Public Library

When the St. Louis County Library system opens to in-person patrons without appointments for the first time in more than a year on May 10, many things will have changed. Most will not be as visible as masked workers or social distancing signs.

According to library workers organizing under the activist group Libraries for All STL, these newly reopened libraries will no longer have police officers on their payrolls. The off-duty officers, working under the contracting group Hudson Securities, had been present until July 2020 at six branches of the SLCL system: Indian Trails, Florissant Valley, Lewis and Clark, Natural Bridge, Rock Road, and Weber Road. All but one of those branches are in North County and serve a majority-Black population.

SLCL Director Kristen Sorth stated in an email that the police officers — who spent their time in the library in full uniform, despite not being on duty — are to be replaced with Public Safety Specialists, as the budgeted funds for Hudson Security were removed from the 2020 Library Budget this past September. 

Per the September meeting minutes, all the branches that housed police officers in previous years — with the notable exception of Indian Trails — will now host public safety specialists.

The job postings for these new public safety professionals, however, indicated that they would not be entirely separate from the county police: they included unarmed security licenses issued by that same department as a requirement.

Some library workers wonder if these new jobs indicate that the library is in fact divesting from police, or just re-instituting policing under the badge of the library system rather than the badge of Hudson Securities.

“We really think that they changed the badge and kept the function the same,” said one librarian, who requested anonymity due to fears of retribution from her employer. “The descriptions online say they’re going to receive training from St. Louis County Police Department.” Other employees wonder why any person must serve in this role in the first place, noting that in their branches police officers rarely did much of anything to serve the library or its patrons.

“Really, most officers spent their time on their phones at my branch,” one librarian remembered. “There was some harassment of teenagers and the homeless.” Three different library workers stated, however, that the police officers in the library witnessed any form of altercation or other serious incident, they were not able to do anything about it — and the librarians generally found themselves either breaking up fights themselves or calling the local police department.

“Basically, intimidation was their unstated purpose in our library branches,” one worker said. Others agreed: “I think they’re just there to scare people straight. It’s an intimidation tactic. They don’t really do much because they’re off-duty. There’s only certain things that they can do…they have limited authority.”

Other changes the library is now instituting include the placement of social workers in the same five branches that will be receiving public safety officers “to address the barriers of accessing social services, providing trusted referrals to other community partners, and [equip] Library employees to handle crisis situations,” Sorth said in an email.

Library employees, however, say that more change is needed in order to move the libraries towards being the community spaces they were designed; supporting everyone from unhoused patrons needing access to the internet to elderly residents checking out audiobooks. Throughout the pandemic, librarians — whose workforce was cut drastically by 122 employees during the summer months — have been responsible for curbside service, running food and diaper distribution events, and moving a great deal of the library’s programming such as author talks online.

Now, they are expected to do all that and make the libraries welcoming spaces in a fully open capacity, while working with a staff that is smaller than the staff they had at this time last year. As such, Libraries For All is now pushing for a more fully staffed library system in order to make that possible, and a participatory-budgeting system to allow patrons and workers to help determine where the money that would otherwise be spent on policing in the libraries might best go.

“There are library and information sciences professionals who have studied what the alternatives are to police in libraries. There are libraries that are already doing this stuff. And the number one answer is fully staffed libraries,” including workers such as peer navigators, who would have personal experience with some of the struggles, such as homelessness, that many of the library’s patrons are facing.

“They’re trying to make us the radical enemy…they’re painting us as disgruntled employees. With that being said, at work, we’re the best employees,” one librarian, who recently won employee of the quarter, said. “So, we can’t be that disgruntled! Obviously, I’m providing stellar service to my community. And that is exactly the reason why we’re fighting this fight in our own free time, at the risk of our livelihood.”

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