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Ben Treat is the director of the Bangor Public Library.
You may have heard about recent behavioral problems at the Bangor Public Library. This problem doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A complex web of social conditions has resulted in a housing crisis and an opioid epidemic — long-term, statewide, interwoven problems with no simple solutions. The library’s response needs to be about keeping the library facility and grounds safe for the people who come here.
There is so much to protect. We have fabulous places for literacy tutoring, reading a newspaper, meeting a friend for a game of cards, and much more. The library is a great place to look down long aisles for just the right book. The library is a special place that provides programming such as the recent Americans and the Holocaust exhibit and an array of childhood literacy programs, art exhibits and much more.
Yes, there is a lot to protect; let me tell you a little about how we do it. The library is full of semi-private nooks and crannies as well as areas that are nowhere near our service desks. We are taking staff away from other duties to patrol these spaces. We must have a firm presence that corrects and prevents misbehavior, and so far we are attempting to do so without additional staffing. But what does that patrol look like?
An example: If someone falls asleep in the library, we wake them up. It begins as a wellness check; is this person tired, sick? If the person cannot be roused, we take emergency steps immediately. If the person can be roused, but keeps falling back asleep, we make a call for a wellness check. Eventually, the person does need to leave if they cannot stay awake. This is all very time consuming, but if my loved one was not feeling well and drifting off to sleep, I would want people around them treating them with care.
Think of falling asleep in the library as a “yellow light” violation of our Rules of Conduct: no direct or severe harm, perhaps, but also not using the space for what it’s for. “Yellow light” rule-breakers need to leave for the day if the behavior persists.
However, we have also had to respond to “red light” violations: threats, drug use, theft, property damage, and more. None of this is safe behavior, and it’s all completely unacceptable. For these sorts of “red light” violations, police are called to issue a criminal trespass warning, effective for one year. We had five such criminal trespass warnings in all of 2017. In just February and March of this year we have had 27. Our measures are tough where they must be tough and firm where they must be firm.
The library’s problem is a microcosm of a statewide and nationwide problem. You may want to know what you can do. The answer is to turn to organizations that are working toward solutions. The library has had support from many partner organizations and agencies, such as Bangor Public Health, Bangor police, Community Health and Counseling and Health Equity Alliance. The city is working to implement the recommendations of the affordable housing working group of 2019 and is seeking partnerships with nationally-recognized organizations like Built for Zero. The true solutions reside outside our walls.
But inside our walls, we will continue to welcome all patrons who use the library for its many intended purposes and obey the rules. To accomplish that, we will keep our rules posted prominently, review our Rules of Conduct for potential innovations and continue exploring additional safety staffing. Your safety is job one.