Story May 26, 2023

My thoughts on the Central Library incident

Patrick Stewart, Library Foundation SD CEO

On Tuesday, May 23, there was a shooting in the courtyard of the Central Library @ Joan Λ Irwin Jacobs Common, directly in front of the Library Shop. One man was killed and another injured. A suspect in the shooting has been arrested.

Thank you to everyone who contacted City Librarian Misty Jones and the library staff, the Library Foundation SD staff, Library Shop staff, and me to check in. I wanted you to know all library, Library Foundation, and Library Shop staff are safe and are being connected with resources to assist in processing this. We all gratefully appreciate your support.

The Central Library is closed now and will remain closed until Saturday. We anticipate the Library Shop will reopen in the next week or so.

We are still processing this incident internally and will be for a while. We feel deeply for those most closely affected – the young man whose life was tragically lost as well as his family, the young man wounded, the library and Library Shop staff who witnessed this horrible act, and the patrons who use the library to enrich their lives. While it is bracing, for those who have been paying attention, it is not, unfortunately, completely surprising.

In recent years, simple concerns about stolen items or occasional unruly behavior have grown substantially. Library staff regularly observe drug use and overdoses and face patrons experiencing homelessness and all the challenges that entails. However, the nature of this incident mandates a new level of concern.

Library staff regularly interacts with patrons dealing with mental health crises that present a danger to others in the library. Central Library staff have dealt with two suicides and other suicide attempts in recent years. And now, Central Library staff must look to reopen less than a week after two people were shot in the library’s courtyard.

Some are asking, What is the library going to do about this?”

The gravity of our troubled social environment that led to Tuesday’s tragedy is not the library’s problem to solve by itself.”

But, this is not the library’s problem to solve on its own.

Library staff have been forced to implement and enforce stricter codes of conduct. They have been trained in strategies for de-escalating tense situations. They’ve learned how to administer Narcan. Library leadership has worked to increase the presence of social workers at the Central Library. The paid security presence at the Central Library and neighborhood branches has grown to a point where the library’s security budget is on the brink of surpassing what it spends on books, online resources, and other materials.

The very ideals and values that the library embodies – the importance of providing an open, accessible place, welcome to all without barriers, regardless of their situation, to learn, connect, engage, and experience life – unfortunately make the library susceptible to a myriad of challenges. The library rises to the occasion every day to offer a meaningful, hopeful space where dreams can be recognized, nurtured, and achieved.

However, as this week has shown, we frequently ask our library to do more with less. And by less,” I mean less civic leadership on mental health, drug abuse, homelessness, and poverty. By less, I mean less coordination and consistent communication among service providers aptly trained to address these issues. By less, I mean less investment into many of the top-down social services and infrastructure meant to assist people when and where they need it most. By less, I mean less support for our open, cherished public spaces that find themselves increasingly on the frontline of this issue and forced to face tragedies like the one we experienced on Tuesday.

Library leadership will implement additional measures to make patrons and staff safer. When addressing the many challenges facing our city, the library certainly does have a role to play. However, this is a fight that the library cannot fight alone. Once again, the gravity of our troubled social environment that led to Tuesday’s tragedy is not the library’s problem to solve by itself.

Our job at the Library Foundation SD is to provide our public library, staff, and partners with the tools and resources they need to serve the public better. Our job is to advocate for them. Our job is to support the fantastic work they do. That is what we intend to do.

We are responsible for communicating and being vocal about the value of our libraries and library staff. Accordingly, we must communicate the realities of the challenges our library staff face in delivering service.

More than 100 people – library staff, Foundation staff, partners like San Diego Workforce Partnership, National Alliance on Mental Illness, veterans and jobs services, and many more – show up daily at the Central Library to deliver on the values and promises our library embodies. They will continue to do so. The library is crucially important, and its impact is exponentially more significant than its current challenges and obstacles. The library operates in a unique space in our society, and we all benefit from this.

We all recognize the tragic nature of this week’s incident. I hope, dearly, that this will never happen at any of our libraries again. Know that despite the challenges, our library will be there for you and will, through creativity, innovation, and ingenuity, continue to be a place of opportunity, discovery, and inspiration for all of San Diego. We should be proud of that.

We love our library staff. We love our libraries. Please, the next time you’re in the library – Central or otherwise – be sure to take the time to let the staff know how much they are appreciated and loved.