Library Access vs. Library Security

Many campus libraries are open to those with no affiliation with the colleges and are proud of that tradition -- even as it sometimes raises safety issues.

March 18, 2016
Library at San Jose State

Around 9 p.m. on March 8 a woman -- mid-50s, no affiliation with San Jose State University -- was washing her hands in a restroom on the second floor of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library on campus. A man, who officials said was also unaffiliated and hiding in that bathroom, attempted to attack her. The woman who was attacked screamed and, with the help of a third library patron, chased the attacker away. The university’s police made an arrest almost immediately.

Episodes like that are relatively infrequent, and that one in particular was resolved without incident, though it alarmed many on campus. It also highlights an issue facing many universities, especially those located near large numbers of people unaffiliated with the institution: how to provide a safe environment for students while remaining open and accessible to the public at large.

“Academic libraries, in particular those that are at public institutions, want to allow walk-in access, certainly,” said Ann Campion Riley, president of the Association of Research and College Libraries and acting director of libraries at the University of Missouri at Columbia. “But we do have to balance that with security concerns for students and other users.”

Effectively what that means, she said, is that public universities near or in population centers tend to bolster their security in various ways while remaining as open to the public as possible.

At her own institution, which is located just south of downtown Columbia and open to the public, security guards watch the library’s doors, and cameras -- which Riley said are becoming increasingly common in university libraries -- surveil the hard-to-police stacks on the upper floors. And, like any university library, officials advise students to be vigilant, particularly against theft, though Riley noted, “That’s not terribly effective. Undergraduates are not terribly careful about their stuff, frankly.”

Georgia State University was forced to confront this issue head-on several months ago, when the president ordered the library on campus closed to the public after a series of armed robberies inside the building. Library North, on Georgia State’s campus in the middle of Atlanta, will remain closed to the public for at least a few more weeks, said its dean, Jeff Steely, as the cameras there are upgraded and increased and sign-in procedures are improved.

“As a research library at a public university we have a mission that includes providing resources to the larger community,” Steely said. “Restricting access isn’t something we took lightly.”

In January, after the last two robberies, Georgia State’s director of police, Carlton Mullis, noted to the local press that armed robberies at the university were very rare, particularly inside buildings, but that the isolated study areas in the library may have been a factor in why so many had taken place there in such a short period of time.

San Jose State, whose campus is smack-dab in the middle of the city, goes a little farther, both in its security measures and open relationship with the city’s public. The city co-manages the library, and people with a public library card have borrowing privileges (which are rare for the unaffiliated, even at public universities). Campus police have jurisdiction but maintain a strong relationship with the city's police, and the library’s cameras are actively monitored by several of those officers.

Despite being “completely surrounded by downtown” with “members of public are walking through our campus and our buildings all the time,” a San Jose State spokeswoman said, “I can’t recall in our review of police records an attack like this. This was an isolated incident.” About 13,000 people visit the library every day on a campus of about 33,000 students and in a city with a little more than one million people.

Some publics within city limits, like Saint Louis University, hire security guards to patrol their libraries at night. “Urban libraries have been taking steps like that for a long time,” Riley said. Even universities in other cities under what Riley called “the Ann Arbor effect” -- college towns that are college towns because of the college more than the town -- have been following suit.

Many public universities in big cities split the difference between San Jose State’s level of access -- the public may be allowed in but with services limited -- and the typically more restrictive library rules at private universities.

The University of Pittsburgh library system, for example, lets everyone in but charges a $100 fee for borrowing privileges for the unaffiliated. Many have a similar system, whereas George Washington University restricts public access as well because, according to the library website, it must focus its limited resources on its primary population: the students and faculty.

Ultimately, Riley said, public universities have an interest in serving the citizens of their states. That means opening their libraries to the public, so they will tend to err on the side of more access and try to bolster security where and when necessary.


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