Racism, Violence, and Police in Our Public Libraries

85.9% of librarians in America are white. [1]

Let’s start there.

Libraries, beloved institutions touted as one of the “last bastions of our democracy,” held in high esteem for being free and “for all” by famous writers, educators, politicians, and actors — by you, yourself, perhaps — are run by white people in a huge majority.

In 2017, 149,692 librarians were white. 11,213 were Black. 6,938 were Asian. 4,975 were of two or more races. 1,002 identified as Other. 545 were American Indian.

The long-standing and widely held belief that libraries are separate or “safe” from, or resolutely and unanimously against, racism and police violence is grotesquely incorrect. On the contrary, public libraries are a screaming example of these injustices.

Now, let’s talk about armed library police officers.

I do not mean police officers who show up for emergencies, I mean individuals whose full-time job is to patrol public library spaces.

Try googling “library police” and you’ll see pages of results of incidents where police were called to a library for patrons. Try to find actual, meaningful data about public libraries that employ police officers or security guards? That is significantly harder, with most information existing only in lengthy budget reports.

In my own research for my forthcoming book about public libraries I started with what I knew — the D.C. Public Library.

In 2018, after more than five collective years as a librarian in the D.C. Public Schools, I accepted a position at one of D.C.’s 28 public library branches. My first day on the job, I was sent to a nondescript building in Northeast D.C. with bullet-proof windows to pick up my security badge. When I was buzzed into the building they told me to go to the third floor and look for a sign that said Library Police.

I thought, briefly, that the security guard might be joking. I was used to jabs at the library profession and considered that this might be that. But once I was outside of the elevator, there it was. A sign that read LIBRARY POLICE in bold red letters above a door.

Inside were several armed and uniformed officers. The officer who made my badge had a radio on one hip and a gun in its holster on the other and was sitting in front of a wall of computer screens with surveillance views of the 28 branches. As far as I can recall, he didn’t turn to look at me, instead keeping his eyes fixed on the screens throughout our ten-minute interaction.

When I got up to leave with my new badge, a voice came over the the officer’s radio asking for immediate assistance at the Shaw library. The voice came back on just as I exited to say, “Make sure you sent Captain, too.” I left the building bewildered and sent a mass text message to friends: There’s Library Police?????

I quickly learned—from my second day on the job when we pulled the panic button for a patron threatening to kill staff—that Library Police very much existed.

I don’t know any public librarians in the United States who don’t have stories of being verbally and/or physically assaulted by library patrons. It is, for some, the major reason they leave a particular library job. And it is also, for some, why they leave the profession altogether.

On February 19 of this year at a Spring Valley, New York public library branch, a patron stabbed and killed library security guard Sandra Wilson in front of other patrons .

On December 11, 2018 a patron shot and killed Sacramento Public Library supervisor Amber Clark while she sat in her car in the branch parking lot. Two weeks before her murder, she had told her husband, Kelly Clark, that she was worried about being assaulted or shot at work.

Clark, also a librarian, penned a powerful piece for American Libraries Magazine [2] where he compiled a list of the most recent assaults and murders on library staff. He listed six incidents or threats of violence, five of them ending in murder, in a 17-month period.

I’m going to list those same incidents here:

Clark ended his piece with a powerful call to action:

The comments section of the piece is full of librarians both thanking Clark for speaking out and sharing their own stories of violence in the library workplace.

For many libraries and library systems, the “solution” to these violences is to hire security guards, retired police officers, or — as is the case in D.C. — full-time, gun-carrying police officers.

Four months into my position in the D.C. Public Library, as it remained obvious that our branch was consistently calling Library Police on an almost-daily basis (sometimes multiple times in one day), we were assigned a full-time library police officer.

Our daily incidents immediately dropped. The officer intervened when patrons had mental health crises, slept or drank in the library, fought, made verbal threats against library staff, or any of the many other things that had normally been responded to by a collective effort by staff and, sometimes, a call to either or both Library Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.

My job, quite plainly, got easier.

The first week the officer was at our branch was the first week I wasn’t verbally assaulted or sexually harassed by a patron since the first day I started work at the branch.

During my tenure at the D.C. Public Library I met and got to know four of the twenty-five employed Library Police officers well. I saw them often; I knew their children’s names, where they grew up, and what their favorite nearby lunch places were. By month two on the job, I had their phone number memorized.

All of the officers I knew well and saw frequently were Black. Two of them had worked for NYPD. They were all kind. Several of them were excellent at deescalating situations, especially with library patrons struggling with addiction or their mental health, and none, to my knowledge, have ever discharged the guns they carry on their hips. They were often tired and overextended.

Former Dallas Police Chief Davis Brown has stated:

I saw some of my own frustrations as a public librarian echoed here. Public libraries are a place where anyone can go and that includes people who have, in the simplest of terms, been failed my society. A refrain I have repeated for years now is, “Where else do they have to go?” One of the only other answers than the library is into police custody.

From the MPD 150 initiative in Minneapolis:

As there is a growing call to defund the police and reallocate funds elsewhere, I consistently see public libraries listed as where that money could, or should, go.

Whether or not additional funding comes through, it is the responsibility of those in the library profession to call for the reallocation of security funds to social workers, mental health crises workers, de-escalation training, and other supportive systems. The American Library Association has a duty to do the same.

Jean Badalamenti, assistant manager of health and human services and MSW* employed by the DC Public Library, outlined in a document she created with LCSW Elissa Hardy from the Denver Public Library [3] that:

It is often the breaking of library rules that can lead to police involvement in library spaces. These infractions can range from sleeping in the library to assaulting library staff; whether the police are called is at the discretion of library staff.

There is no specific data on which library workers call police. But, given that the field is predominantly white, we can assume the answer is “mostly white people.”

I would be lying if I said I was not relieved when we got a full-time police officer. Most people on our small staff felt the same, though two of my Black coworkers, Ms. R and M, made comments about not needing them.

Ms. R and M had both worked at the branch for many years and had developed strong relationships with many of the people in the community. They rarely, if ever, called the police or 911. They’d either yell and admonish behavior (which, sometimes, worked quite well) or sit silently, waiting the patrons out. I can only remember one occasion, when a patron had been berating all of us behind the information desk for ten minutes, where Ms. R, clearly pushed to her limits, said, “Call the cops” to a white male coworker.

Both Ms. R and M were burned out from the work, too, though these are not the words they would have used. Ms. R was just hoping to get to retirement and M was frequently looking for other employment while at work.

My second week on the job, Ms. R told me, “We’re a family here.” I smiled and nodded, but wrote her words off. My work is not my family.

I now realize she meant family like the people who look out for you, no matter what. I now realize she meant family like I will put myself on the line for you. This is something all of us did for each other.

We were a family.

Ms. R passed away this fall after a brief fight with cancer. I think of her every time I sit down to write about the library. Her fierce protectiveness — of her coworkers, her patrons, her community — deserved more of my respect and emulation. She was a beaming example of how to care for a community. I learned shortly before she passed that she had been closely following my writing and relayed to a former coworker that she wanted me to “Keep telling them the truth!”

Part of that truth telling is pushing myself, and others, to examine the library environment more closely.

As we consider violence against library workers, it is essential that we also examine how often Black library workers are verbally or physically threatened, demeaned, assaulted, or otherwise made to feel unsafe at work by their coworkers.

April Hathcock, a Black librarian based in New York, wrote on her personal blog in January of 2019 [4]:

Hathcock went on to describe being harassed and bullied by a white male attendee and by multiple white colleagues. After making a formal complaint to the ALA, she was contacted by their legal representatives and warned against posting about the incident on social media as she “might be held liable if anything happened to the man who confronted her,” a response she, rightly, found threatening.

These stories are prevalent in the profession. In a survey I recently sent out to library workers across America, nearly all participants responded that they felt threatened or unsafe at work. But it was almost exclusively Black library workers and library workers of color who expanded that they often felt unsafe or threatened by their coworkers.

This is yet nother piece of the library profession that goes largely unmentioned by white library workers, the American Library Association, and the majority articles and interviews about the library profession.

Black library workers are not, and have not been, silent about any of this.

There are many, many Black library workers who are vocal on twitter, in their libraries and library systems, and in their personal and professional lives about these injustices. We just don’t uplift those stories the same way we uplift the stories of white library workers.

What you are reading here is evidence of that. I am a white woman who has an established and growing audience of readers, many of whom are also white librarians.

I am publishing this piece in hopes that the audience I do have will use this information to be better allies and coworkers. To demand more transparency and better advocacy for Black library workers and patrons.

What we do, or don’t do, right now will determine how public libraries move forward.

I want, and will fight for, library police to be completely eradicated and replaced with people skilled in providing community care. I hope, perhaps, the officers who excelled at deescalation and building relationships are rehired in these capacities again after extensive training.

I want, and will fight for, the library profession to work its ass off to not just create more positions for Black librarians and Black library administrators, but to listen to, value, and uplift their experiences, concerns, and ideas.

I want, and will fight for, different statistics in this profession in a year.

I want, and will fight for, the library profession to do better today and every single day moving forward.

I hope all library workers will, too.

Here’s how anyone can help:

Find out if your local library branch employs police or security officers. Let them know you want those funds reallocated to supportive services.

Sign this letter from People for a Police-Free Library to the Los Angeles Public Library calling on them to remove LAPD from their libraries and library budget: https://tinyurl.com/safeLAPL

Request books by Black writers at your local library branch. Most libraries have purchase request forms you can fill out. If not, make a verbal request at the information desk.

Read this phenomenal resource from Dr. Karla J. Strand: Disrupting Whiteness in Libraries and Librarianship: A Reading List

62 Books by Black Authors We’re Reading in 2020

45 Upcoming Books by Black Authors You Can Preorder Right Now (Published June 5, 2020)

Black Books Matter: Children’s Books Celebrating Black Boys

Follow and support organizations that support Black Library Workers. Here is a short and incomplete list of Twitter accounts: @BC_ALA @LibVoic @librariesweher e@RadicalLibrariansCoalition @CopFreeLibrary

Listen to and uplift Black librarians. Here is a short and woefully incomplete list of folks to follow on Twitter: @LibraryNicole, @AprilHathcock, @BakerChair @NexGenLibrarian @jeninthelib

[1] https://datausa.io/profile/soc/254021/#demographics

[2] https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2019/04/23/keep-library-workers-safe/

[3] https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/blogs/the-scoop/pla-social-worker-walks-library/

[4] https://aprilhathcock.wordpress.com/tag/nohateala/

*Badalamenti was hired by DCPL in 2014 with an expired MSW license and, as of this writing, her license is still expired. DCPL does not include MSW in her title or description, but most public articles about Badalamenti do.

writer & former librarian • A LIGHT forthcoming from Chicago Review Press 2022 • amandaoliver.comtinyletter.com/decorouslines

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