(Happy National Library Week!)

How library workers at small urban branches combat the true violence of oppression poverty

Steve Kemple


On Saturday afternoon a man punched me in the face (I’m OK) while I was working at the Price Hill Branch Library in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I’m the manager. (Happy National Library Week to you, too!) I asked the man to leave because he was belligerently yelling profanity and racial slurs at a teenager. The man — who has since been taken into police custody — was clearly agitated and mentally unwell; the words coming out of his mouth were clearly the product of a disordered mind. However, antagonistic words and behavior are unacceptable in the library, and in this case he was in violation of our Standards of Behavior. I proceeded to escort him out of the building, following a few paces behind to make sure he left. Halfway to the door, he spun around and made a lunging gesture at me. When I didn’t flinch, he struck me on the right side of my head with his left hand. It wasn’t a strong blow, but it was enough to knock my glasses off. I was more stunned than anything. I simply gestured to the door: “Leave. Now.”

The rest of what happened isn’t important. There was a police detail on premise, which prevented the situation from getting uglier (although the guy did get away; he has since been apprehended).

I’m sharing this narrative for a couple of reasons. First, in a weird way, there’s a silver lining: a lot of kids were in the library when this happened. One thing I’m constantly struggling to impart to them is the importance of — and power in — not fighting back. When I talk to kids about this, they always say “but what if someone’s attacking you. Are you just gonna let them?” In their minds, there are three options: 1. fight back (win or lose, at least you aren’t a coward); 2. let them beat you up (maybe you’re not a coward, but you sure are stupid) or 3. run away (coward!). I honestly can’t say I was thinking this (or anything) in the heat of the moment, but in retrospect I feel like I was able to show them this lesson in a real, tangible way. I stood my ground. I didn’t fight back. I calmly told him to get out. And he got out.

Later on, looking at the security footage of the event, I saw something I didn’t catch the first time around. There’s a teenager, I’d guess 13 or 14 years old, standing on the other side of the library watching it all go down. He’s someone I haven’t interacted with individually very many times. Sometimes he’s in a group that gets too loud, and I have to walk over and ask them to lower their voices, turn off cell phone music, etc. This is usually the extent of our interaction. When the man punched me, this kid didn’t hesitate: He briskly walked across the library, fists clenched, clearly ready to jump in and fight this dude on my behalf. (The guy who hit me, by the way, was around 6’2″ and muscular). As I’m steering the man towards the exit (keeping my distance, mind you), the kid stops. He looks at me, and then to the man, who is heading out the door, and back to me. The kid’s fists are still clenched, but he stays behind me in a stance of solidarity. He was emulating my body language.

I’m proud to have been able to clearly demonstrate a different kind of masculinity. I hope it made a lasting impression on him and the other kids, and I hope he always remembers the power of nonviolence. There were lots of other kids, too, who came running. Yes, there was an element of spectacle, but it felt like something more. Solidarity. Watching the security footage, I’m humbled.

The second reason I want to share these events is to convey the swift and powerful response of support I received from my library’s administration. Within an hour, two regional managers, my HR rep, and a member of our Senior Leadership Team reached out to see if I was okay and to offer guidance and support. Our HR director personally came out to the branch just to see how I was doing. This was all on a Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive response.

Finally, I want to use this as an opportunity to put a spotlight on the kind of work performed in small urban libraries and the frankly heroic feats that library workers perform every day. Collections of books and digital resources are awesome, but there’s an even more valuable resource that’s shared by every library: its staff. Staff are every library’s most important and valuable resource.

The blocks surrounding the Price Hill Library are among the most densely populated in Cincinnati. The poverty rate on some blocks is higher than 60%, and the eviction rate on the block adjacent to the library is in the top 1% in the nation, at 17.71% as of 2016 (see data on evictionlab.org). The eviction filing rate is even higher, at 26.04%. That means in 2016 eviction proceedings were filed against 1 in 4 households. I can only imagine living under the constant fear of losing your home, barely scraping by.

Which isn’t to suggest that there aren’t people in the neighborhood who manage a stable life — many are thriving. I’m continually in awe at the resilience of the people I’ve had the privilege of serving and getting to know. But every day I see people walking through the doors desperate for an escape. The people in the Price Hill community rely on the library not only as a point of access to needed information, resources and entertainment, but also a respite from a stressful existence as well as a place to gather. When people walk up the steps and through the door, this is what they cary with them, this is what they seek, and this is what we try our best to provide.

And while it pales in comparison to what the people we serve deal with, it still takes its toll on staff. A major source of work stress is our building — which opened in 1909 and has never been renovated — simply isn’t designed to accommodate the number of people we serve. Our median daily visitor count is more than 400. Many days more than 600 people walk through the door. Price Hill has the highest number of visitors per staff hour per open hour in the entire system. Yet we are one of the smallest branches in the system, in terms of square footage, staffing, and allocation of resources such as program funds. At peak times, we may see 20, 30, or more children and teens in the building, along with a dozen or more adults. Many of them walk in looking for respite from whatever crisis life is presently dealing them. Many of them walk in, un- or underemployed, with un- or inadequately-treated mental or general health issues. Many of them are hungry. They may come in fresh from having lost their job, or been served eviction papers, or witnessed a friend or family member overdose. They come in with burdens saddled upon them by the life of systemic poverty and oppression. The staff at Price Hill and other small urban branches are there to help in any way we can.

I do want to to shy away from portraying library staff as saviors, which is obviously problematic. But the work performed, the emotional labor, the environment endured, is worth highlighting.

While it’s frustrating to see how urban branches serving the city’s most vulnerable populations have been allowed to languish over the decades — even as more and more people are displaced into those neighborhoods and the need for library service becomes greater and greater — I believe there is cause for optimism. The recent past has seen a slow reversal of this trend. New positions have been created (we’ve had a Teen Librarian for a month now, and other small urban branches have been getting new TL positions as well). There are other initiatives in the works that will help level the playing field for the small urban branches. I can feel the tide turning.

Most crucially, however, is the upcoming levy, Issue 3 on the ballot May 8th. The primary purpose for seeking this levy is to fund a much needed facilities plan, central to which is repairing and updating the branches whose buildings are unable to accommodate the needs of their communities. For Price Hill, this means:

  • Becoming handicap/ADA accessible (which would also entail completely redoing our vile public restroom, hallelujah!)
  • Sidewalk replacement
  • Update electrical wiring (more outlets!)
  • Flooring repairs
  • Interior paint and plaster
  • Furniture replacement
  • New lighting
  • Exterior painting
  • Etc.

This means that, for the public, the branch will be much more comfortable. We are going to be looking at the layout and thinking about how to best accommodate the number of people who use the branch. For staff, this will mean a better work environment.

For those of you in Cincinnati, voting starts April 10th and Election Day is May 8th. If you value the important and inherently radical work that library workers perform every day, I urge you to publicly share your support for Issue 3, and, of course, VOTE!

So, as we enter into National Library Week, consider going to a small urban library and thanking the staff for the challenging work they do. Just please don’t punch anyone in the face.

Steve Kemple is the manager of the Price Hill Branch Library in Cincinnati, Ohio

Posted with permission from Medium