or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Customer Anti-Service

   January 4th, 2007

Library: Love Some, Serve SomeA couple stories recently caught my attention, as examples of threats to the service libraries can provide.

First was an (much talked about) New York Times article, about a library in New Jersey. They were being overrun by kids after school let out. Their solution? Close the library between 2:45pm and 5:00pm.

I don't agree with this, but I can empathize - I used to work at a library with the same concern, but to a much lesser degree. Even still, this is not a long-term solution. My current library is lucky enough to have both a Childrens and a Young Adult Librarian, who do after-school programming as well as special programming on early-release days - recognizing who your patrons are and preparing for them is the key.

The second story is an issue brought up recently on the Maine Libraries listserv (MELIBS-L). The following message was posted to the list on behalf of an unnamed library:

...city council [is requesting] to apply the following to non-residents: Anyone who walks through the door must prove they have a card or will be asked to leave. Anyone who asks a reference question or brings children to storytime or uses any service from this library will be asked to pay a fee. This will not apply to use of internet connectivity as that is not permitted under e-rate rules...

Maine librarians have always been open and supportive, and a great deal of discussion ensued (the highlights of which are below in the comments). Again though, although I can understand how someone could reach this as a solution, it just goes against everything libraries stand for. I haven't heard yet what happened with this city council request, but will post the result when I do.

Geez. We all talk about how outstanding customer service needs to be our bottom line if libraries are to have any kind of future, so it is shocking that situations like these exist in American libraries today.

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7 Responses to “Customer Anti-Service”

  1. herzogbr Says:

    Here’s what some Maine librarian had to say about this:


    Does the library have a mission statement that has been approved by
    the city council? Would such tactics undermine this mission?


    The barbarians are at the gates! As much as I feel for this anonymous library, I am even more concerned that this ham-fisted attempt at … what? fiscal responsibility? I doubt it… on the part of its city council will encourage other towns (like my own) to do likewise. It’s wrong-headed, churlish, and counter-productive to turn away people from a public building for not having a “membership”, so to speak. Is there something the State Library can do, perhaps in association with the Maine Municipal Association, to send a message to town governments that this is not the way libraries work?


    I cannot imagine working in a library with such a city council telling me what to do. My suggestion would be for the librarian(s) to continue to serve each and every patron who walks in their door- whether or not the patron has a library card or a local address. I would next contact the local (and national?) news media to write a story about it. And- just in case- I would start looking for another job.

    Don’t all Maine libraries have some sort of reciprocity? How can we turn away other Maine residents or even those passing through from other states who may be seeking information (research, geneology)?


    I wonder if it is even legal to refuse someone access to a public building because they are not a resident. Has either of the concerned parties sought the advice of legal counsel on this matter?


    One suggestion is to estimate the staff time (e.g. extra expense) that would be incurred by implementing these new policies. For example, to have someone checking library cards at the door reminds me of Sam’s Club which positions a staff person at the door to check membership cards- seems quite costly to add a staff member to the library staff to do that job. Then to have to check ID at programs, etc. would also require additional staff or at the least a staff member who must multi-task. On top of those things, you would get into the question of how much money does a library charge for a reference question, and what if the question is not answered, does the “patron” still have to pay? What if it is a ready reference question? You get my point.

    Also, I would point out how uncomfortable this would make the staff and patrons (both resident and non-resident) feel by being asked for money. Would that have an affect on Public Relations? I’d say yes. Would some patrons stop frequenting the library or switch to another library? Perhaps.

    What is the value of maintaining your patron base- not to mention increasing it… Of course there should be some alternative ideas presented to the Council about how to raise money if that is their concern. Perhaps, putting a donation container in a visible location, selling library goods e.g. library bags, notecards, keycards, or doing a fundraising drive.


    It sounds like the city council has found something that they feel is a serious issue to provoke such a reaction. The librarian needs to find out what the underlying issues are. I would request a meeting with the council or a representative of the council to find out what is bothering them and to see how open they are to discussion on the subject.

    If they are not that flexable, maybe they would be open to delaying it to gather information from other libraries that have similar policies. They may not listen to the librarian because they feel that his/her opioion is slanted, but an outside opinion of what happened in another library may have some influence.

    Finally, if this is a very rough situation, they can suggest to take it to the city as a question on a referendum or at a meeting. This is a city run entity and it is ultimately owned by the public. They should have some say in such a big policy change.

    Hopefully it will not come to that kind of a fight. It would ruin the relationship between the city and the library. Hopefully the lines of discussion will remain open and a solution that works for the library and fixes the issues the council has will be found.


    As far as whether a public library can refuse physical access to the building, I think that would have to be answered by a Maine State lawyer, specializing in First Amendment law.

    According to the 2006 Intellectual Freedom Manual, a public library is a “limited public forum”, a legal term defined as “property that the State has opened for expressive activity by part or all of the public”. (p. 370)

    Some relevant court cases regarding access are:

    Kreimer v. Bureau of Police: a homeless man was banned from the local library for dirupting other patrons with his poor personal hygiene. The court ruled that “The First Amendment protects the right to receive information and ‘includes the right to some level of access to a public library, the quintessential locus of the receipt of information.'” (p. 372)

    As far as retrictions on access, the Kreimer v. Bureau of Police decision did specify that the library has the right to establish reasonable rules governing library use.

    Armstrong v. District of Columbia Public Library: a library patron was excluded from the library because his appearance was deemed objectionable. The court found the library’s rule regarding appearance to be “vague” risking “discriminatory decisions regarding library access, its arbitrary nature and [the] application prevents the type of uniform decision-making required to provide fair notice …” (p. 373)

    Neinast v. Board of Trustees: the court unheld the library’s evicting a barefoot patron because the library’s rules were objective, precisely defined and offered a process for appeal.

    The way I understand it is that a public library may establish rules abridging access if the rules attend to the following criteria.

    The 2006 Intellectual Freedom Handbook recommends, “when crafting policies on the use of the public library and its various services, library officials must ensure that the policies are written, objective, consistently enforced, reasonable and related to library use, and accompanied by a mechanism for appeal.” (p.374)

    I think that there may be a problem with the reasonable-ness and mechanism for appeal aspects of the “no library card, no access” rule.

    As for charging fees for services, I cannot find any relevant court cases, but if one extrapolates from Kreimer, then charging a fee to have access to storytime or to get the answer to a question asked might be considered an undue burden on an individual’s First Amendment right (of access) by a court. Charging fees for services is certainly a violation of the Library Bill of Rights.

    To get answers to both questions/concerns, I would encourage the librarian to consult with legal counsel.


    You didn’t say whether or not this was a public (municipal) library or a private one with a town contract. I should think that might make a difference. If it is the latter, I assume the contract would spell out the population to be served.

    To attempt seeing a lighter side to this dire situation, here’s a fun logistical question: If a townsperson doesn’t have a library card and is coming to the library to obtain one, wouldn’t strict enforcement of the policy make that impossible? After all, one could not come into the library to register for the card without already having one. 🙂


    Oh, boy. I hope that we find out what library this is–I want to make sure I stay out of that town. I fear that if I get into an accident or am the victim of a crime, town officials will find out that I’m not a resident and deny me police, fire and EMS services!

    I haven’t done the research on this, but it certainly smacks of unconstitutionality. It shouldn’t matter whether the town is a private one using town money or a town department. I think both types are state actors” for purposes of First Amendment and other constitutional law. The contract with the town really wouldn’t matter (unless it specifically says that the library can provide services to anyone). The town can’t contract away its constitutional obligations.

    I know that a town can’t limit its streets, sidewalks and public places to town residents. It would seem to follow that the library is similar, although, again, I haven’t done the research. If it comes to it, the Maine Civil Liberties Union might be able to help. I’m sure they wouldn’t have a hard time finding a person to act as a plaintiff in a lawsuit.

    You could also point out that if word of this spreads, which it undoubtedly would, then other towns would be tempted to exclude the nasty town’s residents from similar services. I know, for instance, that Topsham allows residents of other towns to participate in its recreational programs (often at a slightly higher cost than for town residents), but if Curtis Memorial Library were to suddenly start denying Topsham residents access to the library for research and reference services, I would be the first to be at a selectman’s meeting urging them to prohibit Brunswick and Harpswell residents from Topsham’s recreation programs.

    Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. With the many small towns in Maine, each with limited resources, life will only work well if we can share the resources with everyone.

  2. Jack Black Says:

    California’s library systems are generally pretty open as well. The one library in the Bay Area (in a particularly snooty community) that did start to charge a fee quickly found that their usage and circulation plummeted. The policy was quickly rescinded.

  3. Liz Says:

    Admittedly I am an outsider to all this, but aren’t public libraries FREE by nature, if not by definition? Sure, there are public services that require or request fees (e.g., some parks departments require a fee per car), but in general, most public services (such as libraries) are covered by taxes. If someone breaks into your house and you call 911, does the operator ask for a credit card number before sending the police? Do you get a bill in the mail after you vote? I don’t think a library can charge for entrance or generally available services, and I don’t think getting into one should be any harder than getting into a bar (you show ID if you want a drink, but not always at the door, correct?).

    As for the NJ library with the afterschool problem, again, I’m not a librarian, but it seems to me that this could be handled without closing the place down. If you have any kind of business and you find certain people are disrupting that business, what do you do? Sure, you can close your doors, but then you lose the business that is your raison d’etre. You could exclude people or verify their cause for being there, but then you have to do that with EVERYONE or you risk being accused of (or committing) profiling. Or, as is more common, you could hire security–and being a public service, you can get the real thing.

    Perhaps this is a bit totalitarian, but it seems to me that if you’re calling the police twice a day in a three-hour span, and you are a public institution, why notrequest at least one officer be on the premises during your most problematic time? If certain patrons won’t respect librarians’ authority, perhaps they will respect legal authority, and if not, then their parents will have to do so. Much of the behavior described in the article (fighting, graffiti) is simply not allowed on public property and the police have every right to intervene. If the offensive parties are under 18, it’s still a juvenile infraction and the parents can be held liable. If this town really is as quaint and suburban as they say (or maybe it’s gone downhill since the touted 2002 article?), they can probably spare a police officer or two for a few hours in the afternoon. In Atlanta, where serious crime is a serious problem, they’re there full time (I don’t think I ever visited an intown branch without seeing at least one officer). Provide service to those who want it, and remove those who abuse it. Don’t punish everyone because of a problem you can’t handle alone.

  4. herzogbr Says:

    Jack: I can understand why charging a fee looks good on paper – many libraries, who are a part of a town budget, are often under pressure to either cut costs or raise funds on their own. But you’re right, as I don’t see how it could possibly work. Once libraries start charging retail for services, the difference between libraries and stores breaks down – and there is certainly no way we could compete with a for-profit enterprise. Not to mention that the services we provide are already paid for with tax dollars, so charging for them is like double taxation – even for non-residents, who are being taxed in their towns. Us not charging means that our townspeople can use libraries in other towns free of charge, too.

    Liz: You’re not an outsider – being a library patron means you are very much an insider. As far as using the local police as our own security guards, though, I don’t think that works too well in practice. The library would still have to pay for those officers to be there, which is expensive. A library could request the police “swing by” during certain problematic times, which they probably would do for awhile, unless they were busy somewhere else. And getting parents involved is also more difficult that it sounds; trust me.

    This is a serious problem, and you’re right in that just shutting down is not a good answer. The kids are just being kids – right out of school, they want to hang out and blow off steam (or whatever it is kids do nowadays). Personally, I think it is important to create a space in the library that allows such activity, without bothering the other patrons who want to work quietly. That’s where I think this is all breaking down, but not every library can provide such an environment. Doing that takes a serious buy-in from both the library and the town, and likely requires additional staff and funding. Which brings us back to Jack’s point: if libraries are having trouble just keeping the doors open, then how can we afford to customize service for any patron that comes in the door?

    Who says libraries are boring?

  5. Liz Says:

    Wow, seriously? I thought for sure, if you were on public property, you could request police presence for free. But I can understand how people might abuse that, so it makes sense that you’d have to pay. When I had a business and requested an off-duty officer, it was 20 bucks an hour–3 hours a day every weekday, that would add up quickly. But it may be that just having security there for a week or two would discourage those who are disruptive, and maybe that cost would be better than denying service all the time.

    Even though the article mentions criminal activity, I’m sure that’s rare, and most of the time it’s just kids being disruptive and rude, and yes, I bet police wouldn’t come and monitor for that for free. It’s just really sad that libraries have to make these kinds of decisions–call the cops when necessary, pay for security or shut down.

    My sister-in-law taught public school in the suburbs and said the kids were so awful she couldn’t take it, and now teaches at a private school where children are removed for bad behavior. Which is not to knock public schools (that’s where I was educated), but she says the difference is the parents–when you pay 13 grand a year for your kid’s education, you tend to care more when they’re acting up. She would call parents and some of them just sincerely did not care–one said “for an hour a day he’s your problem–figure it out.” Maybe the schools don’t know what to do with these kids either, and are just happy to have them be the library’s problem for a little while. How sad.

    On a brighter note, the Colts are beating the Chiefs 16-8 with 13 minutes left. Go Payton!

  6. Liz Says:

    Whoops! *Peyton*

  7. herzogbr Says:

    Right – police are not security guards. And neither are librarians. Situations like this can persists because many librarians (me included) are not comfortable yelling at or reprimanding unruly patrons, be they kids or otherwise.

    Also, too, librarians play a significantly different role than do teachers. Schools are legally responsible for kids when they are there, and are being paid to educate and protect them. Libraries are open to the entire public, people come in and out freely, and we actively try not to know what patrons are doing (to protect their privacy).

    The Children’s librarian at my library recently summed it up quite well: kids have to call teachers “Mrs. Crabtree” (or whatever) out of respect, because the teacher is in charge – they tell the kids what to do. In libraries, kids are encouraged to call librarians by their first names, because there, the kids are in charge – they tell us how we can help them.

    In that kind of situation, it is very easy for kids with a lot of energy to get out of control. But, I don’t think cracking down harshly with the police is even necessarily the answer. The kids are just being kids; they’re not criminals. More willingness and involvement from parents could be the thing. Perhaps instead of police or security guards, libraries could get parents to volunteer to come in and help keep order. That way, they’d see first hand what librarians are faced with, as well as be actively involved in the lives of their kids and their kids’ friends.