a modern library--including 100 surveillance cameras, motion detectors and access-control doors.
In Sacramento, where a patron killed two librarians in April, their colleagues want panic buttons behind the desks. In Miami, libraries are hiring off-duty police officers and filling in windows to discourage break-ins.
In Chula Vista, where foiling taggers is a civic preoccupation, the new library will be coated with an “anti-graffiti melt” and ringed by a barricade of bougainvillea--chosen less for color than for its thorns.
A visit to the public library is not what it used to be.
As social problems such as drug abuse, homelessness and untreated mental illness overflow from the streets into public buildings, library officials across the country say they see a rise in crime and lesser disturbances that may be offensive but not criminal.
As a result, institutions once known for their open-armed embrace--seen by many as the most accessible and democratic of all public buildings--are taking unprecedented steps to fend off the outside world.
Closed-circuit TV cameras track visitors through library stacks. Security guards patrol the restrooms. Elaborate rules address matters of patron behavior, ranging from what users carry in to how they smell.
Such measures are far from universally popular. Many staff members are queasy about anything that seems to limit public access. Civil libertarians have begun tilting against such rules, saying they violate the Constitution.
“Library security really does walk a tightrope,” said Rachel MacLachlan, director of security for the San Francisco Public Library. MacLachlan was injured five times in 18 months, almost always in violent incidents.
“Everyone has a right to access, regardless of whether they are mentally disturbed or homeless. But if the vast majority of people don’t feel safe coming to your facility, you’re denying them access in a very real way.”
Although there is little hard data tracking crime and disruptive behavior in libraries, many librarians and security officials believe that the numbers are up--perhaps in part because several unusually shocking cases have focused attention on the problem.
The latest incident was the Sacramento shooting, which occurred April 18, shortly after a celebration of the library’s expanded hours. For reasons that remain unclear, a 38-year-old homeless man often seen in the library shot and killed two librarians. He died in a rooftop shootout with police.
Five months earlier, the head librarian in the rural community of Buckeye, Ariz., was sexually assaulted and stabbed more than 30 times in the library. A convicted rapist and child molester has been charged with her assault and murder.
There have been other, less dramatic cases.
In Atlanta, a private security guard, working in the main library and prohibited from carrying a gun on the job, nonetheless shot another guard to death in an argument in the library basement. In Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in July, a staff member opening a branch at 10 one morning escaped unharmed from a man with a knife.
In Brooklyn, thieves did tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage in June while stealing aluminum and copper from the air-conditioning systems in two branch libraries. In the Miami-Dade County system, reported crimes and disturbances have increased fourfold over the past year.
And in Las Vegas, library officials have found thousands of dollars worth of compact discs stolen from their collection in pawnshops throughout the city. In cities across the country, theft of videotapes for quick resale on the street has become a major problem.
“A library reflects the society in which it’s located,” said George Needham, executive director of the Public Library Assn. “It’s not an island. As violence has grown in the cities and suburbs and rural areas, it’s also grown in the libraries.”
As in many cities, San Francisco’s main library is downtown, near an area frequented by drug addicts. MacLachlan, the security director, said drug dealers congregate alongside the library--40 or 50 on a nice day.
“Most of those people come in to use our toilets. They also relieve themselves outside the building,” she said. “Keeping the outside of the building clean is a really serious problem.”
MacLachlan and her staff try to keep the block free of dealers, hoping that will help keep down problems inside the library and encourage patrons to come. But at one point, she recalled, with 60 to 100 people living beside the building, “we just gave up. I said it’s not safe for us to go out there.”
In Southern California too, library officials say they have seen crime increasing--while budget and staff cuts have made it harder to keep an eye out for trouble. Donald L. Buck, business manager for the Los Angeles Public Library, believes that the greatest increase has been in assaults, robberies and purse snatchings.
A recent survey of 175 Los Angeles city librarians by their union, the Librarians Guild, found that one out of three did not feel safe in the branch in which they worked. Two out of three said they wanted more protection.
Nevertheless, no officials in Southern California or elsewhere suggested that library users should stay away.
“There is a heightened sense of concern about security in general, and libraries are caught up in that like any other building type,” said Richard B. Hall of the library development bureau of the California State Library in Sacramento. “But I have never heard a patron say: ‘I’m not going to the library because it’s unsafe.’ ”
The very qualities that make libraries unique also make them vulnerable. They are among the most accessible and undiscriminating of public institutions. They may be the only public buildings open on evenings and weekends, said Alan Jay Lincoln, a criminologist who has studied library crime.
They are also used heavily by teen-agers, said Lincoln, a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell; teen-agers are disproportionately involved in crime in general as victims and as offenders. Furthermore, Lincoln said, Americans have relatively little respect for public property.
“Libraries are the only place in the country where a person can go for free and sit all day long and not have anyone bother them as long as they’re not breaking any rules,” said Susan Hildreth, a deputy director of the Sacramento Public Library. “But as resources become scarcer and scarcer, and we have less and less staff, we’re not able to monitor what goes on in the buildings sufficiently to be able to protect ourselves and the public.”
As a result, even smaller libraries are resorting to video surveillance, panic buttons and security guards. Doors to staff areas are kept locked. One system has a surveillance camera lens hidden in a fire sprinkler; if the camera were visible, officials figure, it would be stolen.
In San Diego, two new libraries in affluent, suburban areas are equipped with surveillance cameras and monitors. In Dade County, Fla., windows are being replaced with glass block to prevent break-ins, and off-duty police officers are being hired as guards.
In Sacramento, the park benches in front of the main library are under suspicion--by the police, not the library staff. The police have recommended replacing the benches with smaller, backless seating less inviting to transients.
In Tulsa, the city-county library system recently increased staffing so no worker would ever be alone in a library. Several Los Angeles libraries use motion detectors hooked to Polaroid cameras. One has already identified and caught a thief.
“Librarians have become more cautious about the one-to-one contacts they have with people,” said David Smith, a consulting librarian from Hopkins, Minn. “There seems to be a lot greater interest on the part of libraries that I work with of the need to protect.”
Many problems libraries experience are not crimes--they are nuisances. But that doesn’t make them any less difficult to control. The most controversial of the new policies has turned out to be rules governing patron conduct--everything from drunkenness, bad hygiene and disruptive behavior to panhandling, exhibitionism and sexual harassment of staff.
Sexual harassment is widespread, say some officials, including Will Manley, director of the Tempe, Ariz., public library, who published a survey form in American Libraries magazine in January asking staffers how often they had been sexually harassed by patrons.
According to the results, made available at a meeting in Boston in June, 22% of the 3,758 people who responded said they had been harassed weekly in the previous 12 months. Forty percent said they had been harassed monthly; 7% said daily.
Most said the harassment was visual, such as staring, leering and flashing, and verbal, such as threats and obscene language. But 40% said they had experienced physical harassment, such as touching or being followed.
But when the Freeport, Ill., library recently tried to ban a 40-year-old man who had handed a sexually explicit letter to a young clerk, the man took the library to court charging that it had denied him his 1st Amendment right of access to information.
The man’s lawyer contends that his client simply wanted a date but was shy and went about it in the wrong way. The library accused him of harassment, which library officials said was grounds for expulsion under an unwritten policy governing patrons who harass or intimidate staff members.
In July, a federal judge refused to grant the library’s request for summary judgment, concluding that the unwritten policy was so vague that it unreasonably limited the patron’s rights.
In his ruling, the judge cited a similar but better-known case--that of Richard Kreimer, a homeless man who sued the library of Morristown and Morris Township, N.J., after it evicted him for staring at other patrons and having offensive body odor.
A federal judge sided with Kreimer. But an appeals court overturned the ruling last year, saying a library may enforce such rules if they are reasonable and fairly applied and if they impinge as little as possible on the right of access to information.
“So the library has to balance the legitimate security needs of all its users and its staff against the equally legitimate rights of all its users to access to services,” said Gordon Conable, president of the Freedom to Read Foundation, which helps litigate 1st Amendment issues relating to libraries.
In Las Vegas, advocates for the homeless challenged a policy under which the libraries wanted to expel people whose odor was offensive at two yards or so. They also challenged another policy barring people from bringing large bundles, such as bedding, into the library.
As a result, library officials agreed to call in a mediator to render an opinion on a person’s odor whenever they want to expel someone. And they agreed to install in every library a special container to serve as an objective measure of whether a person’s parcel is too big.
“We have been forced to be the solution to a problem that the city has not dealt with,” said Charles W. Hunsberger, director of libraries in Las Vegas, referring to the way social problems, such as homelessness, have spilled into libraries. “But I think this is a much broader responsibility. It is not a library responsibility.”