Months before its release, friends and family began sending me links to the movie trailer for “The Public.” It made them think of me, they said.
In the film, a passion project of actor-director Emilio Estevez, homeless patrons, unable to face another night in the subzero Cincinnati winter, refuse to leave, and “occupy” the public library. While critics and moviegoers may view aspects of “The Public” as dramatic license, for me it was the first time I ever saw my job reflected on the screen accurately.
I quit my job as a librarian last fall. It was not because I had become bored living out the hackneyed stereotype of a cat-eye-glasses-wearing librarian shushing patrons from behind an imposing mahogany desk. No, I left the library because I had begun to burn out and experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I’d been a school librarian for more than five years before taking a job at a branch within the Washington, D.C., public library system for the last nine months of my career. The movie’s opening scene of homeless people rolling up their sleeping bags and lining up outside the still-locked doors of a library mirrored my own mornings. I would arrive 30 minutes before the branch opened and find at least 10 familiar people waiting — more on particularly cold or hot days — who had slept outside or just walked over from the shelters. There was Wayne, the recovering addict who called me "Kiddo” and held the door open for me so I wouldn't spill my coffee. There was Miss Cook, hissing and growling at her imaginary sister, and Ms. Yin, yelling about not being able to get in to get her work done — which was designing a spy café for the roof of the National Air and Space Museum at the behest of the FBI.
There were no quiet days of reading at the desk at the library. Instead, hidden underneath the circulation desk was a panic button my coworkers or I would push to alert the district’s Library Police and the Metropolitan Police Department that staff and/or patrons were in immediate danger.
There were incidents daily, including drunk patrons passing out, shoving arguments outside the bathroom, psychotic episodes that resulted in screaming matches with invisible entities. But the panic button was reserved for when things were truly bad. We pushed it three times in my first month. The first time was on my second day on the job. The librarians were behind the circulation desk as a patron began throwing books, newspapers and plastic sign holders at us, screaming that he would kill every one of us. I’d just finished a baby and toddler story time and watched as the caretakers scrambled to hide the children behind tall bookcases.
“The Public” sets out to be — and in many ways is — a love letter to urban libraries across the country and those who keep their doors open. But if it imbues its librarian characters with some moral superiority, I assure you this is something the majority of librarians do not feel.
There were days I lost my temper, days I felt extreme anger toward particularly difficult patrons, and days I sat in the back room and cried. I certainly never hung out in the bathroom with patrons, and I definitely never gave anyone a wad of cash out of my pocket as Estevez’s character does at one point. And yet, to work in a library I also had to be a social worker and a first responder, an advocate for the underserved, and a human with very thick skin.
The act of civil disobedience that gives the film its dramatic structure asks big questions: What is the bare minimum we expect of society, and how does that differ from a fully human response? It is the bare minimum for a city to provide shelter beds to its homeless. It is human to create a sanctuary for them in their daily lives. It is the bare minimum to pay librarians to take on an unthinkable range of tasks to maintain this sanctuary. It is human to deal with the deep internal struggles and burnout this will cause.
Maybe it is too much to hope that a movie or a bestseller like Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book” will truly ignite a civic conversation about the conditions of cities and their libraries, about librarians and patrons. But it is essential to understand that libraries are in this state because other systems failed. We have never remedied the mental health crisis that flowed from the closings of state psychiatric hospitals in the 1980s. Money for low-income housing and social service programs has dwindled for decades. In recent years, cities, including Los Angeles, have passed ordinances to prevent homeless encampments from becoming permanent tent cities. Restaurants, museums and other public places kick people experiencing homelessness out onto the streets, where they are also told they cannot be. The library is one of the few remaining places they have to go.
Toward the end of the film, one of the senior librarians passionately declares the public library the nation’s last bastion of democracy. And it is. I’m so glad that I devoted seven years of my life to working in one. Libraries are great social equalizers. But we should be asking how other institutions can emulate their work as caring advocates and providers for society’s most vulnerable. Libraries can’t be the only ones.