Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Libraries as Snitches

Hey, wait a minute, I'm no stinking stool pigeon!


UPD has a suspect for the rash of library thefts that have occurred the last month. They supplied the libraries with a photo of the suspect and have asked us to call UPD if we see this individual enter the library.

I'm all for stopping crime. I want patrons and their belongings to be safe when they come to the library, but it doesn't seem right for us to we start calling UPD when someone just walks through the door.

I know I called UPD on the Ghost without a second thought. Shoot, I even tracked the Ghost into another library to help police find him, but now I'm beginning to regret that. Not because I don't think the Ghost is a freak and needed to be spoken to, but maybe the library is setting itself up for some sort of unsavory precedent.

Let's see if I can explain this better.

I have no evidence that the suspected thief has done anything wrong. All I've been told is UPD wants library personnel to contact UPD if we see the individual. There's no warrant out for his arrest. There's no charges pending. UPD just wants to speak to him. That's it.

I find myself wondering - Do I have any duty to protect this patron?

Librarians have always been staunch advocates of patron privacy. We've fought the Patriot Act tooth and nail over the release of library records. I believe what a patron checks out should remain private. I can understand and somewhat support the resistance to put filters on the public computers. (I think filter technology is intrinsically flawed. We need to find a better filter, not just have no filters.) But if I'm willing to fight for the patron in these ways, shouldn't I also guard the patron's mere presence in the library?

I find myself facing a moral dilemma that I'm not sure how to handle, and really resenting the fact that I'm forced to deal with it.

If someone comes to a library, shouldn't they have the right to use the library in the manner which is allowed by our policy and not have the cops called on them as soon as they walk through the door?

Should the cops really expect us to be their look outs?

I really don't know.

I'm reminded of the suspected pot seller. I didn't want to point him out to police either. I don't know what became of his arrest. I do know he's not in prison now. I've seen him around town, but I have not seen him in Library X. He may be afraid to return, or he has been told not to. I hope it's the latter and not the former. I'd hate for anyone to be afraid to visit the library.

A thief was arrested tonight. Not the one who we were told to keep an eye out for. The thief is someone my boss and I had suspected prior to the arrest. We'd seen the individual acting suspiciously while down in the stacks on a number of occasions. She was arrested with over $400 cash and a number of gift cards on her, which she confessed to having stolen. I suspected her, but didn't call the cops on her.

I don't know the guy in the photo from Adam. Why should I call UPD on him?

I know UPD has their reasons for suspecting this guy that they probably aren't at liberty to divulge, but because I don't know these reasons, I don't think I should be expected to assist them in contacting him.

I want the thefts to stop.

I feel bad for every student who comes up to report their belongings stolen.

But what about this lone patron? Shouldn't he have the chance to come to the library without being ratted out?

Geez, I haven't ever even met this guy, yet he's given me a major headache.

If anyone has some words of advice, please post them.


Anonymous kristy said...

I don't know if I have any words of advice, but I do know what you mean. We had an incident last summer where the FBI came looking for a patron's records. The incident was written up in our newletter in a gleeful tone, all about how we ultimately subverted the FBI in their desire for information regarding this person. One part of me wants to agree, but another would really like to trust that our law enforcement agencies have valid reasons for requesting information, and that we should ere on the side of trusting, rather than second guessing them. It's a tough one. But your case, where it's pitting one patron's interests against another (the right to come in un-hassled vs. the right to come in and not be ripped off), I think I would have more sympathy for those who might be the potential victims of theft. But who knows? It's a tough call.

3:25 AM, March 02, 2006  
Blogger Librarian Girl said...

I'm not sure what kind of academic library you work for (public? private?), but in either case, the burden of this kind of decision should NOT be all in your hands. There should be a clear, thought-out, legally sound policy that is made as an organization on how to deal with any interactions with police or other authorities. This benefits you as an employee because you are spared, at the very least, the confusion about what your employer expects that you do and what you are bound to do legally and what kind of responsibility you take on in taking any action. It also benefits the patrons in that all library employees will be acting consistently with everyone. Not that I am saying that individual judgment should be taken away from you, but as an employee you are acting on two levels- as an individual citizen and as a representative of the library as an organization. It's your employer's responsibility to guide you with specific policy on how to handle these situations, to protect everyone legally if for no other reason. Then once you have that policy in front of you, you can make your own morals-based decision to enforce that or not. It doesn't eliminate the headache, but in my case this really helps a lot. Kind of a big-picture easier-said-than-done solution, but I think that may be the root of the problem.

11:21 AM, March 02, 2006  
Blogger Angel, librarian and educator said...

I think a distinction should be made. There is a difference between the FBI wanting the records of a patron (for which they probably need a warrant) and a suspected thief. I can see the dilemma, but like Kristy above, I have a lot more sympathy for those who come into the library and hope not to get ripped off. If that guy is a thief, he is not a patron. He is not there to use the library; he is there to rip people off. As such, I don't think he/she is worthy or deserving of your sense of protection and privacy rights.

I also have to agree with librarian girl in terms of the workplace having some policy in place. I would like to think that a private citizen would be able to assist law enforcement, but given the climate of law enforcement not necessarily being very forthcoming and the lawsuit trigger happy people, one has to cover themselves. Your MPOW likely needs to be involved on this, or at least be aware.

I know, not the best advice in the world, but I hope it helps at least a little. I sure don't like to be in a position of having to play "cop" for the cops, but I sure as heck don't want my library to get a reputation as a place where patrons get stuff stolen on a regular basis. Best, and keep on blogging.

11:27 AM, March 02, 2006  
Blogger listmaker said...

This is a tough call and ideally you would have guidance and instruction from the library administration on how to deal with the situation.

Also, how do you define patron? The situation is trickier if the suspect is a student. If the suspect isn't affiliated with the university, I would have fewer qualms about informing the UPD. In my opinion, student interests are always above those of the general public and students have the right to expect to be safe and undisturbed in their own library. If the suspect was a student, I guess I would still be inclined to let UPD know if s/he was in the building, for the reasons stated above. I don't know about your UPD, but ours is pretty discrete and unlikely to ask such a thing from us unless they have very good reason to do so.

4:54 PM, March 03, 2006  
Blogger Vampire Librarian said...

Kristy said: Ere on the side of trusting [of UPD] - I think I should do that.

Librarian Girl: I work at a public university which allows the public to use the resources and check out materials. I have not seen anything regarding our policy with assisting UPD. I have searched, but cannot find anything.

I should say that UPD's requests have been made through the library adminstration. I am having more a personal moral dilemma than a system-wide problem. I would like to see any policy that is in place and will ask one of my bosses for it, though that's not guaranteeing there is one.

angel: You're right. I'm still just worried that someone may have made a terrible mistake and this guy is completely innocent. The lady thief, who was caught, was brought to UPD's attention by a librarian at another library. The way we've been having to lately be library security and detectives is disturbing. I just want to help people find information not bust criminals.

Listmaker said, "Student interests are always above those of the general public, and students have the right to expect to be safe and undisturbed in their own library." You're absolutely right. I should be focused on the students. I have even said in this blog that student interests supercedes the public's. Thank you for reminding me of that. The suspect is not a student, but even if he were, I think all the other students would supersede his. Too much has been stolen. We do have to become proactive.

Thank you everyone for your thoughts and suggestions. If anyone else would like to chime in, please do not hesitate.

11:25 PM, March 03, 2006  
Blogger Inexplicable DeVice said...

All I can think of is: Innocent until proven guilty.

But how does one get the proof from/about a suspect without infringing on the suspects civil liberties?

I don't know.

Sorry. That was worse than useless.

12:11 PM, March 04, 2006  
Blogger Inexplicable DeVice said...

And so was my apostrophisation - or lack thereof!

12:12 PM, March 04, 2006  
Blogger Vampire Librarian said...

Inexplicable Device, you do make a good point. Police scrutiny always calls into question anyone's innocence, and I'm worried because UPD has given us this man's photo and expressed their desire to question him that we as a library may not treat him as a normal patron in the future if he is proven innocent. The Ghost has no criminal conviction, and UPD isn't concerned with him anymore, but when he came into the library recently, he kept an eye on me to probably see if I so much as reached for a phone. I don't know how others are treating him, but he probably thinks I'm not a nice person, which doesn't bother me, but I don't want to have a string of squirrely patrons who fear I'll bring The Man down on them.

And don't worry about the punctuation. I know I have a few grammar/punctuation mistakes in my comments (and posts). It's a shame the commenter can't edit his or her comments.

2:03 PM, March 04, 2006  
Blogger Spike said...

I'm with Librarian Girl and Listmaker about your bosses coughing up a clear policy for these situations. They should have already. It's not like no thief's ever targeted a uni library before.

And they definitely need a policy in place to tackle this Ghost person. It's just a matter of time before he's arrested in a nasty study-disrupting scene. Ask the bosses what you should say when the Ghost's victims' parents' lawyer comes.

11:16 PM, March 05, 2006  
Blogger Fuckkit said...

Don't grass him up, DeVice is right, innocent until proven guilty. If the police want him so bad then they can post their own staff there.

However, if you see him, slap him for interupting your peace.

2:40 PM, March 12, 2006  
Blogger Spike said...


2:48 AM, March 13, 2006  
Blogger Inexplicable DeVice said...

Where are you?

Helping the police with their enquiries?

2:53 PM, March 16, 2006  
Blogger Spike said...


2:13 AM, March 17, 2006  

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