A Maryland librarian wonders if libraries are safe enough for children.
Your local library is in the child-care business. Public laws in Maryland, Virginia and the District allow children as young as 8 years old — 9 in Washington D.C. — to be dropped off at a public library without parents or a guardian. It's a curious arrangement: The children are not signed in at the library, librarians don't take attendance, and the library is not liable if children hurt themselves or walk out the front door and wander off.Notice that he does not follow up with a string of anecdotes about children who hurt themselves or wander off or of crimes committed against kids in public libraries.
He tells a single story.
Several years ago, I worked in a library that had a regular customer I will refer to as Mr. Frank. Mr. Frank visited the library every day and knew most of the staff by name. Sometimes he would stand next to the security guard, as if he were part of our security team. When the branch manager made his rounds, Mr. Frank would join him. If teenagers in the library became noisy, Mr. Frank would accompany the librarians who spoke to them: "You kids better be quiet!" he would say.
Eventually, Mr. Frank and I had a falling out. He started asking me to refer library customers to his business, and when I refused, he became nasty. I decided to check him out online and found him on Maryland's sex offender registry where he is listed as a violent sex offender. Mr. Frank had insinuated himself into our daily activities to such a degree that library users often thought he was staff.
If the library had been a school or day care center, Mr. Frank would have had to identify himself to staff as a registered sex offender. There is no such law for public libraries, even though libraries function as informal day care centers and children dropped off at the library receive much less supervision then they would at a school or a day care.From that story about an annoying though harmless library regular, the librarian goes on to suggest some changes to make libraries "safer".
First, convicted sex offenders should have to identify themselves when they enter a public library, just as they are required to do at schools and day care centers. Medium and large public libraries are simply too hard to police; long rows of shelves, bulky furniture, hallways, stairwells and restrooms offer too many nooks and crannies to monitor effectively, even with security guards and cameras.Mr. Frank had a falling out with the writer. The librarian doesn't accuse him of any illegal behavior, only of being an odd character who eventually got on his nerves enough for the librarian to check him out online.
Knowing that Mr. Frank is on the sex offender registry is enough to make this librarian want to change everything about the library for kids.
Second, libraries should offer structured after-school programs similar to those run at schools and community centers, where responsible, trained adults offer meaningful activities for children. Too many children dropped off at the library spend hours playing mindless shoot-em up computer games where they learn nothing and don't interact with kids around them. Structured programs would allow children to benefit from all the resources available at the library and keep them safe at the same time.He wants responsible, trained adults and meaningful activities to keep kids safe.
How many kids have been molested or worse by coaches or teachers during structured after-school programs? Far more than have been molested by strangers in libraries and yet the librarian wants to put kids in the charge of those trusted adults.
A library full of children must be providing something meaningful for the kids--books, a place to study while waiting for a ride, or Internet access and video games the kid's family cannot afford at home, perhaps? One wonders if this librarian disapproves of the kids' book choices the way he disapproves of their taste in video games.
Could a stranger molest a kid in a library? Absolutely, and when it does, the story makes the news because it is so unusual. Could a stranger molest a kid at the grocery store or at a ball game or the laundromat? Sure. That, too, would be very rare. It is far, FAR more likely that a child would be molested by a family member or someone trusted by the family. Far more likely for kids to be molested by responsible, trained adults at a day care center or school, the very places the librarian wants the library to resemble.
This is what happens when we keep a list of people and tell the world that everyone on that list is dangerous: people act on unreasonable fears.
Mr. Frank--and the other registered citizens who visited this library--had committed no sex offenses in the library but when the librarian found Mr. Frank on the list (along with 850,000 other Americans), he begins suggesting safeguards to protect kids against sex offenses. The kids seem to be doing fine without those safeguards.
When the community reads the suggestions and sees how unnecessary and expensive it would be to protect against an extremely rare event, I hope they tell the librarian, "Shhh."
Check out books and video games. Not the registry.