Hard looks at policies in hard times

There IS such a think as bad publicity, and a library in Wisconsin demonstrates it. The library evidently turns cases of patrons with long-overdue items over to the local police department for collection. In this case, after the library sent 5 notices, the police department sent 2 notices, including a citation. When the woman received the citation, she returned the books, but didn’t appear in court as ordered. So, according to the newspaper, the police department showed up at her house 3 months later and handcuffed her in front of her children watching out the window.

While the title of the news article — “Overdue items lead to woman’s arrest” — casts the spotlight on the library, the arrest warrant was actually because the woman didn’t appear in court, as ordered. The librarian acknowledges that “It’s embarrassing that someone would go to jail, especially being arrested outside their home, for not returning a book. But, it has happened before, and there is another woman in the same situation.” The news article also quotes the woman as stating the books were the last things on her mind, as both she and her husband had lost their jobs and their van was broke down.

I urge this library, as well as all of us, to review our policies on delinquent accounts. There’s got to be a better way to handle this, when the economic situation of many of the people we exist to serve is crumbling in upon them. There are just so many issues here, and so many points that this whole situation could have been averted. And I wish that the news wouldn’t look for the sensational. It all just makes me sad.

Help is on the way, call 9-1-1

May 10-16 is National Police Week. In public libraries, we are so confident that a call to 911 will make it all OK, and law enforcement personnel have never let us down. In the last year my librarians have called for assistance from local law enforcement for injured persons, unwelcome animals, a car crashing through the wall, a broken window, a gas leak, unwelcome advances to children, inebriated visitors, unidentified smoke, and these are only the ones that were reported to me. For all the assistance from city police, county deputies, and yes – even state troopers I and my staff are so thankful.

In rural areas across the country, many library staff members work alone, and they are backed up by the telephone on their desk and the dispatch center only 3 digits away — 9-1-1.

While my law enforcement friends tell me that interactions at libraries are some of their easier calls, I’m well aware of the danger those LE folks regularly face. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, thus far in 2009, 50 Officers have been killed. In all of 2008, there were 136 LE deaths.

Heavy on the hearts and hopeful is my community for the condition of hometown high school standout and now Mahnomen County Deputy Chris Dewey. The Deputy was shot in the head and abdomen and has suffered several setbacks during his therapy for traumatic brain injury. All of his and his family’s suffering because he answered a call one fateful night in February.

While thus far the police calls to libraries have been quickly resolved, I know that there is the potential for both my staff and the responding officer to face threats. I thank those officers for every time they rush to the aid of libraries to protect my staff and the public from potential danger.

I know it when I see it

Watching the evening news tonight, once again the theme was something like “are we in recession yet?” Sort of reminds me of driving long distances with a small child. “There” is relative, but arriving there is inevitable. Living in the north like I do, I’m also thinking about the inevitable blizzards that will happen in the next few months. When a blizzard happens, I sit in my house, listening to the wind howl and I wonder, is it a blizzard? Is the blizzard here yet and will it get worse?

So, how does one know when recession, or a blizzard, is a certainty? The weather service defines a blizzard as sustained 35 mph winds which lead to blowing snow and cause visibilities of ΒΌ mile or less, lasting for at least 3 hours. As for a recession, the National Bureau of Economic Research defines recession as “a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales.” A simpler definition is that recession occurs when real gross domestic product (GDP) growth is negative for two or more consecutive quarters.

So, what is the significance of declaring a recession? Does it need to be made more real for the nearby real estate developer who lost his 70 partially finished houses to foreclosure? And what if the winter storm misses the mark of being a blizzard? Does it bring back the one who became stuck in wind-driven snow and lost her way and her life?

I can’t definitively define recession or blizzard, but like pornography, though I can’t define it, I recognize it when I see it. We are seeing increasing numbers of people coming into the libraries. Public computers are full and I’m hearing frequent complaints from people who have to wait to get on to access life-sustaining information (like jobs, unemployment benefits, etc.)

Last week I waived a fairly large overdue fine for a woman who was calling from a payphone (she doesn’t have a telephone) to plead her case that she and her partner were out of work and couldn’t afford the fine (the materials had been returned). She thanked me sincerely and promised that she would only check out a couple things and return them promptly. She was just happy to be able to get some books to read again, now that I had cleared her record. I hung up the phone and wept.