The library board did not take any action relating to people sleeping on library grounds. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

The library board did not take any action relating to people sleeping on library grounds. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

In addition to carrying on the noble legacy of the Dewey Decimal System, librarians are also the de facto stewards of everyone who uses the public library, whatever their purposes.

The Santa Cruz Library Board periodically reviews its code of conduct to take into account whatever new issues are arising, whether they be hordes of boisterous teenagers swarming the Scotts Valley branch when schools let out, or local homeless sleeping for hours in the aisles of the downtown branch. The most recent revision, passed at last month’s Library Board Meeting, gave librarians permission to issue suspensions for up to a year to patrons who violate the code. Previously, they had only been able to issue 30-day suspensions and had to obtain restraining orders from the City Attorney’s Office for anything else.

“Most of the revisions [to the code] are based on staff recommendations as a result of their experiences,” explains Santa Cruz Director of Libraries Teresa Landers. “Behaviors which prevent others from being able to use the library for its intended purpose are what we prohibit,” she added.

Two other proposed changes to the code—which would have restricted support animals and imposed a sleeping ban—were not adopted by the board. The former was sent back for more research, and the latter was rejected in a close vote.

The sleeping ban in particular generated the most controversy at the meeting. A few homeless advocates spoke, including Gail Williamson. “Since Santa Cruz has passed so many move-along laws, privatized public spaces and made it illegal to sleep at night, it would be inhumane to take away one of the few safe public amenities that is still free, should someone fall asleep,” Williamson told the Weekly.

The code made a distinction between “dozing off for 10 minutes while reading a newspaper” and “sleeping for hours.”

The homeless advocates applauded when the sleeping ban was shot down, but the two librarians present were clearly disappointed and even looked a little helpless when the resolution failed to pass. For them, it was obviously one resource taken away in a policing job they didn’t ask for, but are expected to do.

Job Hazards

So exactly what kinds of things do today’s librarians have to deal with? Some pretty weird ones, it turns out. For her part, Landers recalls the time she adopted two cats when she worked at a library in Phoenix. They had been abandoned on the magazine shelves. She says a library staffer here in Santa Cruz once found a pair of false teeth being used as a bookmark in a returned book. The reports from around the country are just as strange. For example:

• Katie Knight, a recently retired librarian at a Fayetteville, North Carolina public library told the Raleigh News Observer that she found dental floss used as a bookmark and a condom deposited in the book return slot, and once fielded an anonymous phone call from someone wondering if there was a warrant out for his arrest.

• Confessional website “Love the Liberry” runs anonymous complaints from librarians, such as: “Man comes to the desk with a dripping wet book and claims it was like this when he got it.” Or, “A giant man in a t-shirt that says ‘fuck’ comes up to me  at the children’s desk and asks if we have At the End of the Sidewalk by Shel Silverstein.”

• UC Berkeley student Nadia Cho made headlines this winter with a provocative sex column in The Daily Californian newspaper detailing an afternoon of on-campus sex. “I’ve always had the clichéd fantasy of having sex in Main Stacks, so we wasted no time in heading there first,” she wrote. A self-identified university librarian complained in the comments section of the column of having to deal with “pedophiles, thieves, and people with poor bowel function,” and now students using “liberal arts justifications” to have sex in the library.

Blogger “The Annoyed Librarian” had an altogether different and distinctly librarian-esque concern. With decades worth of “reliable sexual information in the library,” she wondered, “why would anyone turn to a barely post-adolescent college student for sex tips?”

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  • Karen Kefauver

    A few times a month, I pop into the Santa Cruz Main Branch Library (downtown Santa Cruz) to browse and also to use my laptop to write in a (relatively) quiet place. I typically set up shop right near the library checkout desk for two reasons. 1. I feel safer in the library when I am stationed closer to a row of workers! Further back in the library, well, it can feel like being in a homeless shelter! 2. It is amazing people watching to see the variety of folks who come thru those doors. I would never want to work there and admire those who do. I have long observed that the job of librarian, at least in that location, seems to now require advanced sociology skills to cope with the customers as well as traditional library skills.

  • Kathy Cheer

    Having worked in the Central lobby bookstore for four years, I witnessed first hand the awkward scenarios involving library staff and troublesome “street” patrons.  Library users’ attitudes toward the homeless range from heartfelt sympathy to disgust and anger.  Perhaps those who use these daytime shelters might liken it to visiting someone’s home…dozing off or eating food on the floor in this culture is not kosher; it’s disrespectful.  Contrary, unruly behavior salted with foul language creates a threatening, disruptive atmosphere, unacceptable, if not illegal, in public arenas.