Ending fights, finding bloody clothes and calling the police: these are all part of the day-to-day business of the San Jose Public Library staff.
Library workers are concerned for their safety after 10 people, including the shooter, were killed on May 26 at a VTA city train station. One employee started a petition asking library managers and city officials to address workers’ concerns.
Benjamin Martinez, a library employee since 2005, said that in addition to coordinating work schedules and daily operational problems, he and his colleagues had to regularly settle disputes, calm down excited guests, and get problematic ones out.
Martinez once said he found blood soaked clothes in the library bathroom after a lunch break.
“The libraries are safe places,” Martinez told San José Spotlight. “But sometimes it is difficult to feel comfortable there.”
With offices across the city, the San Jose Public Library employs nearly 600 people and welcomed more than 4 million visitors a year prior to the pandemic.
For several years, two full-time guards and one part-time guard roamed the 24 branches of the library system. That has dropped to one over the course of the pandemic.
When situations become confrontational or violent, staff members call both library security and the San Jose Police Department. Staff say officials offer little help because they are either late or not responding to calls.
This leaves the library staff on their own, said Jenny Mai, a librarian at the Tully branch. Fear has risen in the libraries following a surge in violent crimes against Asians in the Bay Area and the mass shooting of VTAs last month.
“Our security guard tried hard, but he can’t be everywhere,” said Mai. “We have a lot of Asian employees and customers in our branch … I’m afraid that something bad could happen.”
A 2020 San José Spotlight analysis of police service request data reveals more than 980 cases of police calls in and around library branches. One hundred and seventy of these calls were made to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library downtown, many due to interference and welfare checks.
Of all the calls, the officers were unable to locate suspects about 90 times. The police took reports about 90 times, made about 20 arrests and issued eight criminal subpoenas. In 485 cases, the police responded but did not file a complaint. More than 160 calls were abandoned.
Library workers are calling for the city and the San Jose Public Library to address the lack of security infrastructure and procedures in their workplace. More than 240 people signed the petition Martinez started last week with Mai.
“The lack of support and accountability from both city and library administrations has resulted in several staff members being harassed, threatened and attacked over the years,” the petition said. “The recent terrible event is a lingering reminder of the danger to which we, as officials, and the patrons and their families we serve, are exposed and made vulnerable.”
In an email to San José Spotlight, Library Director Jill Bourne said the petition was based on “a number of inaccuracies, omissions and opinions.” She said security concerns have always been a high priority for the library.
“There are no simple or universal solutions,” said Bourne. “Being open to everyone means that any problem our city and its people face can affect our libraries.”
The San Jose Public Library has been working to tighten security for the past few years, Bourne said. The department employed contract security, installed security cameras and brought in social services in selected branches. The library is in the process of hiring another full-time security guard as the branches reopen.
In addition, the library is launching a system-wide assessment to further address security issues and concerns.
“I love working in the library,” said Mai. “And we have to do our job to make sure everyone is welcome, but we don’t often get the support from the administration to do it well.”
Understaffed, unsafe work environment
As a union representative for the library, Martinez said he had heard horror stories from other workers for years, some of whom were forced to obtain injunctions against customers or move to another branch out of fear for their safety.
In several incidents, library staff were unable to enter the building because people were camping outside, Martinez said. When the police arrived, the officers sometimes found makeshift weapons and even a handgun.
Others who signed the petition shared similar experiences, saying their concerns fell on deaf ears for years.
“I’ve been working in the library system for 7 years and have been sexually harassed and verbally assaulted countless times,” wrote commentator Jocelyn Vann. “There is never any protection for employees.”
Another commenter, Amber Hargreaves, wrote that she had been thrown canned food and computer monitors in the face.
“My life has been threatened, I was spat at, verbally attacked and sexually harassed,” she wrote.
Martinez said the library was not staffed enough to solve all of the problems. Given a budget cut of $ 1 million last year amid the pandemic, the library cut 80 vacancies and put a hiring freeze on.
Spokeswoman Elizabeth Castaneda said the library is proposing to reinstate about 37 posts in this year’s budget. However, further cuts continue to threaten as the city faces a $ 48.1 million loss in revenue, San Jose Spotlight reported.
“In this way, the city provides resources for us, its seniors, students and children (who use the libraries),” Martinez said. “I hope our city council takes into account that we are not just civil servants. We are also residents of the community. “
Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.