27 April 2007

Are libraries safe?

From today's LA Times:

Is the public library no longer a haven for children?

That's the message the director of a charter school in South Los Angeles sent the parents of her 340 students last week, warning them that Hyde Park--Miriam Matthews Public Library, a few yards from the school campus, was not safe for their children.

Read the whole story here.

I have just a few comments. First of all, the library is a public place. So, yes, we want it to be safe, but it is a public place and that should be considered when sending children there alone.

Having said that... Most libraries these days -- especially in large urban areas -- need security. It's just the way it is. However, when library budgets are being cut all over the country, it can be difficult to buy materials, hire staff, or even stay open. What good is a well patroled library if there is no substance to what it offers? On the other hand, librarians need to be more proactive in dealing with situations/ I know it is scary. I know it's not what we went to school for. However, if you're going to work in a PUBLIC library, it's just the way it is.

Some years ago, I worked in a very poor neighborhood, rife with gangs and drugs. The library was chaos. I was intimidated and nervous. After the first week, I decided I either had to do something about it or look for another job. I did something.

I drafted a long list of rules of behavior and handed it to everyone -- children and adults -- as they came in. (And, for the record, we had security, but the guard basically sat at her desk and read, ignoring all the trouble going on all around her.) I made it clear that they got a warning for violating a rule and the second time I said something, they had to leave for the day. If someone refused to leave when asked, I told them that it was now criminal trespassing and, if they didn't go, I would call the police. And I did.

The next day, if that same person came back to the library, I acted like the previous day's events had not happened and we had a fresh start. If they violated the rules again, same deal as before. Throughout, I was able to point to the rule sheet to back me up. I was also sure to treat the patrons respectfully, even as I asked them to go, even as I welcomed them back the next day (even when it made me nervous to see them again.)

It wasn't magic. Things didn't change overnight. But they did change. It was slow and difficult, but within 6 months or so, the library was back under control. There was a 12-year-old boy I kicked out every day for three weeks straight who eventually became one of our best-behaved, most wonderful patrons. Kids started monitoring each other -- not in a tattletale way, but in a "you better not do that or Miss Katharine's gonna ask you to leave" way.

I believe that respect and consistency, coupled with a demand for appropriate behavior are key. If you expect people to behave badly, they often do. If you expect a certain standard of good behavior, the most unmannerly person will often rise to the occasion and begin to behave. It's hard work. I don't *like* asking kids to leave the library. I don't *like* having to spend time on behavior and counseling and a hundred other things I never dreamed I would do when I fulfilled my lifelong dream of becoming a librarian. But that's the way it is. And if we are going to do our jobs and serve our patrons well, we will have to be prepared to deal wioth a chaotic world in a proactive manner, even if it takes us outside our comfort zones.

(Phew! Let me climb down off this soapbox now before I fall...)

1 comment:

Clare said...

Reading this, I can't help but nod my head vigorously. I think kids (and some times adults, too) need someone to hold them to behavioral standards. I was a lifeguard for 5 summers and it was hard to be one of the people who kids try to push the limits with and having to actually follow through on the rules. It does feel good to see some reform their ways. I am glad that there are other people who have swallowed their fear of others and can be stern, but respectful to those who are disruptive. *gets off of her soapbox too* :)