The Seattle Public Library (SPL) has 39 “Rules of Conduct” — break one, and you can be “excluded” (SPL’s chosen term) from all of its 27 branches for up to two years. Without benefit of counsel, the ability to present witnesses or even being able to plead your case in person, the library can kick you out.
SPL excluded 5,489 different individuals from Jan. 1, 2013, to mid-August of this year, That figure does not count people who were excluded more than once during a year and exclusions that were in response to noncompliance with a patron’s prior exclusion.
So, what is some of the conduct that SPL patrons are punished for? Wearing “disruptive” or too little attire, having “offensive body odor or personal hygiene,” using the restrooms to change clothes or clean up, “appearing to be sleeping,” “staring,” “lurking” and entering a library after receiving an exclusion notice.
Most of these rules appear to target people experiencing homelessness, but none so obviously as a rule against bringing in items larger than 14 inches wide, 17 inches tall, and 20 inches deep. SPL has actually installed black wooden boxes of that size in every library. Your stuff fits in the box or you’re out. And the real kicker is that briefcases and laptops don’t have to pass the black box test — they are exempt from the size requirements. But, no surprise, bedrolls and blankets are not.
The American Library Association recommends that public libraries only exclude patrons who are breaking the law. Even so, most libraries have rules similar to SPL’s, but far fewer of them.
How SPL compares
SPL’s annual exclusion of an average of 2,033 patrons per year is not typical of other libraries with a similar number of annual visitors. The assistant director of the San Jose Public Libraries said they don’t keep statistics, but she believes their exclusions would be around 25 per year. The Miami-Dade Public Library System reports an average of 246 exclusions per year, “the vast majority for only one to six hours.” And the Palm Beach County Library System reports an average of 14 excluded visitors per year.
Even the King County Library System — SPL’s nearest neighbor, with a door count of more than 10 million patrons per year — evicts an average of only 563 people per year. This is a little over 20 percent of the number of people SPL excludes annually, even though the King County Library System’s annual door count is 3.5 million more than SPL’s.
SPL Communications Director Andra Addison defended the figures as small for the number of library users.
“If you look at the number of individuals who receive exclusion letters compared to the number of visitors who come through our 27 locations annually, it is less than 1 percent,” she said.
She also said SPL’s number of exclusions could be in part because SPL has 12 security officers trained to enforce the Rules of Conduct, and not all library systems are similarly staffed.
Addison points to the many outreach services that SPL offers: community listening sessions to better understand the needs of people experiencing homelessness, Wi-Fi hotspots that SPL has loaned to tent cities across Seattle, bookmobile services that will be coming to tent cities this fall, a social services specialist who helps Central Library visitors with their needs such as housing, health care, domestic violence shelters and school enrollments. And SPL has placed a priority on homeless youth outreach, especially to LGBTQ homeless youth.
SPL numbers show that these rules have a disproportionate impact on people of color, who make up more than half of those excluded from SPL, even though more than two-thirds of our city is White, according to the most recent U.S. Census.
According to SPL data, about one-third of those who were excluded from SPL are Black, even though Black people comprise less than one-tenth of Seattle’s population. The data also show that among SPL’s excluded patrons, 5 percent were Native Americans, who comprise less than 1 percent of our city’s population.
Addison says SPL’s rules are based on behavior, not race.
“The Rules of Conduct address patron behaviors — such as intoxication, assault, disruptive behavior, or property damage — not race,” she said. “We have an administrative review process for all patrons who receive exclusions for over seven days. If anyone believes they have been treated unfairly, we encourage them to go to the Office of Civil Rights.”
The numbers say something different, however. This, of course, may come as no surprise to people of color living with the everyday realities of racism in America. But coming from a public library, one of America’s most trusted institutions? And in one of this country’s most progressive cities?
Yes, and that’s what makes this so insidious. Most of us in Seattle revere and love our public library, perhaps thinking of it as a bastion of public education, free expression and maybe even democracy itself. But, in light of SPL’s exclusion statistics, do we need to rethink that?
I say yes, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is “looking into issues surrounding exclusions at Seattle Public Library locations,” according to the ACLU attorney who is spearheading the inquiry.
If any institution rules out what poor and homeless people need to do to stay alive like carrying with them what they need to survive the cold, I say they are acting in a way that is anti-poor and anti-homeless. And ruling out the poor and the homeless has a racially discriminatory impact because a highly disproportionate number of poor people and people experiencing homelessness are people of color.
This impact, even if it is unintentional, is unacceptable. We must ask ourselves why one of our most cherished institutions is excluding so many of our fellow citizens, a highly disproportionate number of whom are people of color. What lies behind any person’s or institution’s excessive use of rules that limit the rights of our fellow human beings?
Donning my psychotherapist/psych professor hat, I say, fear.
But if SPL staff are feeling fearful of their patrons, do they have any alternative to kicking them out?
Throughout the country, what is called “restorative justice” is being used to address the negative impact of criminal activity on the community as well as those who admittedly have broken the law. What is different about the process is that it is not based on shaming, excluding and jailing those who have committed crimes. Rather, restorative justice is a counseling-based, empathy-building approach that takes far longer than a judge would take to throw the book at the offender, but it also has a track record of greatly decreasing recidivism.
In 2007, the Smith Institute in the U.K. published a meta-analysis of 36 different studies that compared the recidivism of those who have been incarcerated with those who have received restorative justice. The unoquivocal finding was that “offenders who receive restorative justice commit fewer repeat crimes than offenders who do not.”
Rather than shaming, excluding and caging people who have broken the law, the intent is to teach empathy by extending it to them first. Empathy is at the heart of the process because that is what is lacking in a person who harms another person other than in self-defense.
A proactive, restorative justice approach is being used now in Seattle’s criminal justice system and in local high schools as well. Garfield High School students, for example, are being trained as restorative mediators in a process that pioneered in New Zealand, where it has been used since the late 1980s, according to a recent story in The Seattle Times.
In 2012, we the people of Seattle increased SPL’s budget by about $17.5 million per year when we voted to approve The Libraries for All Levy. That’s a particularly ironic title, don’t you think, given that SPL excludes a high number of patrons, a disproportionate number of them people of color.
Laurel Holliday is a Seattle-based author and independent journalist who has worked in the field of clinical psychology as well as teaching psychology at Seattle colleges. Her books include “Children of the Dream: Growing Up Black in America” and “Children of Israel, Children of Palestine: Our Own True Stories.”