Children and LibrariesIf you follow the library press at all, you’ve undoubtedly heard of this story. On January 30, a 6-year-old boy was allegedly raped in a reference-room magazine area of the New Bedford (MA) Public Library, while his mother worked at a computer around the corner. A convicted sex offender, Corey Deen Saunders, had evidently frightened the boy into remaining quiet, and a librarian found Saunders’s picture in a sex-offender database after seeing the suspect interacting with the boy. Saunders fled the library, but was later arrested outside a homeless shelter.

All this is bad enough, but New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang has now proposed several new city ordinances to tighten security at the library:

  • adding to the library’s 29 surveillance cameras and the number of monitors that pick up the camera feed;
  • forbidding children younger than 10 from entering the library without direct adult supervision;
  • increasing the frequency of intermittent police patrols throughout the five-facility system;
  • mandating “a valid photo I.D. in addition to a library card or guest pass, equipped with a bar code, requiring patrons to swipe their card in order to gain access and to exit the library [which] would enable staff to have current information as to who is present in the library at any given time.”

It’s hard to picture a public library tightening security quite so much, and if we want to drive many of our users away, this kind of tough security seems like a good way to do it. Soon we’ll need to remove our shoes and have them scanned. Plus, as the story says, Saunders had a library card.

A more practical way of dealing with this issue is already under way at the NBPL. Library Director Stephen Fulchino is working on rearranging the building to improve staff sightlines. What happened never could have happened if staff had been more easily able to see into the stacks, and the furniture had been differently arranged.

Sightlines are an important issue, particularly in older libraries. I’ve seen plenty of older buildings, such as Carnegie libraries, that are nostalgic and attractive, but unless carefully furnished, can be really difficult to supervise because there are plenty of places adults and children can conceal themselves. (I worked in a library once in which a gang of young teen boys was grabbing younger children behind the stacks and “persuading” them to give up their library card numbers so the gang could have more time on the computers.) Meeting rooms need to be locked whenever they aren’t being used.

Director Fulchino said that the security cameras “worked in a sense”:

The assault was captured on film but no one is assigned to constantly view the monitor. “The problem is that nothing happens most of the time,” he contended, which can lull someone assigned to a security monitor to “not see what’s actually there.”

I can’t picture a library being able to afford someone to watch a bank of security cameras when there’s so much real work (and for a security guard, simply patrolling the building) that needs doing.