It’s not just Anchorage: From book shelves to psychosis and food stamps, librarians confront a new workplace

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For nearly two decades, Lisa Dunseth loved her job at San Francisco’s main public library, particularly her final seven years in the rare books department.

But like many librarians, she saw plenty of chaos. Patrons racked by untreated mental illness or high on drugs sometimes spit on library staffers or overdosed in the bathrooms. She remembers a co-worker being punched in the face on his way back from a 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 age 61, making an early exit from a nearly 40-year career.

“The public library should be a sanctuary for everyone,” she said. The problem was she and many of her colleagues no longer felt safe doing their jobs.

Libraries have long been one of society’s great equalizers, offering knowledge to anyone who craves it. As public buildings, often with long hours, they also have become orderly havens for people with nowhere else to go. In recent years, amid unrelenting demand for safety-net services, libraries have been asked by community leaders to formalize that role, expanding beyond books and computers to providing on-site outreach and support for people living on the streets.

In big cities and small towns, many now offer help accessing housing, food stamps, medical care, and sometimes even showers or haircuts. Librarians, in turn, have been called on to play the role of welfare workers, first responders, therapists, and security guards.

Librarians are divided about those evolving duties. Although many embrace the new role — some voluntarily carry the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone — others feel overwhelmed and unprepared for regular run-ins with aggressive or unstable patrons.

“Some of my co-workers are very engaged with helping people, and they’re able to do the work,” said Elissa Hardy, a trained social worker who until recently supervised a small team of caseworkers providing services in the Denver Public Library system. The city boasts that some 50 lives have been saved since library staffers five years ago began volunteering for training to respond to drug overdoses. Others, Hardy said, simply aren’t informed about the realities of the job. They enter the profession envisioning the cozy, hushed neighborhood libraries of their youth.

“And that’s what they think they’re walking into,” she said.

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Across the U.S., more than 160,000 librarians are employed in public libraries and schools, universities, museums, government archives, and the private sector, charged with managing inventory, helping visitors track down resources, and creating educational programs. Often, the post requires they hold a master’s degree or teaching credential.

But many were ill prepared for the transformation in clientele as drug addiction, untreated psychosis, and a lack of affordable housing have swelled homeless populations in a broad array of U.S. cities and suburbs, particularly on the West Coast.

Amanda Oliver, author of “Overdue: Reckoning With the Public Library,” which recounted nine months she worked at a Washington, D.C., branch, said that while an employee of the library, she was legally forbidden to talk publicly about frequent incidents such as patrons passing out drunk, screaming at invisible adversaries, and carrying bed bug-infested luggage into the library. This widespread “denial of how things are” among library managers was a complaint Oliver said she heard echoed by many staffers.

The 2022 Urban Trauma Library Study, spearheaded by a group of New York City-based librarians, surveyed urban library workers and found nearly 70% said they had dealt with patrons whose behavior was violent or aggressive, from intimidating rants and sexual harassment to people pulling guns and knives or hurling staplers at them. Few of the workers felt supported by their bosses.

“As the social safety net has been dismantled and underfunded, libraries have been left to pick up the slack,” wrote the authors, adding that most institutions lack practical guidelines for treating traumatic incidents that over time can lead to “compassion fatigue.”

Library administrators have begun to acknowledge the problem by providing training and hiring staff members experienced in social services. Ensuring library staffers did not feel traumatized was a large part of her focus during her years with the Denver libraries, said Hardy. She and other library social workers in cities such as San Francisco and Washington have worked in recent years to organize training programs for librarians on topics from self-care to strategies for defusing conflict.

About 80% of librarians are women, and the library workforce skews older, with nearly a third of staff members over 55. As in many professions, salaries have failed to keep pace with rising costs. According to the American Library Association-Allied Professional Association, the average salary for a public librarian in the U.S. 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, with more than 60,000 people who are homeless, the past few years have tested the limits of a public library system with more than 80 sites.

“The challenge is that the level of need 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 transition more than a decade ago in response to the number of patrons seeking bathrooms and temporary respite from 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 San Francisco’s 28 library sites looking to connect sick or needy patrons with services big and small, from shelter beds and substance use treatment to public showers, a model that has been copied in cities around the world.

“The library is a safe place, even for those who no longer trust the system,” said Esguerra, who worked at a community mental health clinic before becoming the “library lady,” as she’s sometimes called on the streets.

But hiring a lead social worker hasn’t erased the many challenges San Francisco’s librarians face. So the city has become more aggressive in setting standards of behavior for patrons.

In 2014, then-Mayor Ed Lee called for library officials to impose in response to rampant complaints about inappropriate conduct, including indecent exposure and urinating in the stacks. Soon after, officials released an amended code of conduct that explicitly spelled out the penalties for violations such as sleeping, fighting, and “depositing bodily fluids on SFPL property.”

The city has installed extra security and taken other steps, like lowering bathroom stall doors to discourage drug use and sex and installing disposal boxes for used needles, although people still complain about conditions at the main library.

Some rural libraries have sought to make social services more accessible, as well. In Butte County, along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada in Northern California, library workers used a $25,000 state grant to host informational sessions on mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, as well as how to help people access treatment. Books on these topics were marked with green tags to make them easier to find, said librarian Sarah Vantrease, who helped build the program. She now works as a library administrator in Sonoma County.

“The library,” said Vantrease, “shouldn’t just be for people who are really good at reading.”

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

17 COMMENTS

  1. I know I won’t take my kids to Loussac any more. Not after that woman was stabbed. And since I found the trans content being promoted in the kids section. If I have to protect them from foul people and foul ideologies I’d rather they go somewhere else

  2. Very good article MRA.

    This happened at a public library in Alaska. It was kept secret.

    One of the homeless using a library infected the library furniture/carpeting with bed bugs.

    Think about that the next time you, the taxpayer, want to take your kids to a library.

  3. Unlike San Francisco, Anchorage library staff have left due to actions from the Mayor’s office, not the homeless.

    • You’re absolutely right! The mayor is creating such havoc at the library that mothers don’t feel safe leaving their kids there to study trans ideology.

      What a maroon.

  4. Sounds like leftist wants it to get so bad that no one will work there but leftists. And then they introduce pervert reading hour and every other filth they can dream up.

  5. This is the unintended conseqences of neutering the Gospel controlling what and how pastors and churches preach. San fran sowed seeds against God’s law and prophets, so this
    is the fruit we reap.

  6. By the way where are the true San Fran Christians, they still there? The town’s churches they closed? Or is there one. Or are
    the churches neutered? Cause the brokeness shows a people knowing no jesus. Jesus is the truth, way, and life. The good works we do are like using filthy rags to clean a mess, That’s why it won’t clean up a mess, when the people need to know jesus and their sins are forgiven, so they need not to grieve no longer, and they can forgive others cause jesus paid for it all.

    • You have a point. There are communities which are associated with great churches and vice versa in the minds of many. When it comes to San Francisco, however, why is it the only thing which comes to mind is the Peoples Temple?

  7. And do any of those navigating this new normal even question how we got here? It wasn’t that long ago the library was a quiet, clean and safe place to go browse books, study, read, and now it has become a day shelter for the burgeoning dystopian. We now have that many people in crisis and the left doesn’t blink an eye except regarding how to clothe a feed them, and get them to the polls as needed. 60K homeless in just Los Angeles county. This is beyond unacceptable and all a result of decades of leftist, empty, Godless policies that have destroyed the family unit and normalized depravity as acceptable and even encouraged lifestyles.

  8. Gee……..none of these problems at the library on Ft. Rich. I wonder what they’re doing right?

  9. The article details the transition of libraries into non-traditional “social service” centers. However, it seems to ignore the effects of said transition upon traditional users… who it seems are being taken for granted. In fact, the libraries are no longer serving their intended purpose. Combine that with the ever-growing availability of information on the internet and it just seems we need to eliminate brick and mortar libraries altogether. Their purpose is going the same way of cursive writing.

    Reply

    • So what do you do with the information which isn’t available online? Pretend it isn’t important and deserves to be discarded? That’s precisely what certain people want. Over a matter of years, I watched reference books disappear from the shelves of the Noel Wien Library simply because those books were actively being used for reference. The information found in those books couldn’t be found online. I often have to search multiple times before Google will give me information on a topic outside of the past 2–3 years. When you multiply this times X number of similar examples and places, it’s easy to figure out why this country is so dumbed down and prone to be hijacked at any given election.

  10. Sounds like librarians need to refocus their skills. I would say some courses in self defense, first aid, and maybe qualify them in the use of less lethal weapons like Tasers. They’ve been given a whole new set of responsibilities and need to be prepared.

  11. The public library is a holdover from the past, unless you consider the serious libraries that preserve books no longer in print for real research. Ours is not that type. It has become like our public transportation system, a place that you would never want to take your children or now even yourself unless there’s no other option. The millions of taxes would be better spent elsewhere. Maybe we need a vote to decide on this. The library would make a great homeless shelter and rehabilitation center, and the assembly could continue to use it for whatever they call what they do.

  12. I saw a social worker I know from Hope Comm. Resources (Hope Cottages) at the library 2 weeks ago.
    He was just hired to work there (better paying gov. job) & is helping w/ crowd control for the unruly drunk, drug & insane patrons that flood the place now.

    As I passed through the classy & wonderful “Ann Stevens Reading Room” there was a passed out young man in one of the beautiful wing armchairs. His coat & a book were laying on the floor in front of him & his bag of junk food from Holiday was on the end table next to him. An elderly guard was trying to wake him & move him along to no avail …. he was passed out drunk 11:00 o’clock in the morning.

    This will never end w/ Dems in charge.
    They will give people free apts & an army of freeloaders will still be lined up for more free housing.
    An ever flowing river of dead beats.

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