No Safe Space Haven in a Public World

Few clichés promise to do more damage to libraries than claiming to be “safe spaces.” Libraries are not safe spaces. At the very least, such a claim perpetuates an immodest and ill-defined boast and, as with most boasts, this one can’t be delivered.

Recently, within the space of only one month, two west coast libraries witnessed tortured souls openly committing suicide during public hours. A third reported a fatal overdose.

What could library staff tell parents about the library as safe space then?  What can administrations tell staff? What kind of “safety” is that?

Touting that nothing bad will happen represents one kind of conventional claim of the safe space cliché. Of course, as we all know, other examples challenge libraries daily. Lots of these, while perhaps not so tragic or dramatic as these recent circumstances, confront libraries in myriad ways in how they function not as fantasy but actual public space. We tend not to think or talk about them, though, when engaging hyperbolic rhetoric.

Like on streets, however, or on public transportation, in large entertainment venues, or the recreational facilities we share, unintended things happen and happen quickly, no matter how many cameras or badges or lights we install.

Control is a myth in public space.

A second challenge is the myth of the intellectual safety space libraries frequently claim to represent. I hasten to remind readers that the VOYA co-founder herself, Dorothy M. Broderick, famously encouraged libraries to intentionally post provocative signs stating: “If you do not find something offensive in here please see a librarian.”

Libraries are thus not intellectually “safe spaces” either. Although these days one hears fewer complaints about “second-hand porn” (young people inadvertently exposed to dangerous screens) citizens can get into all kinds of dangerous situations bumping up against ideas and browsing titles and images unsuited for people with “safety” foremost on their minds. Ideas and art and creativity, by definition, defy “safe.” Libraries are chock-full of them all. And librarians are ethically bound to be proud of that.

A third and even broader type of challenge to the illusionary safe space claim is the ideologically reaching notion of libraries created and designed to elevate the human spirit. This notion claims to connect us to ideal concepts of democratic community – the idea that libraries are, for instance, “free to all” as old Carnegie buildings promise, in stone, above many a front door. In libraries, the story goes, all can safely pursue their interests no matter where those interests go . . . “Oh, the places you’ll go!”

History, however, indelicately calls us on such soaring lies. History tells us, for example, that white middle-class woman didn’t find libraries “safe space” (as users or professionals) until the waning moments of the 19th century. African Americans didn’t find libraries safe until struggling well past the middle of the 20th century. Disabled people required federal legislation, too, before they could consider libraries safe. With this history can there be much doubt, especially in today’s political climate, that immigrants (among others) might find libraries not particularly safe from insult, surveillance, and suspicion?

Young adults, our particular concern, may well number chief among the groups to question the library as safe public space. Momentarily set aside how libraries evoke the claim every day without serious definition, Young adult visitors might experience all three of these different kinds of challenge simultaneously. Young adults routinely find themselves “tossed” from libraries for minor or perceived behavioral infractions. This practice remains so common that staff only rarely document it – so, it can’t be studied or questioned. Staff receive no training in safeguarding library space for young people. Libraries frequently defer to security staff – affording them a free hand in interpreting both behavior and library policy. And this, of course, does not even address the ongoing systematic and institutional refusal of libraries to allocate an equitable share of library space for YA service. Libraries still devote less than .03 percent of total assignable square footage to YA space – much less than even bathrooms.

Space is power. The more space one controls, the safer one can make it. Claiming and controlling space, though, requires the assertion of private control, and private control represents precisely the opposite of what libraries offer.

Should libraries stop claiming to be safe spaces? Of course. But the better question remains why they make the silly claim in the first place.

Libraries are not designed for safety. Safety is not in the library’s mission. Library services cannot even clearly define what “safety” means in any generalizable or measurable or defendable way. Nor should they try.

On the other hand, as architect Jan Gehl writes:  “Public life in good quality public spaces is an important part of a democratic life and a full life.”

Good quality public space is something we can design, define, and ensure in meaningful ways. Quality public space resides within the purview of professional responsibility. Quality space connects the library’s role with the provision of trusted (as well as suspect) information. Libraries uniquely offer the opportunity to inhabit a public space designed not to construct consumers but citizens. Quality public space comports with the library’s mission to contribute to the well-being of a democratic community.

The renowned urban planner, Jane Jacobs, got it right over a half-century ago when she advanced her “eyes on the street” thesis. The more people in a public space, Jacobs advanced, the safer that space. Quality public library spaces designs can assure many eyes in the building. The more eyes in the building, the safer space becomes.

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