A $42 million makeover has transformed Hartford Public Library into a gleaming expanse of glass and well-lit, open space that warmly welcomes visitors.
Measured by a dramatic increase in library visits, the invitation has been widely accepted. The changes inside the library's three floors went beyond adding space, reconfiguring the layout and increasing the number of books, DVDs and computers. It's become a busier place, noisier and more vibrant, something in which chief Librarian Louise Blalock — named National Librarian of the Year in 2001 — takes pride.
But it's also a place where the behavioral norms traditionally associated with libraries are often breached, according to interviews with staff members and internal library reports obtained by The Courant.
The reports document drinking and drug use, with staff members reporting that empty liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia are often left in the restrooms. Sexual activity has been reported on several occasions. The problems reached the point where the restrooms on the library's second and third floors have been locked, according to library staff.
Acts of violence inside the library, while infrequent, do occur: In January, a patron complained of being robbed at gunpoint inside a first-floor restroom; internal reports say a subsequent investigation by security staff was unable to determine what happened.
The library also has a theft problem. Without a security system in place, CDs and DVDs disappear with regularity.
Blalock says such incidents happen from time to time and she is reluctant to institute a more restrictive environment because the library is — and needs to be — a place that welcomes all, a view shared by several past and present members of the library board.
Stephen B. Goddard, a longtime board member and past board president, said the incident reports are "nothing new" and are minute compared to the half-million-plus visitors who use the library each year.
"In 24 years, from time to time there have been a handful of incidents," Goddard said. "I have chalked that up to what any public institution in a hyperactive environment is going to face in cities today."
"To Louise, things like the rights of patrons are paramount," Goddard said, adding that the board feels fortunate to have had Blalock at the helm for the past 14 years.
Blalock, who spearheaded the library's transformation, said she decided not to set rules of behavior or install security cameras or theft detection devices and instead emphasizes a free and open environment. She said she has directed her staff not to call the police if they can safely escort a patron out of the building.
As a draft statement of principle for the library puts it: "All customers have a right to use the library according to their life and learning style as long as it does not interfere with the right of others to use the library."
But some employees say Blalock has taken that philosophy too far and has failed to deal with the realities of running a library in an urban setting — something library officials in cities across the country are confronting as they grapple with homelessness, drug use, gang activity and other ills.
In the name of openness, they complain, patrons are forced to endure the misbehavior of others. The result, they say, is a chaotic workplace. Some staffers say conditions have gotten so bad they decided to go public with their complaints that the administration has failed to provide adequate security.
The inadequate level of security "has pushed us to a point that people feel that they have to go public with it," said David Ionno, vice president of AFSCME Local 1716, the union that represents library workers. "There's going to be an incident where a librarian is going to get hurt."
The breaking point, for some, came with back-to-back incidents earlier this year. The first was an altercation outside the library that continued inside, then back outside to Arch Street, where a young man was stabbed. That was followed the next day by an incident in which an 11-year-old girl was picked up by three young men inside the library, taken to a city motel and raped.
Those incidents may have gone beyond the norm, but those who work at the library say it is the norm that is troubling. Staff incident reports reviewed by The Courant document 60 incidents — most occurring since January 2007 — of alleged acts of criminal or disturbing conduct. Library officials such as Blalock and Goddard say the number of incidents pales beside the visitation at the main branch, which is expected to reach 415,000 this fiscal year, ending June 30.
Drinking and drug use are particularly worrisome to library staff members, who say they are often forced to deal with intoxicated and belligerent patrons — a job for which they say they're not trained or qualified. Internal reports filed by staff members this year include several episodes, including one in which a patron was caught drinking in the bathroom and harassing a visitor.
For more than a year, library maintenance worker Leo Laffitte collected empty liquor bottles from the restrooms and took them to the third floor so managers could see that patrons were drinking alcoholic beverages inside the building. His efforts were met, he said, with shrugged shoulders and no attempts to stop it.
Finally, in April, Laffitte said he pulled empty 40-ounce beer bottles and liquor bottles from a trash bag and put them on public display while visitors were attending a manager's retirement party. He said he thought that if the administrators were embarrassed by the display, they might start addressing the issue. He never got a response.
At least eight acts of lewd or sexual behavior in the library have been documented by library staff since February 2007; only once, according to records released by the library, was an individual banned from the building for a substantial length of time.
Staffers said they've interrupted individuals masturbating and couples engaging in sexual acts in "the old fiction" section, in the media room and in the restrooms.
One worker overheard a young couple on the third floor last October talking about how they "needed to get a room," according to a report. Rather than go to a motel, the couple went into a third-floor bathroom. When they were caught there, they moved to a second-floor bathroom where they were found inside a women's stall, an incident report said.
Staff members also are concerned about who is using the Internet at the library. Ionno said that on occasion, staffers have reported seeing patrons viewing inappropriate material. The staffers have then checked the state's sex offender registry and found the person's photograph posted, he said.
After one incident in May 2007, the staff called police after seeing a man viewing child pornography on a library computer. The man told the officers "he just got of jail on Monday and was aware of the crime of watching child porn," according to the library report. The report does not indicate whether the man was arrested.
Later that month, a patron was caught viewing pornography in a public area when children were present. The security staff booted the man out of the library for three weeks, the incident report said. In October 2006, in an incident that generated widespread attention, Scott Murtagh, a homeless, convicted sex offender, was caught in the midst of a lewd act while viewing child pornography at the library.
What it all adds up to, library staffers say, is an atmosphere that is more chaotic than it needs to be were more stringent rules and security measures in place.
The library has one full-time security supervisor who is based at the main library and oversees a staff of 18 part-time security guards who are spread out among the main library and its nine branches. Library managers say there should be four guards on duty at the main branch during a regular shift; the security supervisor was instructed in late February to notify management when there are fewer guards available.
The library also has invested in Vocera, a voice-activated mobile communications system that staff members use by speaking into microphones they wear around their necks. "If they need backup, they can ask staff to assist them," Blalock said
Library staffers say they are concerned about dealing with situations they're not equipped to handle. One of the episodes that brought the issue to a head took place on Feb. 9, when a group of youths tried to attack a younger male inside the library. A staff member's incident report stated that three youths, aged 14 or 15, ran through the library yelling and swearing after the attempted assault.
"They continued to swear as I escorted them out the door," a female employee reported. "They were ranting against the 'witch' [me] as my husband was walking in. ... While I was dealing with this, there was another customer, a woman who was loudly complaining to our security guard that she witnessed two men viewing pornography on the machines next to her. She herself was causing a disturbance," the incident report said.
The employee, who has 15 years of experience, pleaded for help in figuring out how to handle such volatile incidents. "I feel that I am placing myself in an insecure and hostile environment. The training that would be best is if I could shadow a female manager. That way I would learn how to best handle aggressive, threatening behavior from people who are twice my size and thirty-plus years younger and stronger," the employee wrote in the incident report.
Another security deficiency, staffers say, is a lack of scanners that would alert staff when someone tries to leave with unchecked books, videos or music. Such devices are staples at most public libraries, but not at the Hartford main branch.
"In the old building if you went through the towers and if something hadn't been scanned, it would beep," Ionno said, adding that the smaller branches in Hartford continue to use them.
A $75,000 scanner system was ordered as part of the main library's renovation. When it arrived, Blalock had it installed, but then had it removed and sent back, partly because the system didn't fit with the library's new style and partly because it was ineffective, she said.
"There is nothing that is fail-safe," Blalock said. "At some point, we'll have something that works. ... We are investigating having cameras. There is no one thing that we can guarantee. ... The larger issue is things are taken out and not returned."
In West Hartford, where the main branch of the library recently reopened after a $9 million makeover, the usefulness and aesthetics of the monitoring system were not in dispute. There, to augment two existing sets of gates at exits, a third set, costing about $7,000, was installed.
"It goes off often enough that people know it works," said Glenn Grube, the library's director of technical services. "It deters the impulse."
In Hartford, the theft of media materials amounts to about 5 percent of the collection annually, Blalock said, but the library loses far more material from patrons who fail to return checked-out items.
"There is some theft," Blalock said. "We're trying to control it to the best of our ability. In the current climate it's the cost of doing business."
On the first floor of the New Haven Free Public Library, signs that say "Quiet" and "No Cellular Phones" are posted on almost every table.
In the Silas Bronson Library in downtown Waterbury, signs warn patrons of video surveillance cameras. Patrons are offered the choice of reading books and magazines or using the Internet, but one thing is clear from the signs taped to every workstation: eating, drinking and talking on the telephone are prohibited.
Such postings are what Blalock calls an old-fashioned strategy to create an artificial, controlled environment.
"The library isn't quiet anymore," Blalock said, pointing proudly to her library's participation in The Big Read, a reading promotion program funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Librarians read aloud to homeless men and women twice a week on the main floor, and participants are offered candy bars and juice to attract them.
Asked what happens when her customers misbehave or violate library rules, Blalock said she advises her staff to walk a customer — they don't call them patrons — outside.
"Do we always call the police? No," Blalock said.
Blalock said, though, that she calls the police when she needs to. "We believe on one occasion we had people in here which belonged to gangs and were using MySpace to encourage other young people to join," she said. Blalock called the police.
She also said that security has been instructed to monitor the restrooms and that the second-floor bathroom was locked because of a ventilation problem. Unless patrons are caught in the act of using alcohol or drugs, there is nothing that the staff can do, she said.
"It's hearsay," she said.
"Ninety-nine point nine percent of customers who use the public library make appropriate use of library services and collections," she said in e-mail. "The Library is open to all and everyone is treated with respect and courtesy. Library customers have the freedom to use the library, but they do not have the freedom to interfere with others rights or to behave in an unacceptable manner. That is our policy and my philosophy.
"As staff we care for one another and take responsibility. When there is inappropriate customer behavior, staff must intervene.
"I know there are some employees who are fearful; the library has always had some who do not feel safe in an urban environment.
"But most of us thrive and want the challenge because we believe the work is important and we can make a difference.
"The Library is a great success story for the city of Hartford and it is recognized in the state and nationally for a comprehensive and inclusive program of service."
The tension underlying the debate between Blalock and the staff — between openness vs. security — is something urban libraries across the nation are facing. The American Library Association held workshops during its annual meeting this spring in Minneapolis to discuss issues associated with crime and the homeless.
"The library is a wonderful place, and we think of it as a gateway to ideas. But when you walk in the door, human nature isn't suddenly changed," said Chip Ward, a former library deputy director in Salt Lake City, whose essay on what is happening in urban libraries, "What They Didn't Teach Us in Library School," is being made into a movie.
"When you face new situations, you have to do more problem-solving," he said. "I had a drug problem and I brought in an undercover cop. ... The best thing to do is to have good communications about what staff is experiencing and how the administration is handling it."
The library hired a security force and developed programs geared toward providing services to the homeless and teenagers who threatened the safety of patrons, Ward said. Librarians elsewhere have confronted similar problems and have used police and professional security.
"We have police officers in the branches all the time," said Maggie Killackey, spokeswoman for the Chicago Public Library.
Aside from issues of library philosophy, any additional security at the main branch would cost money. That is at a time when the city council is considering cutting the budget for Hartford Public Library by $500,000. The library has spent $8.4 million this year, exceeding its original adopted budget of $7.9 million. The city wants to see the budget restored to $7.9 million next year.
If the cut is adopted by the city council, board President Geraldine P. Sullivan said 23 of 120 staff positions will be eliminated in July. She said it would be Blalock's decision whether any of the security positions would be cut.
Sullivan said she wasn't aware of the full scope of the staff's concerns until The Courant started asking questions in March. She said, however, that the board has pushed since October for the library to create its own procedures and guidelines for handling behavioral problems. Those procedures and guidelines are still being finalized.
"It's a very delicate balance providing a welcoming environment, so everyone uses the library, and enforcing problematic behavior. ... People have different standards about what offends them. That's why there should be some guidelines," Sullivan said. "Two months ago, I might not have said that until I heard about staff concerns."
Ionno said the union would like to see the security staff professionalized and given the power to detain customers who break the law. He said the staff also wants young people to be kept away from the adult computer area so they aren't exposed to explicit content being viewed by some customers and they want pornography filters to be installed on computers in the children's area.
And lastly, Ionno said, the staff expects the administration to back them up when incidents do occur.
"Stop moving us to another branch when something happens," he said, referring to incidents when staff members have been transferred after reporting problems with customers. "It doesn't solve the problem and it makes us feel like we did something wrong."
Sullivan said Blalock has left an indelible mark on the library and continues to have the board's support. "Louise has improved the library by light years," Sullivan said.Sullivan said when she grew up in Hartford in the 1950s, she used the Camp Field branch, where librarians strictly enforced the rules.
"Maybe today's library isn't Mrs. Small saying 'be quiet, be quiet.' I don't want this story to make anyone feel threatened by using this public space."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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