A dark figure stands among library shelves.

Fear and Loathing at the Front Desk

A Facebook conversation between some friends and former co-workers and me turned to interesting times at the first public library I ever worked at. I can't say it was the first library I ever worked for, because that would be the school library at Wilson Middle School in Yakima, WA. The librarian wasn't too keen on me and eventually told me I no longer needed to volunteer there, and that I wasn't suited for library work.

For those playing the home game, I manage integrated library systems for twenty libraries across the United States, and I've worked in libraries for over twenty years. In my professional opinion, that school librarian wasn't very good at her job.

Anyway the Facebook conversation led to tales of the patrons we'd had to ban, something that happens frequently at some libraries and especially at the downtown Yakima Valley Regional Library in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I've not been back in years, but at the time, the downtown library was the central administrative building where you'd find the offices of the Directors, the heads of the various departments, and so on. It was also located a block and a half from the Yakima County Jail and four blocks from a part of Yakima called "The Hole."

Bilbo Baggins, smoking outside his Hobbit hole
While "The Hole" in Yakima, WA features a lot of people smoking something, they sure as hell aren't Hobbits.

"The Hole" is nothing like a Hobbit hole. It's a place you seriously didn't want to be after dark unless you were armed. Even then, take your pistol and go somewhere safer.

So we had a revolving cast of characters each with their nicknames that could've made for a modern sticom. There was the Belcher, and I leave it to you to guess why we called him that. There was Colleen, who'd threaten the staff. There was the Machete Guy, he kept a machete in his backpack like some post apocalyptic shithead. We had the Flasher who had no interest in photography and every interest in exposing himself.

There was the Indian Princess, who came to the library in the early afternoon, arriving in a state of mild intoxication. She'd take that mild state and push it forward all day with the various bottles and containers of alcohol she hid on her person. The last time I remember seeing her was just before closing the library one evening. That night, around 9pm, a Page came running upstairs, panic washing over them. She was downstairs, in the women's bathroom stall, and they weren't sure if she was breathing. I yelled at the staff to call 911 while I ran downstairs. Some quick assessment and first aid showed she was breathing, but her pulse was weak, and she was utterly incoherent. The paramedics from the Yakima Fire Department confirmed what I figured: alcohol poisoning. She'd damn near drank herself to death.

But the story that came up in a library staff meeting many miles from Yakima, in a completely different atmosphere from YVRL. It brought some levity and clarity to people who weren't used to calling the EMTs for drug overdoses, waking up drunk people to help them outside because the library was closing, or calling the police because a patron on public computer number three was printing images of child pornography. (He was subsequently arrested and convicted... again.)

Because Southeast Regional Library isn't anything like YVRL's downtown branch. Located in the heart of Gilbert, AZ; Southeast Regional, or SERL to the staff, serves a large community of a more middle class to upper middle class variety. Within a square mile of the library, you have properties big enough to boast a large home sitting on enough land that the horses in their "front yard"are quite content with their space. Gated entrances lead to grand driveways and beautiful homes. Next to the library is a riparian preserve with lakes, wildlife, walking and running trails, and a small astronomical observatory. It's a world away from downtown Yakima in so many ways.

That in mind, let's go back to the Yakima Valley and the Selah Branch Library, located in the town of Selah, about five miles from the Downtown Library. I used to work there as a Library Assistant and, given the location of the library at the time, it was a popular hangout for kids after school. I often worked alone because there were only a couple of folks on staff anyway. If the Branch Manager was out to a meeting, I was on my own. Not a problem, even when the kids got rowdy, I could calm them down.

Except for one.

This kid was a bully, he had a size advantage over most of the kids his age, and he used it. Honestly, he had a size advantage over me. I'm only five feet, four inches tall, or 162.6 cm for the right thinking parts of the world. He did his fair share of pushing around anyone who displeased him, even his own group of friends, but there was one student he had a thing for. After all, this student wore glasses, was into nerdy things, and fit the profile of "excited geek."

Needless to say, he was my kind of person.

These two had crossed paths before, but that day things blew up between them. I believe the geeky kid accidentally knocked over the bully's soda bottle or something. Either way, a slight was perceived and the bully was going to address it. He came in behind this other kid shouting at him and physically intimidating him, at which point I told him to knock it the hell off or he'd be kicked out of the library... again. (It likely wouldn't have been his first time that week.) He flung an insult at me that bounced off my chest and landed on the floor to die along with all the other things I'd been called working in a public library. But, at least he backed off and left. Our geeky student found a better place to be in the library.

That was, until maybe half an hour later when the bully cornered him in the reference area, a separate room and the only part of the library I couldn't see from the front desk. I heard the assault and knew what was happening even before I knew who was involved. The sound of a punch isn't anything like what you hear in the movies or on television. It's not a crisp POW! so much as a dull thud. I jumped to my feet as the geeky kid came falling down the two or three stairs leading up into the reference room.

I knew what happened, but the bully's shouting and posturing from the reference room confirmed it. I checked on the kid he hit, but quickly turned my attention to the larger kid walking towards us. I stood up, put myself between the kid and the bully and started walking toward him. I don't remember exactly what he said, but it was along the lines of "Oh you want some too? I'll kick your ass, library man!" or something creative like that. As he took up his bullshit boxing stance, I reminded him -- I'm not a kid, I'm an adult. And if we're going to fight, we're doing it on my terms.

I reached to the side and picked up one of the chairs in the reference room, bringing it into a position where I was ready to swing it like a baseball bat. Bully boy was decidedly unarmed and I watched the fear sprint across his face before he too sprinted out the back door of the reference room and down the hall. That day he learned there's a big difference between a fight out behind the gymnasium and a fight with an adult who's been in a few fights of their own.

The geeky kid was mostly okay. We cleaned him up, called his folks, called the police, and I wrote an incident report. I honestly never saw the bully again in the library. So far as I know, he wasn't formally trespassed, but he certainly never came in again while I worked there.

A 3M Self Checkout Machine from the early 2000s.
The arm that holds up the laser scanner was an excellent design feature. You could tie a rope to it and use it as a boat anchor.

Many miles and many years later, I arrived at SERL as a Circulation Supervisor and started figuring out how I could help, how I could fit in, and what I could do to make life easier for my staff and the patrons. Mostly, I wanted to keep my head down for a while because nothing appeared to be severely broken, so I saw no reason to fix anything. The first weeks were easy. I learned everything I could, I kept my mouth shut and my ears open, I approached everything with an open mind, and I would swear profusely at the self checkout machines. (SERL had the same model as YVRL and theirs too were a shitshow of a machine.)

Perhaps a month into my employment, we convened a staff meeting to discuss issues, changes, upcoming events, and the things you'd discuss at a staff meeting. Ah, but someone had a concern, and that we might have a problem.

See, there's this guy? And, now I don't know that he's homeless but he might be homeless. Either way he comes in the library every morning and goes to the back, near the windows. You know, where the magazines and newspapers are? And he sits there. He has an iPod or something, but he sits there, and maybe he reads the paper and then he'll fall asleep.

I politely sat in my chair, drinking my coffee, and waited for them to get to the problem. But no, that was it. A guy comes in, listens to music, reads the paper, and falls asleep in the back.

I had questions.

JonTron - Animated gif where he says I Have Several Questions.

Is his music too loud?

No.

Does he have a hygiene problem?

No.

Does he snore loudly?

No.

Does he have, like, a bunch of bags or stuff that's taking up a lot of space?

No.

Okay, so... forgive me, but where's the problem?

He comes in, he sits down, he listens to music on his iPod -- which puts into question his homelessness since most homeless people probably couldn't afford an iPod -- he reads, he occasionally falls asleep, he wakes up, gets up, and leaves. Honestly, I didn't even know this guy existed until this meeting, so where's the problem?

My new colleague who would go on to become one of my friends, the Adult Services Librarian who was also in charge of Reference, smiled at me. He saw exactly where I was going with this.

But, the person insisted, he's sleeping... in the library.

"Okay, "I said, "I need to apologise, and beg your pardon because I'm coming here from a completely different library situation. I've had to preform first aid on a woman suffering from alcohol poisoning, call the EMTs for overdoses, call the police on pedophiles, chase flashers out of the library, stop creeps from following the Pages around through the shelves, (most of these Pages were underage girls in high school), break up fights, and get into a few of them too.... So I need to get this into a perspective."

I looked around the table.

"Raise your hand if you've been in a fistfight on the job," I said, raising my own hand. "And now, keep it up if you won."

There were some chuckles, and I was the only one with my hand up.

"I don't mean to be an ass and I apologise. This guy isn't hurting anyone. He's not taking up undue space. He's not bothering other patrons or staff. Maybe we go wake him up if there's an actual policy against sleeping in the library, but believe me, he's fine. I know I'm new here, but compared to the library I worked at before, this place is Hobbiton and I am Danwise Gamgee."

We never spoke of this patron again.

A multifunctional library tool.

Working at YVRL, especially downtown, was its own kind of adventure. Before I left, it wasn't getting any better. People regularly threatened the staff. I'd wind up walking my coworkers to their cars because they didn't feel safe due to an earlier interaction that day. I'd placed a few things around the areas behind the front desk in case a patron tried to get physical. After all, a newspaper stick with a rubber band on the end of it belongs behind the front desk. No one notices it until it needs to stop being a newspaper stick and start being a club. But in the style of a bad adventure movie from the 1980s, it was the kind of place that makes you hard, toughening you against the world and preparing you for a fight. It's like Conan turning The Wheel of Pain except for all the ways it absolutely isn't.

The thing you need to remember - YVRL isn't at all unique in this regard. Check out any large library in any large city. You'll see many of the same problems and the staff will likely tell you similar stories. Libraries are one of the few places left where you can go and no one expects you to spend any money to be there. From the self-entitled to the mentally ill, we serve all of them day after day. But if there's anything to take away, it's that for every insane story a library professional can tell you, there are hundreds of stories that are normal and passive. For every strange event, there are hundreds of normal ones.

Welcome to public service.

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Self Check Out image credit: Binghamton University Library (Flickr)