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Hennepin County Library leaders — and a group of activists seeking to make libraries more equitable — are wrestling with how best to handle the growing public safety and public health demands on the library system.

Increasingly, people are turning to the library for much more than just checking out books. Librarians — and library social workers, in some cases — are spending their days also connecting addicts with treatment, linking unsheltered people with housing or helping hungry visitors get food assistance.

They're also contending with problems like drug use, assault and people making verbal threats, and sometimes temporarily banning people from the library as a result.

"Whatever you are seeing out in society, you see in the library, too," said Scott Duimstra, Hennepin County Library director. "All of society's problems and strengths are coming into the library."

The most substantial issues are at Minneapolis' Central Library, where county security barred 388 people for those types of behavior in 2022, the most recent year for which data is available.

Officials say sometimes they need to temporarily bar people exhibiting extreme behavior to keep other patrons safe and allow staff to focus on running the library. The number of people banned represents just a fraction of a percent of the roughly 470,000 patrons who visited the branch on Nicollet Mall that year.

But some activists argue the county's approach is inequitable, with library security disproportionately targeting people of color and communities facing the most significant challenges. They say county data, while incomplete, supports what they've heard from patrons and seen firsthand.

"A lot of these policies are impacting unhoused people, children, people who don't have a ton of power in society," said Andrea Love, a member of the Library Patrons Union, a self-described leftist group dedicated to making libraries more accessible and equitable. "The inconsistencies we see are troubling."

What the data shows

In response to questions about enforcement, Hennepin County prepared a report for its leadership about a year's worth of library security calls.

In 2022, the security division of Hennepin County Facility Services responded to 10,500 calls from libraries across the county. The vast majority of those calls, about 8,100, were from Central, for everything from medical emergencies to security incidents.

That year, security issued 534 trespass notices, which typically result in temporary bans, at seven of the library system's 41 branches. Nearly three-quarters of those notices were issued to patrons at the Central Library.

The top reasons for bans are drug use, assault and threats. The most common length of a trespass ban was 90 days, but about 42% of bans were for 30 days or less.

Demographic data about who was banned is incomplete. In the 254 cases when race was recorded, a little more than half of trespass notices were issued to Black patrons.

About 19% of Minneapolis residents are Black.

Liudmila Trandafilava, manager of the county's security division, said security officers are not required to record the race or age of patrons they issue trespass notices to. She noted that security officers use punitive measures as a last result and are trained to de-escalate conflicts.

"We really focus on behavior" and not a patron's race or background, Trandafilava said. "We are focused on customer service, building trust, building relationships with the community."

People waited to enter Minneapolis Central Library when it opened at 9 a.m. Thursday.
People waited to enter Minneapolis Central Library when it opened at 9 a.m. Thursday.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Incident at North Regional

In November, members of the Library Patrons Union drew attention to an October incident involving a 9-year-old at the North Regional branch in north Minneapolis.

They said library staff saw a security guard grab the boy "like a rag doll" and threaten him with arrest, only to let him go after some teens intervened.

Library officials said they reviewed reports of the incident and say the only physical contact was a "hand on the shoulder."

Officials noted the boy was banned from the library twice for a variety of disruptive behaviors including breaking a car window, verbally and physically assaulting patrons, and making threats to staff.

Erin Bogle, another member of the Library Patrons Union, said the interaction is an example of how library security disproportionately punishes people of color accused of breaking rules.

"Kids need developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed support, not policing and punishment," Bogle said.

Security officers escorted a man from Minneapolis Central Library on Thursday.
Security officers escorted a man from Minneapolis Central Library on Thursday.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

How library services are changing

City libraries have long served a variety of patrons with different needs, including society's most struggling. At Central, that includes people experiencing homelessness, drug addiction and mental health crises.

Library officials say all are welcome, as long as they follow certain rules.

Hennepin County put a full-time social worker at Central in 2018 to help address the increasingly complex needs of patrons that are beyond the services traditionally offered by libraries. They've also expanded social services at the Franklin branch, and between the two locations recorded 3,600 encounters with patrons in the past 18 months.

Andrea Hansen-Miller, a senior social worker from the county's Human Services Department embedded at Central, helps people access social services they may otherwise struggle to navigate. Things like housing and nutrition services, drug treatment or signing up for health care.

"There's a huge benefit to having social services at libraries because this is where people are coming. It is where people feel safe," Hansen-Miller said.

"It's one of the few places to go and not get kicked out."

A man fell asleep on the third floor of the Central Library.
A man fell asleep on the third floor of the Central Library.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

What activists hope will change

Love and Bogle say they are not accusing library security and staff of intentionally focusing on patrons of specific races or backgrounds for increased enforcement. But they feel there are systemic issues that need to be addressed, noting that the County Board declared racism a public health crisis in 2020.

"Patterns that show up in our society also show up in our libraries," Bogle said.

They also say library staff have long urged leaders to do more to meet the changing needs of library patrons, citing a 2020 Envisioning Safety report from staff, which called for less punitive rule enforcement and more social supports.

One thing they want the county to improve immediately is its data collection, so officials better understand how library policies affect patrons of different races and backgrounds.

"Acknowledging there is a problem is the first step towards addressing it," Love said.

Library leaders say they are working to improve data collection and continue to look for better ways to provide services to visitors, especially those struggling with shelter, food insecurity, substance abuse or mental health challenges.

"It has to be safe in order for us to provide services," Duimstra, the library director, said.