City and county libraries, in urban or rural areas, attract a variety of patrons, many of whom intend to use the facility for its desired purposes: reading, study, and computer work or research. A small segment of people who enter the library can be disruptive and even dangerous, including: gang members, the mentally ill homeless, drug users, vandals and taggers, and even pedophiles, who go for the access to both Internet pornography and vulnerable children.
The days of the local library being a quiet place filled with quiet people who listened to a quiet staff member are long over. On the plus side, libraries have become vibrant facilities in the community, offering everything from adult literacy training, to genealogy research, to job search help, to food and drinks. On the darker side, libraries continue to fight the real and perceived issue that they are outdated, unnecessary in the Internet-Just-Google-It era, and a haven for homeless people to sit and do nothing but bother patrons and staff all day.
During the recession of 2006 to 2010, local government cut budgets and slashed funding for parks, swimming pools, and libraries. Branches with minimum staffing found themselves having to cut their hours, close on certain days, and lay off staff. Some of these library staffers served either in a security function or worked as contract security officers from a guard company. Removing these library security watchdogs only increased the amount of problems, that even police officers were unaware of, inside these facilities.
While library staffers have always had to deal with security issues related to the homeless and the mentally ill, new challenges include people dressed in religious-oriented clothing, who ask for money inside and outside the library and may have no legitimate affiliation with a religious organization; religious or political protesters; patrons who bring their “emotional comfort” animals instead of trained and licensed service dogs; people who want to use e-cigarettes and vape machines for marijuana; entitled and often eccentric patrons, who monopolize staff time, complain about being mistreated, or threaten staff members with being fired because of “who they know”; and frustrated patrons who seek tax advice or legal advice, which the staff cannot legally give.
And as many states change concealed carry weapons (CCW) laws to allow registered permitholders to bring their firearms onto college campuses and into some public government buildings, like libraries, staffers have had to learn how to address issues involving exposed firearms in patrons’ backpacks, purses, or partially covered on their person. These encounters can leave library employees feeling uncomfortable as to where the line between new firearms laws and the safety of the facility begins and ends.
These issues have left many libraries asking the police for more help, including more frequent patrols, training to deal with the homeless, drug users, gang members, unruly teenagers, and patrons who threaten staff or other patrons. As libraries become the “facility of last resort” for some people who believe they have no other place to go and the right to act out inside the building, library leaders and staff are struggling to find the balance between what threatens their business and what is the “new normal.”