For nearly two decades, Lisa Dunseth loved her job at San Francisco’s main public library, especially her last seven years in the rare book department.
But like many librarians, he saw a lot of chaos. Patrons sometimes spit on library staff or overdose in the bathroom due to untreated mental illness or drug overdoses. He remembers punching a colleague in the face on the way back from his lunch break. One afternoon in 2017, a man jumped to his death from the library’s fifth floor balcony.
Dunseth retired the following year at the age of 61, ending a career spanning nearly 40 years.
“Public libraries should be a sanctuary for everyone,” she said. The problem was that he and many of his colleagues did not feel safe doing their jobs.
Libraries have long been one of society’s best equalizers, providing knowledge to those who desire it. As public buildings, often for long periods of time, they became orderly shelters for people with nowhere else to go. In recent years, amid relentless demand for safety-net services, libraries have been asked to formalize that role, expanding beyond books and computers to provide on-site outreach and support to people living on the street. In big cities and small towns, many now provide assistance with housing, food stamps, medical care, and sometimes showers or haircuts. Librarians, instead, are called upon to play the roles of welfare workers, first responders, therapists, and security guards.
Librarians are divided over that growing responsibility. While many embrace the new role — some willingly carry the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone — others feel overwhelmed and unprepared for regular run-ins with aggressive or unruly patrons.
“Some of my colleagues are very engaged with helping people, and they’re able to do the work,” said Elisa Hardy, a trained social worker who until recently supervised a small team of caseworkers serving the Denver Public Library system. The city boasts that nearly 50 lives have been saved since library staff began volunteering for training to respond to drug overdoses five years ago. Others, Hardy said, simply aren’t informed about the realities of the job. They enter the profession imagining the comfortable, quiet neighborhood libraries of their youth.
“And that they think they are walking,” he said.
Across the United States, more than 160,000 librarians are employed in public libraries and schools, universities, museums, government archives, and the private sector, charged with managing inventories, tracking visitor resources, and developing educational programs. Often, the post requires them to have a master’s degree or teaching credential.
But many were ready to transition into clients as drug addiction, untreated mental illness and a lack of affordable housing fueled homeless populations in a wide range of US cities and suburbs, particularly on the West Coast.
Amanda Oliver, author of “Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library,” which recounts her nine months working at the Washington, D.C., branch, says that while a library employee, she was legally prohibited from speaking publicly about frequent incidents such as drunken patrons. Passing out, yelling at invisible opponents, and carrying bed bug-infested luggage to the library. This widespread “denial of how things are” among library directors was a complaint Oliver said he heard echoed by many staffers.
The 2022 Urban Trauma Library Study, led by a group of New York City-based librarians, surveyed urban library staff and found that nearly 70% had dealt with patrons whose behavior was violent or aggressive, ranging from intimidation to pulling people over and sexually assaulting them. Harassment Throw guns and knives or staplers at them. Fewer workers feel supported by their bosses.
“With social safety nets dismantled and underfunded, libraries are left to pick up the slack,” the authors write, adding that most institutions lack practical guidance for treating traumatic events that can lead to “compassion fatigue” over time.
Library administrators have begun to acknowledge the problem by providing training and hiring experienced staff in social services. Hardy said a big part of her focus during her years with Denver Libraries was making sure library staff didn’t feel hurt. She and other library social workers in cities like San Francisco and Washington have worked in recent years to organize training programs for librarians on everything from self-care to conflict resolution techniques.
About 80% of librarians are women, and the library workforce is older, with nearly a third of staff over 55. According to the American Library Association-Allied Professional Association, the median salary for a public librarian in the United States was $65,339 in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available.
Studies confirm that many librarians experience burnout.
In Los Angeles County, more than 60,000 people who are homeless have tested the limits of a public library system with more than 80 sites in the past few years.
“The challenge is that the level of demand is off the charts,” said L.A. city librarian John Szabo. “Unfortunately, we are not fully and effectively trained to deal with these issues.”
Libraries began their transformation more than a decade ago in response to the number of patrons looking for a temporary respite from bathrooms and life on the streets. In 2009, San Francisco decided to formally address the situation by hiring a full-time library social worker.
Leah Esguerra leads a team of formerly homeless “health and safety associates” who patrol 28 San Francisco library sites looking to connect sick or needy patrons with services large and small, from shelter beds and substance use treatment to public showers, a model that Copied in cities around the world.
“The library is a safe place, even for people who don’t trust the system anymore,” said Esguerra, who worked at a community mental health clinic before becoming a “library lady,” as she’s sometimes called on the street.
But hiring a chief social worker hasn’t erased many of the challenges facing librarians in San Francisco. So the city became more aggressive in setting standards of behavior for patrons.
In 2014, then-Mayor Ed Lee called on library officials to impose stricter policies in response to widespread complaints about inappropriate behavior, including lewd exposure and urinating on stacks. Soon, officials released a revised code of conduct that clearly spelled out penalties for violations such as sleeping, fighting, and “depositing bodily fluids on SFPL property.”
The city has installed extra security and taken other steps to discourage drug use and sex, such as lowering bathroom stall doors and installing disposal boxes for used needles, although people still complain about the condition of the main library.
Some rural libraries have tried to make social services more accessible. In Butte County, along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada in northern California, library workers used a $25,000 state grant to host informational sessions about mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, as well as how to help people access treatment. Books on those subjects were marked with green tags to make them easier to find, said librarian Sarah Vantridge, who helped develop the program. She now works as a library administrator in Sonoma County.
“Libraries,” Vantridge said, “are not just for people who are really good at reading.”
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, the editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
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