Public libraries trigger thoughts of stacked bookshelves, proper librarians, and rental fees. While these continue to exist, albeit to a lesser extent, public libraries have undergone intense shifts in the last decade and will continue to evolve to reflect societal change. Rather than serving solely as repositories of books, libraries now exist as multi-functional, moveable spaces, that provide a range of services from naturalization classes for immigrants to assisting people experiencing homelessness in finding housing. These services are lifelines for individuals who live on the margins of society, and they affirm the human dignity of people otherwise ostracized by private institutions. Ultimately, this affirmation is the guiding mantra of libraries as society’s most democratic space: a forum for people from all backgrounds to mold their polity through the pursuit of knowledge and dignity. As such, libraries and civil rights intertwine, each buttressing the other.
A consequence of this relationship is that public libraries find themselves serving as a cavalry to address systematic inequities and social ills. Libraries throughout the United States, in response to the opioid crisis, now train and equip their staff on how to administer Narcan, a life-saving drug that reverses the effects of heroin overdoses. In response to the homelessness crisis, urban libraries have created various initiatives that help people secure housing and that also humanize indigent individuals who are otherwise shunned by society-at-large. Notably, San Francisco Public Library hired the nation’s first full-time library social worker, instituted a “Homeless Outreach Team” comprised of formerly homeless individuals who help connect people currently experiencing homelessness to housing resources, and partnered with community groups to provide portable showers and hygienic products. Libraries also partner with public health groups to address mental health illness and train staff with best practices on how to interact with patrons experiencing mental health crises. However, these trainings do not always protect staff from violent incidents that arise through patron interactions – interactions spawned by the societal ills previously mentioned, and fomented by a dearth of resources.
Throughout the country, librarians and staff have expressed anxieties emanating from feeling unsafe at work and from the responsibilities of being first-responders to overdoses and mental health crises. Gun violence permeates safety discussions in the library world and has led the governing body of American libraries, the American Library Association (ALA), to create a set of recommendations to mitigate gun violence in public libraries and guidelines for active shooter scenarios. In response to these legitimate concerns from staff, library management and public officials have introduced policy interventions such as staffing public libraries with armed security officers, filing restraining orders against unruly patrons, and redesigning library facilities via “defensive architecture.” However, these interventions require funds to implement, funds contingent on the budgeting decisions of cost-averse local city governments. A common, cost-effective strategy for addressing hostile patron behavior is banning patrons from visiting the library system for violating patron codes of conduct and similar rules of behavior. While the safety of library staff and other visitors is paramount, these revocations of library rights tend to be over-inclusive and highly subjective, with some libraries offering no appeal system, and others that are highly deferential to library staff. The suspension of rights, even for short periods of time, can be highly disruptive for patrons since it limits their accessibility to services such as the internet, books, food, shelter, potable water, community, health resources, government services, and employment opportunities. The gravity of the suspensions, coupled by arbitrary and subjective standards, gives rise to due process concerns – concerns that should be addressed by library leaders and local city officials and ultimately litigated by public interest attorneys.
Patron codes of conduct and similar rules tend to be created and ratified by a Board of Trustees or Commissioners that act as a corporate board and guide the direction of libraries. These stakeholders have impressive non-profit, higher education, business, artistic, and political resumes. Members of these Boards are in turn appointed by mayors and/or city counselors, who appropriate funds for library systems. I have not found an example of codes of conduct being developed or ratified with input from patrons while conducting research for this article. Librarians are then tasked with applying the patron code of conduct, with security officers and sometimes even police officers being responsible for the enforcement of their decisions. These rulings can be made haphazardly, with one branch of a library system enforcing the same rules more strictly than another branch of the same system. These haphazard rulings may correlate with the notable racial divide in the librarianship world. In a recent demographic study conducted by the ALA, white librarians account for 87% of the field (with 5% self-reporting as Hispanic/Latino). For libraries that serve minority-majority communities, these demographics suggest a key breeding ground for subconscious bias, which in turn may lead to arbitrary enforcement of library rules.
Once codes of conduct are ratified, they can be difficult to access. A review of the patron codes of conduct of the ten biggest library systems (as defined by the ALA’s metric of “population of legal service area”), revealed that a majority of these systems listed their patrons code of conduct online in English and Spanish, and sometimes in other languages. However, this practice did not permeate smaller systems, with some systems only listing their codes of conduct in English and others not listing codes at all.
When patrons are suspended for violating these sometimes-mysterious codes, they may or may not have access to an appeals process. Some systems require patrons to appeal their suspensions directly to the library president within a certain deadline and in writing. Others allow appeals for exclusively serious bans that last over a year, severely limiting access to libraries for those suspended for less than a year. “Rules of procedure” tend to severely disadvantage the suspended patron with short appeals deadlines, high burdens of proof, and no information on how to appeal a suspension. Maricopa County Library District, New York Public Library, and Chicago Public Library, the largest, third largest, and fifth largest systems in the country respectively, do not indicate on their websites whether or not patrons can appeal their suspensions whatsoever.
For the systems that have appeals processes, their procedures, factors, and systems can be unclear and unfair. These appeals tend to be conducted by library leadership, who can be biased towards keeping unruly patrons out of their facilities. If the patron receives an unfavorable ruling from the library management team, then their appeals process is exhausted. I could not find one example of a third-party adjudicator deciding an appeal (with the exception of some systems that allow their Trustees to hear appeals for bans). The appeals process seems to also be conducted entirely on a pro se basis, with patrons expected to develop their own “case theory” and accumulate their own evidence (which they oftentimes cannot do considering the evidence is found in the very places they are prohibited from visiting). Further, some of the appeals processes require that patrons provide permanent addresses to receive material – an impossibility for patrons experiencing housing instability and homelessness. The ramifications of these due process inequities can be astronomical for suspended patrons.
By isolating them from crucial resources, capricious and arbitrary library bans perpetuate institutional violence against vulnerable communities, with little to no redress beyond turning to skeptical courts. For example, in the 1992 decision, Kreimer v. Morristown, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a library’s ban of an indigent patron for behavior and “offensive” odor. The Court held that libraries constituted “limited public spaces” and therefore held the authority to set rules of conduct which could be invoked to ban patrons. A lot has changed since 1992. Libraries and the services that they provide are now crucial lifelines for a critically vulnerable group of our neighbors. While the safety of librarians is of crucial import, so are the civil rights and liberties of patrons. Library appeals processes should be available for all patrons, regardless of the duration of their suspensions, and should be listed online, in various language formats. Libraries should strive to adjudicate appeals on an impartial basis, by including third-parties to sit on appeals boards, including library patrons themselves. The ALA should introduce and standardize a list of procedures for appealing suspensions that can be implemented by libraries throughout the country regardless of resources and other constraints. Reasonable accommodations should be provided for patrons with disabilities, both physical and mental, and rules of conduct should be developed in partnership with patrons, rather than imposed on them. Finally, city governments should be aware of the new challenges that libraries throughout North America are facing, and should increase the funding of libraries accordingly, particularly to train librarians in risk management and de-escalation practices. By pursuing these goals, libraries can continue shaping society as our most democratic spaces, and can continue carrying out their laudable mission of building community and affirming human dignity.