Rachel Fewell, central library administrator for downtown Denver’s Public Library (DPL), often gets the same question: When she earned her degree in library sciences over 15 years ago, did she think that library administration would include finding ways to help patrons struggling with houselessness, substance dependency, or finding stability? The answer is always a resounding no, Fewell says, but nevertheless, she’s found that her time as a librarian has become inextricably tied to expanding the way libraries serve the needs of often overlooked patrons. Fewell’s work is one example of a larger recent trend of libraries rethinking their role in creating public safety–be it through addressing community needs that often serve as the root causes of societal harm, interrogating their reliance on local police departments, or using their unique expertise to advance the movement for prison abolition. 

“People think libraries have changed so much, but really, we’re still doing the same things,” Fewell said. “We are making sure people have access to information and resources… connecting people [with what] they need: food, wound care, connecting to the WiFi because the only device they have to access the internet is their phone… We’re providing resources to get people the next thing that they’re looking for, and I love it.”

As libraries and library staff begin embracing new ways to serve their patrons and in doing so, promote alternative conceptions of public safety, pushback has followed. Local police have decried the initiatives as eroding relationships with law enforcement, and other patrons have argued that their libraries are becoming less safe and that their own needs are being neglected as marginalized community members find themselves increasingly welcome into the library’s branches. However, while providing more social services and even connecting with currently incarcerated people might expand the work of libraries, staff engaging in these initiatives argue that the work is simply a fulfillment of the library’s long-standing purpose to provide information and foster community. 

Expanding access to information beyond books

In 2011, a team of DPL frontline staffers came together to discuss how their traditional training wasn’t addressing the concerns of many patrons who sought refuge within their branches. More and more people were coming to the library because they were unhoused, lacked food or clothing, and needed everything from educational literacy to basic job skills. Those needs were more than library staff were equipped to deal with.

“These library staff members are really not trained to do that kind of stuff,” Fewell said. “So they took it upon themselves to start meeting together and start exploring what was happening around the country.”

Those staffers gleaned lessons from libraries that included trained social workers as part of their staff, such as libraries throughout Alberta, Canada, and the San Francisco Public Library. In 2009, San Francisco Public Library became the first in the country to hire a full-time social worker. Quickly, the branch became a refuge for houseless community members who felt unsafe in shelters or needed space to rest in the early morning after some shelters closed down. Library staff created a model where clients underwent a needs assessment and were then connected to food, applications for public benefits, and primary care coverage. Partnerships with local nonprofits and community-based organizations helped supplement those services as well. 

That year the team presented a white paper outlining community needs and recommending that the library hire a full-time social worker– a goal that came to fruition in 2015. By 2016, a local city council member, impressed with the program’s success, recommended hiring an additional social worker. A year later, DPL began their Peer Navigator Program, hiring four people who have had first-hand experience with issues like houselessness, navigating the immigration system, returning home as veterans, and dealing with substance dependency. These navigators serve as ambassadors for the DPL, identifying community members who need help and educating them about and connecting them to the library’s services. Navigators have assisted patrons with getting IDs, learning about local food banks and clothing drives, and applying for public benefits. Some peer navigators also create spaces for patrons to speak out about the issues they are contending with through avenues such as Talking Circles, which are akin to group therapy sessions. 

DPL gauges the reach of their programming by the number of “contacts”’ their social workers and peer navigators make throughout the year. Each “contact” represents an interaction with either an individual or a group that has sought assistance from the library’s support team once or on an ongoing basis. In 2019, Fewell says the teams made over 5,600 contacts, many of those representing groups of people. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the library closed, their team transitioned to doing street outreach, working with other city agencies to serve people experiencing houselessness and provide them with basic care and needs such as access to clean water. In both 2020 and 2021, the DPL teams made 2,000 contacts each year. As of January 2020, library staff has also reversed over 30 opioid overdoses by administering Narcan and has helped provide direct support to patrons experiencing other issues without calling upon security or local police. 

Although DPL’s expanded programs are meeting patrons’ needs, they’ve also sparked pushback from some community leaders and members of the public. In 2017, Denver’s local 9News Station reported that people were purchasing and injecting drugs inside the library, dubbing it “a centralized hub for crime and drug abuse.” While the reporting attributed Denver’s increased crime to in part to the city’s ban on “urban camping” or “homeless sweeps,” it also suggested that the library’s social service programs led community members to “believe that the library has become a de facto day shelter—providing services it wasn’t designed to handle.”

Fewell says the news report ignited public fears and skepticism about the library’s new social service programs: some patrons pledged to return after things felt safer, while others promised never to visit the library again. In the wake of the controversy, the mayor dispatched local law enforcement to the library’s branches. 

“I distinctly remember getting a phone call from one of my staff members that said, ‘there are 10 police officers in here with motorcycle helmets on and their full motorcycle cop gear on,’” said Fewell. “Our staff had kind of this mixed reaction. [Some were] like, ‘This is terrible—this has an incredibly chilling effect on the activity anyone is trying to do here and we want to protect customers from that,’’ and [others were] like, ‘Great! Finally the cops are here, they’re going to arrest everybody and we’re not going to see this anymore.’”

Eventually, the heavy police presence at DPL tapered off to just a few off-duty plainclothes officers until law enforcement stopped being deployed entirely. While the news segment and mayoral response ignited new debates around the efficacy of bringing in local police to help quell fears around safety, DPL has not had to contend with ongoing struggles around police presence—unlike many other public libraries, DPL has its own private security officers that are not connected to the city’s police department. 

Detangling libraries from police presence 

In 2020, local activists and public library staff began reckoning with the relationship between library institutions and policing. Safe LAPL, a campaign led by organizers, writers, and researchers in Los Angeles, began researching city contracts and found that $10.4 million—or 5% of the total Los Angeles Public library budget—had been allocated for security that year. Community activists in other cities like New York also began looking at contracts between local police departments and their public library branches in an effort to advocate for police-free libraries. By December 2020, organizers with Libraries for All STL successfully pressured the St. Louis County Library to terminate its off-duty police officer contract with a private security firm and to completely remove the police and security presence from one branch as well.

The police-free library movement has also extended to university libraries, positioning itself not just as a present-day solution to ending state violence but also as a way to reckon with the sordid history of American libraries. The first public libraries in the U.S. were founded when Black Americans were still held in bondage and violently denied literacy, among all other liberties. Post-emancipation, public library systems in Southern states continued to exclude Black Americans despite demands for integrated libraries from leading Black intellectuals of the time, such as W.E.B. DuBois. 

Even libraries established by and for Black patrons came up against challenges. The Houston Colored Carnegie Library, founded in Texas in 1913, opened with 35,000 books and was designed and staffed by Black architects and librarians. The library was administered independently by an all-Black board of directors until 1921 when the white-led Houston Public Library System forcibly took control. The Houston Public library system quietly desegregated in 1953 under threat of a lawsuit by the NAACP, but Black Houstonians still only had access to reference books, which they had to request from a librarian, and they could only enter and exit through the library’s side door. Further, in anticipation of backlash from white parents, the desegregation mandate only applied to adults, excluding Black children.

In addition to offering ways to redress past racist policies, the movement toward police-free libraries also confronts how libraries themselves have helped instill public faith in police through community programs like the nationwide book-sharing project Little Free Library (LFL). LFL has built partnerships with local police departments through their various community policing initiatives. Since its founding in 2009, over 100,000 LFLs have been established in neighborhoods across the country, ostensibly providing opportunities for residents to lend and borrow free books nestled inside small, distinctive wooden boxes often seen on street corners or inside local schools. Local police departments are invited to take part by carrying books and LFL tote bags in their “neighborhood engagement” squad cars, or by installing an LFL book-sharing box inside their precincts. 

Last summer, an LFL in Bloomington, Minnesota was the site of controversy when the local police department tweeted that their officers had recently donated books to their local LFL after a series of thefts. Twitter users swiftly called out the idea that books could be “stolen” when the purpose of LFL was to make them available to the community for free. While the Bloomington PD released a follow-up statement apologizing for the miscommunication, their framing of the community’s use of LFLs as theft calls into question whether partnering police departments fully understand the purpose of the book-sharing project and other initiatives like it. 

Public libraries across the country have also facilitated other neighborhood efforts designed explicitly to promote “community policing.” National Coffee With A Cop Day, which aims “to bring police officers and the community members they serve together to discuss issues and learn more about each other” has featured over 15,000 events in its five years in existence, many of which are hosted at local public libraries. Similarly, “read with a police officer” programs across the country are often geared towards younger children and work to achieve similar ends. Some police departments, such as the LAPD, have gone so far as to use their LFL partnership to establish officer “visits” to read books at local schools and bring elementary school students on tours of police stations where they’re made into “honorary police officers.”

One road to prison abolition runs through library sciences

While some public library systems are dissolving relationships with police and focusing on how to better support patrons through social programs, others are working toward abolition by connecting with currently incarcerated people. In focusing on a community that isn’t physically present in libraries but still needs the types of resources that libraries typically provide, librarians using their expertise towards prison abolition are tasked with assessing those needs, figuring out where information gaps lie and building trust-based relationships across prison walls even in the face of ongoing censorship. 

Based in New York City and founded in 2015, The Prison Library Support Network’s (PLSN) earliest work included helping the New York Public Library fulfill book requests received by librarians during their trips to Rikers Island. PLSN volunteers email the book publishers and ask them to donate copies directly to the facility and help public libraries fulfill reference or research requests from people incarcerated across the city. 

In 2021, PLSN launched its own research-by-mail program, servicing facilities across the country. Mia Bruner, a founding member of PLSN, says that the group has been developing and training volunteers to field these mailed-in requests over the past year. Incarcerated people typically learn about the group via word of mouth or information shared by a network of other groups doing support work inside prisons. The requests PLSN receives vary widely, ranging from entertainment-related questions to inquiries about prison policies specific to the facilities where requesters are incarcerated. 

“Some people will write to us and [ask for] legal documents … and there are volunteers that we have on an email listserv, some of whom are law librarians, who can really quickly get that stuff,” said Bruner. “People also mail us with a lot of pleasure requests—those ones make me the happiest. There’s a group of people playing [games such as] Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, and Elder Scrolls who will write to us for game material. [Some] people write to us asking for band logos or song lyrics. There’s somebody who writes to us every week who is just doing a long-term research project on timber wood framing.” 

Bruner says it’s been important to ensure that corrections departments can’t invade incarcerated people’s privacy by accessing requests sent to PLSN. Reference requests sent to PLSN are encrypted and are not stored for long after they are received and fulfilled. Still, Bruner is concerned about surveillance outside of PLSN’s purview. As reported by Prism, censorship of reading materials continues to pervade prison systems nationwide. She often wonders if people are actually receiving the material they requested or if the material is altered in any way by the time incarcerated recipients access it.

“We haven’t really had issues with things getting mailed back or rejected… but we have a spreadsheet ready for when that starts,” Bruner said.

Abolition belongs in library sciences 

Over the past year, PLSN members have begun brainstorming what Bruner says are “very pie in the sky questions” about how to make use of their potential and be realistic about their limitations. Their hope is that even if the program hits walls or needs new iterations, it will provide space for those within the world of library sciences to build lines of communication– lines that are yet to exist. The relationship-building is “really important for building the capacity to support abolition and to support incarcerated people who have to lead abolition.” 

For example, PLSN is currently trying to develop better practices for their volunteers on how to sensitively address letters from people inside that mention trauma or include sharing traumatic stories. They are leaning upon other groups in this growing network of librarians to develop those resources. Bruner is hopeful about how libraries have taken it upon themselves since 2020 to deepen their involvement in anti-PIC organizing. Bruner notes that librarians have been learning from and leaning upon the work that abolitionists have long been developing to shape their own demands around removing police from their library branches. As important as this work is, however, Bruner says it’s important to note how organizing throughout the field must focus on both making libraries police-free spaces as well as brainstorming how library science can work towards prison abolition. PLSN’s work, which centers explicitly on “abolitionist information-sharing,” pushes towards that second arm of the work, albeit under the same goal of expanding the type of information that a library ought to provide access to beyond just books. Information about how to survive, organize, and still nurture one’s own interests while in prison is now a part of that expanded definition.

“When we first started PLSN, calling ourselves an abolitionist organization, it felt like we were on an island by ourselves in the world of libraries—not in the world of organizing,” said Bruner. “Having a national network of other people who have abolitionist values to be able to talk to is a super huge deal. It’s exciting because there are communities we can turn to now.” 

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.