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Refuge for readers can be risky

Times Staff Writer

Sara Adler put a real estate book on hold and was about to retrieve some information on California law schools when the lobby of the Mark Twain Library in South Los Angeles erupted in chaos.

From her post behind the reference desk, she heard yelling and looked up to see six men punching and stomping a man on the floor. She picked up a phone and dialed 911.

With police and an ambulance on the way, the attackers fled. Adler comforted the injured young man, who was bloody, shirtless and barely conscious.

His blood was spattered on the wall and floor. A discarded razor blade was found nearby.

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The attack at the library branch at 97th and Figueroa streets occurred shortly before noon Aug. 29, two days after the Mark Twain staff met with city officials to ask for increased security to stop groups of neighborhood toughs from disrupting -- and even taking over -- the branch.

“In our history, we have been the neutral place, the community place,” said city Librarian Fontayne Holmes, who attended the community meeting along with representatives of the district attorney’s office, the Los Angeles Police Department and the chief of library security. “We are part of the solution, not the problem.”

But at Mark Twain, she said, “there have been groups of anywhere from half a dozen to 30 [young men] intimidating and harassing patrons and what it has done, until we brought in help, was prevent people in the community from using this important service.”

Since the August attack, library officials have stationed two security guards at the branch, and the loud, combative youths have moved on.

But some of the city’s libraries continue to struggle with crime. At the Jefferson branch, six windows were smashed this month by gang members seeking a man who hid inside until police gave him a ride home. At the Exposition branch, an August shooting outside the library’s main door prevented patrons from leaving until security arrived. Last spring, a principal at a charter school sent a letter to parents, urging students not to go to the Hyde Park-Miriam Matthews Public Library because children were being “taunted, harassed and intimidated by the students [from nearby schools].”

Over the course of 18 months, city libraries have tallied nearly 1,500 reports of problems; most have been minor infractions such as disputes over computer time, but several staff reports detail more significant complaints of public nuisances, thefts, assaults and vandalism.

In response to growing concern over security, the president of the Librarians’ Guild, which represents 400 librarians, has asked that security guards be permanently posted at troubled branches and that additional guards rove between branches to decrease response time.

“Unsafe situations in the Los Angeles Public Library System have put our patrons and staff at risk,” Roy Stone, the guild’s president, wrote in a letter to city officials, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “It is imperative that patrons and library staff be protected [and] violent and aggressive patrons dealt with.”

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Stone said that there have been instances of cherry bombs and stink bombs being thrown in the public reading areas at Mark Twain and that a man overdosed in the restroom of the Central Library.

Los Angeles’ public libraries have a security force of 37 officers, at least 21 of whom are stationed in downtown’s Central facility. The rest are spread out over the 71 branches. Library security officers are supervised by the city’s Office of Public Safety.

Plans are underway to beef up security. Library administrators want to purchase surveillance cameras for some branches. The Office of Public Safety plans to ask for more money to hire nine additional security officers for the libraries and 14 armed officers, who will divide their time between parks and library branches.

“Security is every employee’s job,” said David Aguirre, deputy chief of the city Department of General Services, which oversees the Office of Public Safety. “We can’t wait until we are the victim of crime. We have to be proactive in our institution.”

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Earlier this year, the city’s library officials rewrote codes of conduct to allow security guards to evict patrons with offensive body odor. Administrators also hired security consultants to train librarians -- including Warren Graham, an instructor who wrote a book titled “Black Belt Librarian: Every Librarian’s Real World Guild to a Safe Workplace.”

“Most people who work in libraries are passive by nature,” said Graham, who instructed L.A. librarians for a week in April. “So it’s difficult for them, at times, to say no or to eject people from the library. That goes against the grain of their nature.”

Graham, who once ran library security for the city of Charlotte, N.C., said he teaches a strategy of how to calm a situation when handling potential troublemakers.

“You have to stop what you’re doing, look at them and really listen to what they are saying,” he said. “I talk about the different emotional levels that patrons may be experiencing. They may be civil but at the same time upset about something.”

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Today’s libraries, Graham said, are experiencing an increased level of tension because they have become places where people gather to use computers.

“Folks come in and use the Internet and do e-mail, and there are unintended consequences of that,” he said. “Libraries are bringing in a whole other faction of society, [people who] are not traditional library users. The libraries are being overwhelmed because they have so many computers, and they don’t have enough staff to do traditional library work and monitor the computers.”

Computers have helped fuel an explosion in library usage. The city’s Central Library and its 71 branches recorded 16 million visits last year -- up from 10 million a decade ago. Over the last seven years, the number of computers available for use by the public doubled to 2,300. Branches offer wireless access to the Internet for those with laptops.

“It’s a public library, a public space, and so we do welcome all kinds of people,” said Cheryl Collins, a library regional manager. “And while there are reports that some gangs are there recruiting and people are looking at things we wish they were not looking at, most of [what takes place] -- 98% -- is exactly what we want going on there.”

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Nonetheless, few branches have been spared trouble: In the North Hollywood branch, two people were discovered having sex on the floor in the women’s restroom. At the Cahuenga branch in Hollywood, a patron said he saw a man masturbating. Patrons at the Westchester-Loyola branch said they saw a man viewing nude pictures of underage boys on the Internet. And empty syringes were found in the restroom at the Venice branch.

Since the beginning of the year, the staff at Mark Twain has filed more than 100 incident reports, most involving petty public confrontations. But other incidents have been more serious. A weekend drive-by shooting broke a window and left a bullet hole in a wall; there have been threats against the staff. A car window was smashed in the parking lot; graffiti in the bathrooms and on the building is a constant.

A bench outside Mark Twain was removed after it became a hangout for prostitutes. And patrons were told they would have to get a key to use the restroom after a woman was discovered bathing out of a sink.

Despite its problems, the brightly colored, 5-year-old branch is crowded most afternoons and Saturdays. Seats in front of all 30 computers are almost always filled.

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“We need to make these buildings the safe and welcoming environments they need to be for the community,” said Cynthia Merina, senior librarian at Mark Twain. “People shouldn’t feel the library is so unsafe that they don’t want to bring their children here.”

The atmosphere has made staff morale a problem. Merina said one angry patron threw coins across the library at a staff member. A tutor’s windshield was smashed and the air was let out of another’s tires. Merina’s license plate was stolen off her car.

Security problems have made it difficult to fill positions. A youth librarian went on stress leave after she was threatened by a regular patron at the branch. A woman was hired to be the children’s librarian but she never showed up. The position has been vacant since February.

Conditions have improved since two security officers were assigned to the branch, Merina said.

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Mike Guynn, a social worker, has seen the occasional outbursts but said he still enjoys bringing his 10-year-old daughter to the branch, where he is there to supervise her as she does her homework.

“There needs to be more control over the computers so that it’s not just a MySpace festival,” he said, looking at the teenagers. “But this is our branch. It’s a public institution, but where it’s located is in my community.”

At another branch, he said he might drop his guard a little and allow his daughter to roam a little more freely among the stacks of books, but he doesn’t at Mark Twain.

“I want her to be independent, but I also want her to be safe,” he said.

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john.mitchell@latimes.com


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