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The Conversation Around Policing and Public Libraries

by By Megdi Abebe, MS/LIS student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (2022) Spectrum scholar and co-editor at up//root on May 14, 2022

Public library workers across America witness first-hand how structural and state violence plagues our patrons, many of whom are unhoused, mentally ill, or dealing with crises in some capacity. Library workers do our best to contend with this reality, which has only been exacerbated by austerity, police violence, and the pandemic.

Folks come to the library for books, internet access, or perhaps for a short reprieve. We can’t reasonably expect them to divorce themselves from whatever they are dealing with before stepping into a library. Instead we try our best to accept and serve people as they are and understand that no one comes to libraries to be policed, surveilled, or made to feel unsafe.

Police interference is often justified under the pretense that it keeps people safe, a reasoning that has been called into question in libraries across America, especially in recent years. The call to remove police from libraries is controversial, but it’s a topic we can’t ignore.

We are all pondering the same questions. How can we keep ourselves and our patrons safe? What does accountability look like when a harm occurs in the library? And, as referenced in the statement by the Public Library Association: Call to Action for Public Library Workers to Address Racism: What can the calls to divest from punishment and policing — while investing in long-term safety strategies such as schools, libraries, employment, health, and housing — mean for your library and your community?

These questions led me to the ‘Policing and Social Justice in Libraries’ session at PLA 2022. The presentation was facilitated by Catherine Hollerbach, Chief of Public Services and Branch Management of Ann Arundel County Public Library and Michelle Hamiel, Chief Operating Officer of Prince George’s County Memorial Library System. As a library worker with no management experience, I was curious to see how they examined questions regarding social justice, safety, and policing.

The presenters broke down the merits of hiring police, security guards, and/or contract guards, upholding the claim that police are integral to community-building and public safety in the library. They also suggested remedies such as implicit bias training and treating-police-as-staff to prevent the potential for conflict with armed guards.

I left their presentation admittedly more confused than when I walked in. If there are patrons and staff who feel unsafe around law enforcement, what does it mean to continue envisioning police as members of the library community? What have we learned from ‘Defund the Police’? Aside from platitudes, what kind of changes did the summer of 2020 actually bring to library leadership and our collective approaches to safety? 

Considering that police violence has persisted in the face of implicit bias training, body cameras, and other reform attempts, it’s worth pursuing other solutions. The work is not easy, but we can’t ignore what marginalized communities have been saying about police violence. It can’t just be business as usual.

Attending this session strengthened my personal resolve to learn in community with those who seek solutions outside of what the status quo provides  — no matter how unconventional they may appear.