Our news is filled with accounts of opioid abuse and overdose deaths, gun violence, and sexual harassment and abuse. In many of our minds, we consider the library a sanctuary from such things, a place to read the newspaper, to hunt for your next read, to do research on a business start up idea. When, in my mind I conjure up my idea of a “safe place” or my “happy place” some version of a library often comes to mind.
Sadly, the reality of the evening news has invaded my safe and happy place. A recent story run by our local CBS affiliate cited the statistic that police answered 3200 calls to our city’s libraries in the last two years. They received calls for drug overdoses, shootings, gang fights, and sexual harassment and assaults.
In one incident, a librarian was punched in the head by a 12-year old boy after asking him to be quiet. Plainly, librarians are being called upon to deal with situations most of them probably never dreamed of when they decided to pursue the profession. This was the subject of a recent Bookriot article by Katie McLain that gives a glimpse into the brave new world librarians are confronting each day. In some major cities, for example, librarians are receiving training in administering Naloxone. One Philadelphia librarian, Chera Kowalski, has saved dozens of lives and was recognized by Hillary Clinton for her work at the 2017 American Library Association convention, according to Fobazi Ettarh’s article, Vocational Awe and Librarianship.
In addition to confronting crises like those named above, librarians often are confronting issues once addressed by social agencies, the health care system, and other neighborhood institutions like churches, parishes, and other religious bodies. They are called upon to address homelessness, unemployment and mental health issues along with the more usual questions for which they trained. McLain asks the question of whether we are asking librarians to be our local “superheroes,” a role that can be exhausting, albeit rewarding.
It seems to me that this new reality that our librarians face in our dystopian world is something they should not face alone. It seems at least three things are important:
- If they are expected to regularly handle these situations they should be trained, institutionally supported and appropriately compensated.
- Libraries will need to spend more on security. The local news report I mentioned above indicated that our metropolitan library has spent $600,000 in upgraded security cameras in addition to hiring more security personnel. If we want our libraries to be safe and to provide the same or enhanced levels of service, in most municipalities, we should be prepared to pay for it.
- We need to recognize that, in addition to societal factors, the erosion of other neighborhood institutions puts more stress on the libraries to fill the gap. In particular, I think we have seen a decline in neighborhood religious institutions, which, along with mom and pop stores, have yielded to “big box” facilities 5, 10, or 20 miles away that have no connection with where their parishioners live. Likewise, many social agencies are in a central location, often distant from different parts of the city, and inaccessible to those lacking transportation. What can we do to strengthen networks of care in our local communities?
Finally, it probably won’t hurt to thank your local librarian for all that he or she does. It may in fact be far more than you think.