For many bookish kids, myself included, libraries were a fabulous place of discovery during our childhoods. I loved going to the local library and browsing among the bookshelves, looking for a Homer Price book or an Encyclopedia Brown book or a Hardy Boys book that I hadn’t read yet–being careful always to be quiet as a church mouse to avoid being shushed by the librarian. For me, and I think many others, public libraries were a gateway to a lifetime of reading and all of the pleasure and intellectual growth it has brought.
That’s why it is so sad to read about the problem at the main library in Boulder, Colorado. The library had to close before Christmas because there was a spike in people using the library bathrooms to smoke methamphetamine, exposing staff members to meth residue and fumes. Then, when the city conducted tests of the air ducts and ventilation system at the library, it found unacceptably high levels of methamphetamine, leading the city to keep the library closed to conduct further tests of surfaces in the library. You can read the City of Boulder press release about the unfortunate situation here. According to a more recent report from a Colorado TV station, testing showed some contamination in certain seating areas, causing library officials to remove the furniture in those areas and further delaying the reopening of the library.
Anyone who has been in a library branch in an urban area recently has probably noticed that those library branches attract homeless people who are looking for a place to stay warm, particularly during the winter months. Library restrooms often end up being used by those patrons as personal hygiene centers. Some libraries are also dealing with issues of homeless people camping out on library grounds. The homeless issue is a tough one, and no one thinks people should freeze during periods of frigid temperatures. But surely everyone can agree that libraries shouldn’t have to put up with people smoking meth in their restrooms. Libraries aren’t de facto public shelters or drug treatment facilities, and librarians shouldn’t be put in the position of policing library grounds and bathrooms to identify drug use or roust out other people who are engaging in illicit activities.
Ultimately, the issue boils down to whether libraries will be permitted to serve their intended function–as places of learning and wonder that allow members of the community to enjoy reading different books for free–without having to shoulder additional responsibilities as a result of other societal issues. Meth use in library bathrooms interferes with that intended function, and will have regrettable consequences. How many parents in Boulder are going to allow their kids to go to the main library now, to browse through the shelves and find a book that looks interesting? That’s very sad.