Public libraries offer safe space for everyone - Albuquerque Journal

Public libraries offer safe space for everyone

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

One of Kelli Murphy’s most dramatic moments as a librarian occurred when she was managing Erna Fergusson in Northeast Albuquerque.

A visitor who “was clearly in crisis” had flashed a knife. While someone called emergency services, another library employee continued to talk with the man in an attempt to alleviate the tension.

It proved effective. No one was hurt – or even directly threatened – and the man ultimately left the library in what seemed like a calmer state.

It is not the kind of thing Murphy was specifically trained to handle when studying to be a librarian 20 years ago, but de-escalation skills are now part of the job.

“You just kind of work through the situation,” Murphy said.

Murphy started her career in an academic library but shifted her focus early on. She has now worked for the city-run Albuquerque-Bernalillo County library system about eight years.

She said her present position – managing the Main Library in Downtown Albuquerque – means serving a broad cross-section of the community, from families who live in surrounding neighborhoods and people seeking the on-site genealogy resources to those who merely want access to a printer or restroom.

“I realized (years ago) public libraries are really more my thing just because it’s everybody,” Murphy said.

The city’s libraries are indeed active melting pots – even with a pandemic, the 18-branch system still recorded more than 800,000 in-person visits last fiscal year.

As busy, free and open spaces – often with hours running into the evening and on weekends – libraries face some inherent challenges. The Public Library Association even offers an hourlong webinar called “Violence prevention in the public library,” acknowledging on its website that libraries’ founding principal of welcoming everyone is “wonderful” but “can also leave staff vulnerable to encountering difficult and sometimes dangerous individuals.”

But Albuquerque officials say numbers show the city-run library system remains overwhelmingly safe.

“The number of negative experiences going on, I think, is pretty negligible in the context of all the positive things,” Assistant Public Library Director Mary Sue Houser said.

Patrons are pictured waiting outside for the Main Library in Downtown Albuquerque to open on a recent morning. (Roberto E. Rosales/ Albuquerque Journal)

Across the network in March, for example, staff recorded 21 total “incidents” out of nearly 117,000 visits, according to data the city provided.

Libraries use the term “incident” liberally – it does not mean something that prompted a 911 call but instead encompasses any event employees deem worthy of documentation.

In two of the March cases, it was a client suffering a fall, according to the city’s report. Another involved an animal that was not a service dog.

Officials also acknowledge that, as a highly accessible public place, the library is a microcosm of the larger community and can reflect the challenges happening beyond its doors, sometimes literally. In March, employees documented a theft and an attempted theft of vehicles’ catalytic converters, a tent set up on library property and an overnight dumpster fire.

The March report also shows three instances where employees had to ask a patron to leave due to an argument – two at the Central and Unser branch and one at Main – and one “intoxication” incident, also at Main.

Such unwelcome behavior recently prompted one library employee to complain to City Council President Isaac Benton. Benton’s subsequent questions about library safety prompted city Arts and Culture Director Shelle Sanchez to publicly address the matter.

“We’ve seen a lot of issues in a lot of our public spaces, and this is something libraries are dealing with across the country,” Sanchez said in a presentation to the City Council earlier this month. “It’s not specific to our city.”

Sanchez presented the council years of data from three of the city’s busier branches: Main, Central and Unser, and Erna Fergusson, located on San Mateo near Comanche. She noted that each is near a major public transit route.

Together in 2021, the three recorded 183 “incidents,” though a significant portion – about a quarter – were something of a pandemic-era anomaly, pertaining to enforcement of the indoor mask mandate and related public health orders.

Out of the 183 total incidents, 42 (23%) prompted a call for emergency medical services. But employees only summoned the Albuquerque Police Department for two, according to Sanchez’s presentation.

“Our staff is really good at dealing with a lot of different people with a lot of different needs in these spaces, and they’re very talented at bringing down the conflict (and) at really resolving things before they become a problem,” Sanchez told the council.

The 18-branch city of Albuquerque-run library system saw over 800,000 in-person visits in fiscal year 2021. (Roberto E. Rosales/ Albuquerque Journal)

To address problems at Central and Unser – which had more than twice as many incidents last year as Main and Erna Fergusson combined – Sanchez said the city brought in a different manager with extensive de-escalation experience. The city also put a portable toilet near the facility – an addition she said has solved a lot of the site’s problems. Incidents have trended down over the last several months.

Benton said the recent discussions have demonstrated to him that library leaders are taking problems seriously. He said he believes libraries remain safe.

“I wanted to be assured of that,” he said. “I like the answers that I heard.”

Houser, who managed the Central and Unser branch before taking a division leadership position, said the city has worked to adjust to the problems it sees and respond better to the clients it serves.

Annual staff training sessions usually include a de-escalation lesson, and some library employees will attend a Bernalillo County-run behavioral health training in May, she said. Library leaders also have talked with Albuquerque Community Safety – the city’s new public safety department using a non-police response for certain 911 calls about public intoxication, homelessness and more – and ACS now makes routine visits to some of the branches.

Since some who are homeless rely heavily on the libraries – including for computer and internet access they might not have anywhere else – Houser said a Health Care for the Homeless employee was once stationed at the Main Library through a contract arrangement with the city. It made a difference, as he worked proactively to sign people up for applicable services. The city now has budgeted to hire three new library-based social service specialists to “replicate” that success, though Houser said the program is still being developed.

In addition, she noted that Albuquerque Center for Hope and Recovery – a nonprofit providing peer support to those with mental health and substance abuse issues – even keeps office hours at the Central and Unser Library.

“We serve everyone in our community, and some of those members of our community have some challenges, and they know that this is a safe space to come to, and a place to get resources and get assistance,” Houser said. “And … we treasure being in that role. I think we see it as our mission to be of service.”

Officials also say that the pandemic – during which the local libraries were open all but a few months – may have magnified problems, as the libraries continued basic operations but halted the kind of group programming and other special events that foster some of the most positive interactions. Events have since resumed.

Houser said “libraries are the most democratic institution in the country” and emphasized the “public” in the title of “public library.”

“If you spend time in our libraries, you see that it’s a very positive, safe, welcoming space that serves the entire community,” she said. “And there really is nothing else like it.”

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