A fine line between library rules, rights

NEWPORT BEACH — That annoying person talking loudly on a cell phone may one day be barred from using the Newport Beach Public Library.

Librarians want new regulations that allow them to discipline unruly patrons, and the Board of Library Trustees gave them the go-ahead Tuesday to draft penalties.

A truly public space, libraries have to balance the needs of orderly patrons with the reality that some people smell, make too much noise or stay on the computers for too long. How to reprimand adults without impinging on their public benefits is now the challenge for city staffers.

"We want to maintain the environment so people can enjoy the library," said Tim Hetherton, library services manager. "At the same time, we want to make sure we're not abusing anyone's rights."

As the current code of conduct stands, librarians can ask someone to leave the building if he or she violates the rules, but that's their only remedy. A violator could drive to the other side of town and roll into a branch on roller skates, or even barefoot — both of which are prohibited.

Other U.S. libraries sometimes define escalating penalties for breaking their rules. Pomona has a strict policy outlining which violations would allow for permanent exclusion or even criminal prosecution.

Hetherton would like to add something similar.

It might start with banning a patron for the remainder of the day, then repeat offenders could be kept out for a week, a month or even for the most serious violators — like those who commit crimes — could be shunned for life.

That brings up legal questions Hetherton said he's planning to ask the city attorney. Because the library receives state and local funds, he's not sure if it can prohibit people from using services.

And not everyone believes librarians should have so much power.

"I think that's kind of invading someone's freedoms," said Hunter Rosner, 29, who was at the Central Library Thursday. "The library's like a refuge."

Some of the rules on the code of conduct, both in Newport and at other libraries, are designed to control the effect homeless people have on others. No shopping carts are allowed into the buildings, for instance, or sleeping bags, bed-rolls or blankets.

One cause for ejection is "The lack of personal hygiene or use of perfume or fragrance which produces odors that interfere with other customers' use of library facilities."

For Richard McDonough, 73, that's the biggest nuisance: "It's mostly odors." McDonough comes to the Central Library from Irvine often. People need to honor "decorum," he said.

While library officials say there wasn't a particular series of events that caused this more serious "shhhhh," they say there are enough incidents to be concerned.

It's not easy being a librarian, Hetherton said: "You try to bring it up in a way that's non-confrontational. Most people are mortified that the librarian came to talk to them."

At the library Thursday, someone had made a comfortable home office in a long cubicle, complete with a set of watercolor paint and a can of chili ready for cold weather. But Hetherton said that wasn't grounds for removal.

"We encourage people to get comfortable," he said.

Sometimes, though, the staff members have to call the police if someone refuses to leave.

"They bend over backwards to be extremely fair to patrons," said Karen Clark, chairwoman of the Board of Library Trustees.

So long as there's an appeals process, Clark, an attorney, said she would support such a policy.

"Let's make sure we have rules that are specific and enforceable," she said.

The library would need to figure out how to keep track of rabble-rousers. Would the librarians have wanted posters?

"I can't picture the day a staffer would look at a customer and compare it to a mug shot," Hetherton said.

People can keep evading librarians for the foreseeable future, as the policy is just in its infancy — the city attorney still has to bless any rules, then the Board of Trustees must OK them.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World