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From The Desk Of The Library Director: Academic Research Or Danger To Society?

Aug 11, 2017 04:59AM ● By Theresa Gilman

Dracut Public Library

(Editor's Note: the following information was provided by the Dracut Library.)

Parker Library Director, Nanci Hill

 On July 24, 2017, the following question was posted to the Facebook Page of the ALA (American Library Association) Think Tank.

Anonymous asks:

I work in a small, rural library. Recently we've had a patron asking about books regarding serial killers and looking up the same info on our public computers. He also made extensive notes on this subject as well as on schizophrenia. He left these notes in one of the books he was looking at. He was also seen and heard walking around the library talking to himself.

There were no patron complaints about this man. However, a staff member felt uncomfortable and mentioned it to management. Management then turned the camera pictures of this person over to the police. He was then identified and banned from the library.

My question is this: if he wasn't harming anyone and there were no patron complaints, do you all feel he should be allowed to use the library as he needs?

I was very interested in how the people around me thought that this situation should be handled, so I posed it to the staff. I received four responses. They are as follows:

  • If he is not a harm to himself or others, I think he should have been able to use the library like everyone else. 
  • It sets a dangerous precedent in the library that anyone who looks suspicious or makes someone else uncomfortable could be banned.
And in this tumultuous atmosphere, things can quickly snowball out of control. We also don't know the specifics of the circumstances. Maybe he was a method actor, or a writer researching a character. Management should have followed up with the patron before overstepping their role and going to the police. If he made no direct threats to anyone's safety, there was no immediate need to have him banned.  
  • Right off the bat I felt like this scenario was a set up. My first thought was, the author led with 'I work in a small rural library' did anyone on staff know the patron? I worked in a high school library and I was never surprised by what a student might ask for when working on a school project or just for general curiosity. Why this person was looking for information on these subjects isn't the point, and that's what the librarian who complained was trying to get at.

Patrons come to me for subjects so varied I couldn't possibly keep track of them, nor would I want to. My job is to help them get the information they need. My responsibility to the patron ends there.

I'm not sure if the situation was as simple as it was presented, (things rarely are) but with this limited information I would say, yes they overacted. If patron was not causing a problem for the staff or other patrons and he was minding his own business, then it should have ended there.

As a librarian you are always faced with how close you get to your patrons while maintaining your professional distance. Being friendly, courteous, and helpful is within your job purview; being nosy is not. If a patron volunteers information to me to engage me in their reason for searching, that's different.

  • The library management committed a great injustice to this patron. The library is a place where any person can gather information of any kind, and they denied that to a member of their community. This member of the community hurt no one, was not hurting himself, and committed no crime.

When people leave notes in books, it is our responsibility to remove and discard them, not to read them and then judge the person who may have left them there. The staff and management in this case was entirely in the wrong. If we used the kind of logic these people did, every person who read a thriller or murder mystery would have cause to be banned from their library.

The patron is entitled to read what they want, and act the way that they want to, even if it seems strange to others. No one has to enjoy it, but that person is allowed to do it. If I were concerned for an individual's well-being, I would possibly have a conversation with them at the desk while they were checking books out. Even a "Hey, I love that book!" can often get a usually-quiet patron talking. I would also try and pool information across my staff to see if there were any friends or family in the area who could help.

Sometimes a person who has a mental illness may not be a threat to a single soul, but need reminding to take their medication every day. It sounds like if this person was looking up information on schizophrenia, and talked to themselves, they may have been concerned that they were showing early signs of the illness.

My hope is that this situation could be the standard against which other patron issues can be held, and one would say "JUST DON'T DO THIS." 

I have to say, that I was very happy with the responses that I received. As people who work in a public library, we follow the ALA (American Library Association)'s Bill of Rights, which includes (among other things) the following statements:

  • Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
  • A person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.

I'm very interested in knowing what you think about this situation. If you have a response, please email me at [email protected]

As always, I am available to meet and talk with you. This is your library and we want to hear what you think!

Nanci Hill, Library Director

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