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Essays

Why Police Shouldn’t Be in Libraries (And How to Help Change That)

TW: Racism and police violence

Libraries are an essential public institution. Beyond borrowing books for free, think of all the other things you can likely use your local library for: computer and internet access, space to work, assistance with research, a cheap place to print (because who owns a printer anymore?), resources to build skills and find a job, and more. Plus, as the social safety net has been eroded, libraries have filled the gap. Some offer childcare, food distribution, passport applications, etc. Increasingly, they’re also de-facto shelters, where people experiencing homelessness can rest, access electricity and a bathroom, and escape from extreme weather.

All of this hinges on the library being a safe, accessible space for everyone. So why are there police in libraries, compromising this very safety?

The Call to Abolish Policing in Libraries

In 2020, with the increased attention on the Black Lives Matter movement, several activist groups, including the Library Freedom Project and the Abolitionist Library Association, have advocated for libraries to not only say Black Lives Matter but to look within their institutions and end police power in libraries.

Police are present in many library systems in several ways. First, many libraries contract with police or security officers (often managed by police departments) to provide security and surveillance. For example, the Los Angeles Public Library has spent over $1 million each year since 2013 on security provided by LAPD Security Services, up to a proposed $10.4 million in 2021. But it doesn’t stop there. Police officers are also part of library events, like handing out library cards on the streets of L.A. or hosting Coffee with a Cop or Police Officer Storytime events. The prison industrial complex is upheld even further with some libraries, which use furniture created by incarcerated workers.

“When we call police to deal with patron issues, rather than investing in our own deescalation strategies and alternatives, we are risking police violence, especially against our most vulnerable patrons,” read an open statement by the Library Freedom Project. They note that police violence and brutality has occurred repeatedly within libraries, such as the killing of Kevin Allen in a New Jersey library and other violent attacks. This makes the library an unsafe place, especially for BIPOC, disabled, and otherwise marginalized patrons, who are disproportionately harmed by police violence.

Bookshelves in a library in Seattle | Why Police Shouldn't Be in Libraries (And How You Can Help Change That) | BookRiot.com
Photo by Shunya Koide on Unsplash

Events like Police Officer Storytime also serve as an instance of community policing, which is described as “a form of policing that functions to legitimize the omnipresence of law enforcement, win the cooperation of community leaders, and gather intel about neighborhoods while improving a department’s image.” Rather than remaining complicit, libraries must work toward abolition.

Alongside other organizations, the Abolitionist Library Association (AbLA), a collective of library workers and community members created last year, is advocating for libraries “to divest from all forms of policing in libraries and invest in our collective liberation.” You can read a position statement from AbLA Ivy+, a branch of the group working in Ivy+ universities, here. AbLA and the Library Freedom Project call for an end to policing in libraries with a reinvestment in community-driven alternatives to policing, like specialists trained in trauma-informed de-escalation and community safety rooted in restorative and transformative justice. 

So how do we get there? What can you do?

How You Can Help

  1. Follow organizations that are working for change. You can find out more about AbLA here and join their mailing list, which includes more information on how to get involved and join their meetings, here. There are also similar organizations specific to certain locations, like Safe LAPL (Los Angeles), Libraries for All STL (St. Louis), Library Freedom Project (Philadelphia), Cop Free Library (NYC), AbLA Ivy+ (Ivy+ universities), and the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign (Harvard University). AbLA maintains a full list in their resources here.
  2. Educate yourself on antiracism, abolition, and restorative and transformative justice. AbLA has an excellent list of resources here. The Library Freedom Project also highlights some resources at the end of their open statement. And of course, don’t forget to check out Book Riot’s archives for plenty of recommendations.
  3. Research your own library’s practices. How much does your local library spend on policing and surveillance? Do they hold community events with police officers? Are there any groups currently working toward divestment from police in your area? Get familiar with the current policies and practices around policing in your library system as a first step toward change.
  4. Get involved at your local library. There are many ways to be active at your own library. If you’re in one of the locations mentioned above, follow and reach out to the existing organizations to see how you can contribute. AbLA’s resources also include a section on organizing, so consider how you could start a campaign. Some possibilities include joining your library board if you can and advocating for change from there, writing a letter or petition, and attending board meetings to speak on the topic. 

And don’t forget to find your people! You’re not alone as we work toward collective liberation.