Open door policy leads to public safety issues in St. Paul libraries

You have to give librarians credit. Despite digital technology inevitably changing the need for physical storage centers for books and information, the antiquated institution has reinvented itself in order to survive. Libraries now serve as “community hubs” as much as anything else, offering classes, internet access, entertainment, homework help, unemployment assistance, job centers, and even books.

In recent years, libraries have also essentially become drop-in centers for vagrants and the homeless. But as word of the open-door policy at St. Paul libraries has spread, the Star Tribune notes there’s an increasing concern for the safety of the public and staff, who find themselves on the front lines at the downtown George Latimer Central Library.

In the middle were library workers carrying walkie talkies and mobile alarms. A series of incidents earlier this year spurred steps to boost security.

City Council Member Jane Prince, who was chair of the Library Board until August, wonders if St. Paul is asking too much of its librarians.

“Our parks and libraries are places where people should be able to come and be safe and be treated with compassion. But we can’t do that unless we can assure the safety and security of our staff,” she said.

There’s no question the policy regularly puts both library staff and patrons in dangerous positions. At a public meeting, library employees related numerous close encounters with troubled individuals that left them on the defensive.

Library worker Kianna Tichy said some people who use St. Paul’s libraries “have real problems. And when they have problems, they bring them to us.” Staff members have been threatened, and “there’s been absolutely no communication about what we’re supposed to do,” she said.

Isaac Mielke, a library associate at the Riverview Branch Library on the West Side, said he’s received death threats in the past year and people have held knives up to him.

“I don’t get paid enough to deal with that,” he told council members.

Cindy Koy, who works at the Latimer Central Library, told the council, “I’m the one who has had a patron forcibly kiss me. … That patron came in earlier, and he threatened a staff member. For some reason, management decided they were allowed to come back.”

Some steps have been taken to improve security and officials promise further improvements.

City and library officials say they are working to enhance safety.

Firefighters on light duty or between calls started keeping watch at the downtown library over the summer, and extra security was added. Several areas that are hard to monitor have been closed to the public, and staff members are encouraged to work in pairs.

In addition, the city has allocated $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan money to a plan that will add safety specialists to the downtown library and others.

Yet as long as St. Paul libraries try to be all things to all people, there’s bound to be problems, putting both employees and the public in potential danger.